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A Guide To: The Rolling Stones' Country Songs

By Paul Sexton

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Mick Jagger has always said that, as much as he loves it, he could never quite perform country music seriously.

That doesn't mean that the passion for heartland American music he shares with Keith Richards doesn't extend from their recognised blues roots into the sound of Nashville, Bakersfield and beyond.

Country has been a recurring marker on the Stones' musical map of American influences, and their appreciation of it has repeatedly manifested itself throughout their 60-year odyssey.

Maybe it's when Keith nearly lost it as he recognised one of his real heroes, Merle Haggard, while rehearsing with Jerry Lee Lewis. It could be Mick and the boys rocking on stage with Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood, or the band's embrace of Gram Parsons, the man who opened the door to the entire outlaw movement. Or, indeed, Keith eulogising about pioneers from the Louvin Brothers to George Jones.

So, here comes Holler's tip of the hat to no fewer than 14 occasions when the Stones went south, and west, and came back with an authentic twang of their own. As Paisley himself observed: “They’re the number one rock band in the world, and they’re in the top five country bands too".

Mick Jagger by Roger Bamber / Alamy Stock Photo

Mick Jagger by Roger Bamber / Alamy Stock Photo

We're Wastin' Time

(Metamorphosis, 1975)

A real oddity for starters, and a very early Jagger-Richards composition with distinct country tendencies. It remained in the vault for over a decade, and the word is that Mick was the only Stone on it, accompanied by session stalwarts like Jimmy Page and John McLaughlin.

Trivia corner: a fairly terrible version, produced by Stones co-manager Andrew Loog Oldham for his Immediate label, was released in 1965 by, er, Jimmy Tarbuck.

Dear Doctor

(Beggars Banquet, 1968)

In the early days of the Stones, we did country”, Jagger once told me. “We did one that was slightly silly called 'Dear Doctor', but that's also a parody”. Mick's hick vocals, a device he would often return to, are pure pastiche, but it's still an authentic tale of country heartbreak.

Brian Jones' harmonica and Charlie Watts' tambourine stand out, as we learn of a poor guy whose intended wife has left him on their wedding day and gone to Virginia with his cousin Lou.

Country Honk

(Let It Bleed, 1969)

Even many non-historians will know that this was the template for the immortal 'Honky Tonk Women', which came out a few months earlier and topped charts everywhere. Mick and Keith wrote it, in this country prototype, on a ranch in Mato Grosso, Brazil, “sitting on a veranda like cowboys”, as Richards described it in his autobiography Life.

The just-arriving Mick Taylor plays slide, with fiddle (apparently at Parsons' suggestion) played by American maestro Byron Berline.

Wild Horses

(Sticky Fingers, 1971)

Far from pure country, but rooted in the wide-open spaces of what we now call Americana, this is one of Mick and Keith's proudest moments as songmen.

Worked up with Parsons - whose version with the Flying Burrito Brothers actually came out before the Stones' - it was then recorded in the brief but fruitful sessions at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, also producing 'Brown Sugar' and 'You Gotta Move'.

Dead Flowers

(Sticky Fingers, 1971)

Keith and Gram's friendship was ever more in evidence in the early 70s period that produced several Stones country-rock landmarks. In this one, the lively melody contrasts with shadowy, drug-referencing lyrics, but by now there's no parody: the band is playing it straight, except for Jagger, by his own admission.

He later said the song suited Keith's voice better. Check also Willie Nelson's live version on the 2002 album Stars & Guitars, on which Richards guests with Ryan Adams and Hank Williams III.

Sweet Virginia

(Exile On Main St., 1972)

Ragged country was a good fit for the wasted splendour of the incomparable Exile, cut in the south of France mansion that had been the HQ of the Gestapo in World War II (by then, in the world of the Stones, where else?).

Mick plays a mean harmonica and beloved road manager Ian 'Stu' Stewart is on piano. It's also well worth catching the lean, acoustic-based version on the Stones' underrated Stripped album of 1995.

Torn and Frayed

(Exile On Main St., 1972)

An enduring gem from a classic double LP, this original has country ingredients but a darker hue, the harmonies bringing to mind later Americana heroes such as the Jayhawks.

For all of the perception of the creation of Exile as a hedonistic free-for-all, it also exudes A-list musicianship, creating a real extended band feel with Nicky Hopkins on piano and Al Perkins at the pedal steel.

Through The Lonely Nights

(B-side of 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll', 1974 and Rarities, 2005)

A charming obscurity, with hints of country, that dates back to the Stones' Jamaican sessions for Goats Head Soup, on which it would have been a fine fit. For years, this was only available as the flipside of 'It's Only Rock 'n' Roll', until it showed up on Rarities 1971-2003. Mick Taylor's guitar solo is sublime.

Far Away Eyes

(Some Girls, 1978)

Some Girls contained one true country standout and, as we'll see, a whole selection of outtakes that modelled Nashville influences for all to see. 'Far Away Eyes' is a trip to Bakersfield, both lyrically and musically, adopting the twangy, traditional sound to which that California city gave its name.

Jagger told me of his approach to country: “I don't know if I'm able to do it without being tongue-in-cheek. ‘Far Away Eyes’ is a seriously tongue-in-cheek one.”

You Win Again

(Some Girls Deluxe Edition, 1978/2011)

Keith's affinity with Hank Williams is well known, but Mick was his equal in their early love of the country frontiersmen, which also included George Jones and Johnny Cash.

Richards' own dirt-slow version of this 1952 staple is on the multi-artist Hank tribute album Timeless of 2001. But the Stones had cut it for the Some Girls sessions, from which the bonus disc on the 2011 deluxe edition featured this and other unreleased country meanderings.

No Spare Parts

(Some Girls Deluxe Edition, 1978/2011)

Jagger added new vocals to this track from the Some Girls era, for its deluxe re-release. It's a traditional tale of displaced love with a travelog theme, as the narrator lurches from greasy spoon to interstate across Phoenix, Tucson, Benson and Sonora. Ronnie Wood's pedal steel prowess is at the fore.

Do You Think I Really Care

(Some Girls Deluxe Edition, 1978/2011)

One of those exciting, but now also saddening, signature fills from Charlie fires the gun on this mid-tempo item, again starring Woody alongside Mick's impassioned vocal.

As the New Yorker pointed out, it brought country to the city, as “a country song about missing a girl in mid-seventies New York City with nice slide work by Ronnie Wood, at the time a new official member of the band.”

We Had It All

(Some Girls Deluxe Edition, 1978/2011)

Rolling Stone righty called the Stones' version of this much-covered tear-jerker “lost treasure”, and it again underlines them as honorary Nashville cats. Written by Donnie Fritts and Troy Seals, the song was a modest country hit in '73 for Waylon Jennings, made soulful by Dobie Gray and then revisited in the mid-80s by Dolly. This version does indeed have it all.

The Worst

(Voodoo Lounge, 1994)

Keith's noble lyric (written in a kitchen in Barbados) imploring a long-suffering partner to quit while they can is complemented by an elegantly fragile melody and vocal. The effect is heightened by a certain folky approach.

As he explained: “I thought, That's a pretty melody, but what to do with it, I really didn't know. I guess that's where Ireland comes in, because Ireland has its own traditional music. It's not country music as such, but it's the roots of it, you know? It's that Irish feel".

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