There’s a lot of talk nowadays about what’s “real” country music. Personally, my views fall pretty much in line with a righteous fellow named Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos, whose website “Saving Country Music” has been around for over 10 years, and whose mission seems pretty self-explanatory (clue: It starts with something like Waylon & Willie, not backwards ballcaps and fucking Florida Georgia Line). Anyway, there’s a band that I like that’s been around for a while that may not exactly be real country, but for a stretch of time they did some real good country songs. You may have heard of them, The Rolling Stones.
We can start with the obvious ‘Country Honk,’ a fiddle-filled, full-on countrified version of another Stones tune, whose origin surprisingly preceded the slightly better known hit, ‘Honky Tonk Woman.’ Then there’s ‘Sweet Virginia’ off Exile On Main Street, a song whose country bonafides seem contained in the lyrics that close its chorus: “Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes.” And of course, there was Mick’s inimitable¹ deep southern drawl in ‘Far Away Eyes’ for which one might only say, as he did in the first verse, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord.” I think a case could even be made that such Stones classics as ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Let It Bleed,’ among others, contained strong country inspirations. And, in fact, through much of this 1970’s time period the band’s country influence was legitimate, coming via Keith Richards’s friendship with the great Gram Parsons, country/rock originator with The Flying Burrito Brothers.
The best example of the Stones flirtation with country sound, though, is probably ‘Dead Flowers’ from the 1971 Sticky Fingers album.² Though much of the lyrics are notably dark (“I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon” and, after all, “dead flowers”), the song glides along beautifully riding a harmonic country lilt, with both Richards and Mick Taylor contributing honky-tonk style lead guitar lines throughout (it’s Taylor who plays the flowing guitar solo a bit over midway through, in place of a third verse). C’mon, who’s high-stepping and shouting out the sing-along chorus “Take me down, little Susie, take me down!” all the way into its third and last iteration, when Charlie Watts deftly signals the end with my favorite tune trinket: two taps of the cymbal bell at 3:49. Who, I ask you? Any self-respecting, shit-kicking fan of “real” country music, that’s who.
¹Can it be “inimitable” when it’s basically already completely imitative?
²‘Dead Flowers’ also rolled during the final credits of “The Big Lebowski,” a haunting version by Townes Van Zandt. Per legend, Allen Klein, Rolling Stones manager and owner of the song, initially wanted $150,000 for the movie’s use of it, but was then convinced to let the Coen Brothers use it for free when he saw the scene in which The Dude says, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!”³
³Editor’s note: This dude doesn’t abide: I like the fuckin’ Eagles, man.