It is a known fact that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have an underlying affection for country music. After all, one of Keith’s closest friends, the late-great Gram Parsons, is considered a pioneer of alt/folk/rock country or what-ever now constitutes Americana music.
So it is hardly surprising that country music may want to pay homage to the Rolling Stones to mark 60 years since the formation of the British group, considered the greatest in rock music. And it comes with the release of Stone Cold Country – A 60th Anniversary Tribute To The Rolling Stones, a 14 track album by assorted country artists.
It is probably less surprising that this project is the work of German-based music publishers BMG who just also happen to be publishers of the work of Jagger and Richards.
To add authenticity to the endeavour, Richards released a statement to Billboard prior to the release the tribute album: “From the early days country music made a real impression on us. There’s an authenticity about country that’s always appealed to me, whether it be Hank Williams, Merle Haggard or a Willie Nelson record”
Richards fittingly added: “Also, of course, Gram Parsons was a major player and influence.”
In fact, any country influence in the Stones catalogue probably came from Parsons. He first met Jagger and Richards when he was with the Byrds in the late 60’s. And over the next few years, he would spend a lot of time with the pair, especially Richards, before being sidelined by the band around the time of his drugs-related death at the age of 26 in 1973.
There are three Stones songs which smack (if that is the appropriate word) of Parsons. The first “Wild Horses” has the rare distinction of being recording first by Gram’s post-Byrds band The Flying Burrito Brothers on their 1970 album Burrito Deluxe, almost a year before it was included on the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers. It would go on to become an Americana standard, with multiple versions over the years, including an astonishingly-good one by bluegrass supergroup Old & In The Way in 1973.
The second is the drug-fuelled “Dead Flowers” with the blatant lyric I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon. It was recorded in 1970 and also released on Sticky Fingers.
In 2003, Jagger referred to “Dead Flowers” as a “country song” and added: “The actual music is played completely straight, but it is me who is not going legit with the whole thing, because I think I’m a blues singer not a country singer- I think it’s more suited to Keith’s voice, not mine.”
The third is another drug-tinged song, “Sweet Virginia,” which was included on the Stones 1972 classic Exile on Main Street, mostly recorded at the infamous Villa Nellcote in the South of France while the band were in tax exile. Parsons spent many months at the Chateau, much of the time engaged in long jamming sessions with Keith in the basement. He would eventually be asked to leave, due to a combination of circumstances.
Parsons’ parting of ways with the Stones was aptly described in the 2022 book The Stone Age by music biographer Lesley-Ann Jones: “Gram’s efforts to re-befriend the band during their 1972 US tour were rejected. He fell into a deep depression from which he never recovered. The coffin which went up in flames in the ghostly Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California the following year had Gram in it.”
As a result of his close association with Richards, there has always been the suggestion that Gram had in fact helped write the Stones country-inspired songs, and these three in particular. He never got - nor indeed, it appears, did he seek - a writing credit.
As might be expected, “Wild Horses,” with a four-part harmony by Little Big Town, is included on Stone Cold Country, as is a steel-spiced-country “Dead Flowers,” by Maren Morris. But “Sweet Virginia” is not, which seems odd, given that the song is something of low-hanging fruit for a country interpretation of the Stones.
In fact, the real challenge of doing any genre- specific tribute album is placing a firm imprint – in this case country – on music so defined as Rolling Stones rock ‘n roll.
And producer Robert Deaton was well aware of this. “I thought about, how do I make it different. How do I make this a tribute to them and also still unique,” he told Billboard.
He wanted it to be a “Nashville love letter to the Stones.”
A song with the lyrics when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank is hardly Nashville country. And Elvie Shane’s slow rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil” – one of two singles from the album – seemingly struggles to define the classic as patently different to Mick’s howling high octaves. There is also still plenty of Keith-like raunchy guitar riffs and the same samba rhythm, congas et al, as the original.
The other track issued as a single, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by Lainey Wilson gives a greater country imprint, thanks largely to Wilson’s distinctive Southern drawl. In fact, her contribution to the album got off to a false start when she cut “Get Off of My Cloud” and she and Deaton decided it wasn’t country enough.
“When I was trying to put together the record, I found that anything of that era was really hard to fit into our album because we’re being unapologetically country and we’re making a country record. It was very hard. “Get off of My Cloud’ just didn’t fit in the overall arc of the record,” Deaton told Billboard.
Trying to actually define Deaton’s “arc” is somewhat of a challenge.
Pairing country rock duo Brothers Osborne with the Southern soul, gospel-fused pair The War and Treaty only adds to the confusion. The combinations swap vocals to produce a funky interpretation of the iconic “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” which is a good listen. But country hardly springs to mind, especially considering John Osborne’s guitar solos. California Elle King seems more suited to her assignment, covering “Tumbling Dice” in a vibrant country-rock manner, but again it somehow remains in the RS pigeon hole.
Not only was the casting of the right artist for the right track important to Deaton but high-profile session musicians were carefully recruited to further fine tune the transition from Stones rock to country. Keyboard player Chuck Leavell, who has toured with the Rolling Stones, plays with Texan Koe Wetzel on “Shine A Light,” while harmonica whizz Mickey Raphael, who has recorded with anybody who is anybody in Nashville, top and tails Jimmie Allen’s bluesy version of “Miss You.”
Perhaps the biggest name on the tribute album is Steve Earle. The 1973 hit single “Angie” - largely a Keith composition - is a good choice for the legendary singer-songwriter. While the Stones use an acoustic guitar to drive the intro, Earle, by contrast, is serenaded by the piano before smatterings of fiddle and steel guitar – together with his gritty vocals – stamp his distinctive mark on a sophisticated arrangement.
But, as they sometimes say, the best is actually left to last. The final track sees Wetzel pound out a pulsating version of the much-covered “Shine a Light,” a song Jagger rewrote as a tribute to fellow Stone Brian Jones after he died in 1969. It was released three years later on Exile on Main Street.
Wetzel’s treatment is instantly appealing, aided by a soothing backing chorus and Leavell’s beautiful piano, as he launches into the classic with one of the most endearing opening verses in the Rolling Stones catalogue:
Saw you stretched out in room ten-o-nine
With a smile on your face and a tear in your right eye
Oh Couldn’t seem to get a line on you
My sweet honey love
In the end there is probably only one thing that matters for the country artists. Little Big Town lead singer Karen Fairchild said it best: “The only thing I’m concerned about is that Mick is going to hear all this, and I hope he doesn’t go “Well that sucks.’”
Karen need not worry, Mick won’t be too concerned. Stone Cold Country is still only rock ‘n roll.
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation