Return to site

'Ode to Billie Joe' in the Irish Times

It's no surprise that the Irish, my people, adored Bobbie Gentry and Ode to Billie Joe
The Irish know from secrets. They know how to say it without saying it, to bury it in the ground and when it leaks and poisons the roots and comes up in the house through the plumbing, they will marvel at the odds and never once break character. One Thanksgiving dinner growing up, I remember an argument breaking out at the dinner table over Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. One uncle loved the book, and felt a kinship with its characters. Another family member thought it was an outrage for Irish-Americans to support this book, which sliced open deeply flawed characters for outsiders to dissect and use to confirm negative stereotypes. Is the truth how it happened or what you remember? Which matters more, what you remember--or what you remember fearing about what other people thought?
You have to wait for some drinks to be poured after a funeral if you ever hope to find out what's boiling in the blood. Otherwise, you don't talk about it. When your father has a heart attack, you are not to tell your cousins. You are to lie in your bed at night alone in the dark with the fear and the pressure to keep it to yourself. When your brother suddenly has to undergo unexpected surgery, you receive a rare phone call at work--which you answer, because a phone call from a family member during the work day probably means someone died, same with a phone call at home after 10pm--and he tells you he's about to go under the knife and you're the only person who knows so he gave your number to the doctor so keep your ringer on but otherwise, don't say anything to mom or his girlfriend. Have a drop a whiskey. Put on the kettle. Let's not talk about it, together.
Of course I appreciate how the Irish love Ode to Billie Joe. I also appreciate being called "the American journalist."

The American journalist Tara Murtha, in her recently published book Ode to Billie Joe (Bloomsbury), attempts to solve these mysteries. Her book, then, is a reporter’s quest that takes her across America to find people who knew Gentry and are willing to talk.

She finds plenty of them, from Jimmie Haskell, who arranged the strings on Ode to Billie Joe and Gentry’s album of the same name, to the star’s step-brother Bryan Holley, whom the author visits in his house in Oregon

Holley inherited boxes of Gentry’s discarded possessions from his father, and insists that he’s keen to return them to her – but he’s only met her once. He encourages Murtha to try on Gentry’s fur coat, then allows the journalist to leave with a box of the star’s possessions. Murtha acknowledges her invasiveness: “sometimes the line between being a journalist and plain old creepy is thin as skin."

One day I will make it back to Ireland and perhaps get to talk about it there. Until then, Up Tyrone!
All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly