The Stones: Country Rock’s Greatest Band? —GK Nomeland

TV The Eagles

I can hear the Eagles’ fans screeching right now. How dare you even think that? Everybody knows that Linda Ronstadt’s one-time backing band is The Country Rock Band. They are certainly the most successful group, that’s for sure. The Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)” is the largest selling hits album in the world. 42 million copies. However, the Don Henley-Glenn Frey Gang has some weaknesses. On the aforementioned album, two songs are complete covers (“Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone”), Jackson Browne wrote all of  “Take It Easy” except for one line by Frey, and J.D. Souther collaborated with them on “Best of My Love”. Hmm. And “Witchy Woman” is more of a Soft Rock ballad. Excellent songs, but are they really great examples of Country Rock? Their peak album, “Hotel California” (Rolling Stone Mag’s #49 Greatest Album) is not even driven by a Country Rock sensibility. Plus, they are very much a chick band. EZ listening. Romantic. Not much “rock”, though Joe Walsh helped in the later years.
But what’s the argument for the Stones? I mean, talk about a band where Country Folk or Rock is only one of its sounds, c’mon. But in the Stones’ case, that is precisely the point. Here’s a band with a wide variety of musical styles and yet they are more in touch with the foundations of Country Music and, to my ears, they do it better. Okay, stop laughing and just listen.

The Stones’ first Country Folk song was “High and Dry” in early 1966, a Jagger/Richards composition. It’s an acoustic, bouncy melody with a saucy harmonica by Brian and sloppy high-hat percussion by Charlie. A young man laments that he’s been dumped by his gal because “I think she found out it was money I was after”. Jagger’s vocals are tongue-in-cheek, but his voice and the arrangement keep it in line and, in the great Country tradition, it even has a crude moral – “Next time I’ll make sure that the girl will be much poorer”.
When the Stones left Psychedelia for Roots Music, they made “Beggars Banquet” (#57 on the RS Mag Album list).  “Sympathy”, of course, was the lead noise, but then followed “No Expectations”, a lonely ballad, an almost effortless Country blues story coming right from the bones. As Jean-Luc Godard’s art house documentary shows, the track was created at an Olympic Studio tracking room with Mick singing, Keith strumming his acoustic guitar and Brian playing a wicked acoustic slide as they were sitting on the floor, huddled closely together, playing into open mics. Later, Nicky Hopkins added a rich piano. I’ve never heard the Eagles this emotionally touching. The lyrics just breathe naturally (“Our love was like the water/ That splashes on a stone/ Our love was like our music/ It’s here and then it’s gone/ So take me to the station/ And put me on a train/ I’ve got no expectations to pass through here again”).

Then, on the very next song, “Dear Doctor”, the boys camp it up outrageously and make fun of hillbilly music. Jagger is a young man who is facing his upcoming marriage ceremony as if it were a firing squad (“For the gal I’m to marry is a bow-legged sow/ I’ve been soaking up drink like a sponge”). To his great relief, as he puts the ring into his coat pocket, he finds a note from his fiancée proclaiming she’s run off with his cousin Luke and he is a free man (“Oh doctor, please help me, I’m damaged/ You can put back my heart in its hole/ Oh Mama, I’m crying tears of relief/ And my pulse is now under control”). The key instrument is Hopkins’ hokey tack piano, running the notes as if he’s playing in an Appalachian bordello. Have the Eagles ever been this much fun? Henley’s singing almost always sounds as if he thinks he is LA’s Shelley or Keats, so damn serious about himself as an “artiste”.
“Beggars” had a third in “Factory Girl”. Here our ears get straight Mountain music but the vocals edge toward the humorous again. Keith goes acoustic, Charlie hits out on a tabla, Dave Mason of Traffic plays a mandolin sound on the mellotron, and the topper is Ric Grech (Family, Blind Faith) performing a fiddle solo that makes you feel the moonshine dripping off the forest trees. A poor man loves a poor factory girl and he’s waiting outside of her shack to go on a date (“Waiting for a girl and she gets me into fights/ Waiting for a girl we get drunk on Friday nights/ She’s a sight for sore eyes/ Waiting on a factory girl”). It ain’t no Hollywood Hills Country, brother. No expensive sports cars in Laurel Canyon, just a beat up truck in the boonies.

The next Stones epic was “Let It Bleed”, a 1969 album with a long Country Western song that gave the album its name (#32 RSM list). In 2001 writer Stephen Davis said, “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.”  Brian Jones left the band and drowned in his pool while the record was being made. Mick Taylor appeared on two tracks. “Country Honk” is the lightest of the trio of Country songs. It was the original acoustic version of “Honky-Tonk Women” without the iconic open tuned chord riff. Byron Berline, the famous fiddle player, plays his licks outside of an LA studio and the street ambience can be heard. Keith sings his first ever lead vocal on “You Got the Silver”, his ode to Anita Pallenberg. It is one of the best love songs the Stones ever put together. Keith expresses his joy at being in love. The music is played straight, no irony or touch of humor. Keith’s slide playing is tasteful and restrained. Hopkins’ piano and organ are the instrumental high points, giving the cut a peace and sense of grace.
“Let It Bleed” is one of the epic songs on the album (with “Gimme Shelter”, “Midnight Rambler” and “You Can’t Always get What You Want”). Richards plays multiple electric slide guitar parts with a beguiling laziness as Ian Stewart’s Country boogie piano keeps a steady groove. Jagger sings in the present time, a 1969 requiring friends to lean on each other to make it through a very unsteady time (“She said my breasts they will always be open, baby/ You can rest your weary head right on me/ And there will always be a space in my parking lot/ If you need a little coke and sympathy”). There are many Eagles songs with drug references, especially cocaine (the LA Drug), but the slick recordings never grab me in the way a track like this does. Drugs may seem fashionable in the popular imagination, but in real life, no matter how rich or famous a druggie is, drugs are always a trashy thing, perhaps at their most trashy when the social, hip elite play with Mr. D. “Less Than Zero” should have had a few Eagles tunes in the soundtrack. It would have enhanced the artificiality the main characters were dealing with in Beverly Hills.
Keith’s guitar playing is simply the very best he has ever played on any album. His slide work, supposedly not one of his strengths, aches with feeling. This album alone would make him a Rock icon, especially considering the challenge of doing Country music with such authenticity.
In 1971 the Stones came out with what I believe is the best Classic Rock album of all time, “Sticky Fingers” (RS Mag’s list gives it a paltry #63). There are two Country tracks, the lesser being a wonderful song, “Dead Flowers”, where we hear a weary, doped out ex-boyfriend complaining to the one who broke his heart (“Well, when you’re laying back in your rose pink Cadillac/ Making bets on Kentucky Derby day/ I’ll be in my basement room, with a needle and a spoon/ And another girl to take my pain away”). However, the man still loves her and proclaims it loudly (“So you can send me dead flowers every morning/ Send me dead flowers by the mail/ Send me dead flowers at my wedding/ And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave”). Such musicians as Steve Earle, New Riders of the Purple Sage and degenerate legend Jerry Lee Lewis have covered it.
Of course, the other tune is “Wild Horses” (RSM Greatest Songs #334), the crown jewel of the Stones’ Country playlist. No Eagles song matches this one, not in its delicate melody nor in its lyrical content. If the Eagles are the tops, why do Mick and Keith have the best ballad, the very strength of the Eagles’ canon? The meaning is ambiguous yet there is the declaration of steady love to a distant woman. Keith, who composed the music and the hook, said it was about being on the road and wanting to be back where one belongs. Mick’s verses weave a sad story, with guilt and wrong doing between lovers that is not plainly spelled out, but he always denies it has anything to do with Marianne Faithfull (“I watched you suffer a dull aching pain/ Now you’ve decided to show me the same/ No sweeping exits or off stage lines/ Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind”). Slash once stated that Mick Taylor’s lead is one of his favorite guitar licks. It has been covered by more artists than any other Stones Country song, among the notables being Willie Nelson, Slash, the Black Crowes, Leon Russell, Sheryl Crow, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. The Burritos’ leader was Gram Parsons, who had such a strong influence on Country Rock. He was the Stones’ “secret weapon” in mastering Country Western music. In fact, the Burritos’ version came out before “Sticky Fingers” was released, leading to rumors that Gram had helped to write the song.

Gram (Ingram Cecil Connor III) was born into wealth and tragedy. His father took his own life in 1958 and Gram’s mother died of alcoholism when he graduated from the prestigious Bolles School in 1965. In 1966, Gram founded the International Submarine Band, considered by many to be the first true Country Rock band. The band didn’t last. In 1968 he hooked up with The Byrds in the process of creating “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, a groundbreaking record. Gram steered the group to Nashville and urged them to play a straight Country style throughout the album. He wrote and sang lead vocal on several tracks. While touring in England, Parsons became friends with Keith and Mick, going with them on a trip to Stonehenge. Parsons left The Byrds, claiming he would not play in South Africa because of its oppressive, racist apartheid regime. Most think it was a ruse to stay in the UK, where he crashed at Keith’s house, both men strumming Country Western songs, playing old Country records and Gram showing Keith the various intricacies of the genre. Oh, and they both loved drugs, a lot of drugs. Parsons finally left to go to LA and form The Flying Burrito Brothers, another seminal Country Rock band, with Chris Hillman (former Byrd). After recording “The Gilded Palace of Sin”, an update on the Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens, commercial success still eluded Gram, but then the Stones rambled into LA in ’69 and Gram got cozy with Keith again. The Stones were finishing up “Let It Bleed” and rehearsing for their famous 1969 American tour, reintroducing themselves to the greater rock audience in America. Gram’s influence must have touched some of the album’s Country tracks.  Gram took Keith out to Joshua Tree National Park, tripping on LSD and looking for flying saucers.  The Burrito Brothers were rewarded for Keith’s friendship by opening up the Altamount concert (perhaps a curse, actually) and being shown briefly in “Gimme Shelter”, the documentary. Deeply in debt, The Burritos recorded another album filled with covers and a few newbies, “Burrito Deluxe”. “Burrito Deluxe” included two Stones songs, a very tired version of “Honky Tonk Women” and a deeply felt, six-minute version of “Wild Horses. Gram heard the song when Keith sent a tape to Sneaky Pete Kleinow, a fellow Burrito and a reknowned steel guitar session man. Gram asked the Glimmers for permission to record it and Jagger gave it, only on the condition the song would not be a single.

Back to the Stones. While touring the UK in 1971, the “Tax Exiles” tour, Keith and Gram once again hung out as the group was decamping to France in order to escape the Queen’s Taxes and start another album. Gram followed and lived with Keith and Anita Pallenberg at Ville Nelcote while parts of “Exile on Main Street” were being recorded in the mansion. That is, the musicians played when they weren’t partying their asses off.  Gram’s contribution to this famous, murky, grungy, decadent work is studied and debated by both Parsons fans and Stones fans. One thing is certain, he got stoned a lot with Keith and was summarily kicked out by Anita and/or Mick.
“Exile” is one of those rare albums where the songs sound almost exactly like the album cover. The Country songs on “Exile”, no matter what the lyrics, sound like the black-and-white photos on the famous cover, scenes of a tacky part of downtown LA, a place of downer bars and crumbling painted buildings, intersected by pictures of old-time circus freak performers. We don’t have feelings of being at a rodeo or even the quaint naivete of “Country Honk”. Life is mean and strange and tawdry. The Blues played by English dopers with cowboy hats on.
The three true Country songs are all on the second side of the double album. “Sweet Virginia”, often a concert fave, begins with a mournful harmonica line and a simple acoustic guitar. It is pure 1972 druggie California, let’s get high and let’s get the party rolling (“Wadin’ through this waste stormy winter/And there’s not a friend to help you through/Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs/Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues”). Bobby Keys’ sax gives us some Memphis vibe and the backup female singers keep it Soulful, no Nashville gleam here. “You’ve got to scrape that shit right off your shoes”. Amen, low-flying stranger.
“Torn and Frayed” is an ode to a wandering guitar player, whose shirt is “torn and frayed” as he wanders through the rundown clubs he must play in order to keep his career and very life alive. Some have seen it as Jagger’s view of Richards and the way he attracts people into his circle of influence. “Well the ballrooms and smelly bordellos, and dressing rooms filled with parasites/On stage the band has got problems, they’re a bag of nerves on first nights/ He ain’t tied down to no home town, yeah, and he thought he was reckless/ You think he’s bad, he thinks you’re mad, yeah, and the guitar player gets restless.” But this troubled troubadour is on a trip going down, “way underground”, and the effects of drugs have taken a toll. “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind a rough/Yeah, and the codeine to fix it/Doctor prescribes drug store supplies/Who’s gonna help him to kick it?”  Being a rock star is not such a happy life, after all.
The third Country song is the best, “Loving Cup”. But its sound is also spliced with touches of Gospel and R&B with a glistening piano lick. The blend is wonderful and sexually funky at the same time. Mick sings, “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up/I’m the man in the valley with a face full of mud/And I’m fumbling and I know my car won’t start/ And I’m stumbling and I know I play a bad guitar/Gimme little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk”. Not exactly Burt Bacharach. A hazy middle section describes making love in front of a fire, his lover’s lips and the flames forming into one image. “What a beautiful buzz.”
After “Exile” the band wandered off the dirt road to other things. “Goat’s Head Soup” was the first sign of Jamaica’s touch on the band, though “Through the Lonely Nights” (a b-side left off the album for “no reason” per Jagger) has a completely C&W melody and hook and vocal style, but the guitars are straight 1973 phased rock. “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” was another slick album (“Time Waits for No One” and “Fingerprint File”), but some Rock Country influences can be heard in the sophisticated ballads “If You Really Want to be My Friend” and “Til the Next Time We Said Goodbye”. “Black and Blue” was all about being trendy, but a handful of Louisiana dust is sprinkled on the nostalgic “Memory Motel” – “I got to fly today on down to Baton Rouge/ My nerves are shot already /The road ain’t all that smooth /Across in Texas is the rose of San Antone /I keep on a feeling that’s gnawing in my bones”. But changes would come to the band with “B & B”. Mick Taylor, the melodic lead guitarist, was already gone and Ronnie Wood, a gutsy player who was a strong slide and pedal-steel steel guitarist, was now laying down the choppy chords with Keith.

Jagger lived mostly in the Big Apple with Bianca, hanging out with the Studio 54 glitzy crowd who boogied to Disco while snorting coke, shooting heroin and fucking anybody they could fuck. However, NYC was filled with other music – Punk, Rap, New Wave – and these influences were mixed into the soup to make “Some Girls” in 1978. Surprisingly, Country would also return to the Stones’ sound amidst these edgy new musical babies. Even on rock tracks, Wood played a pedal-steel moan in the background. But the long, “shit kicker” ode “Faraway Eyes” shoved the Bakersfield trash right in your nose. The piano’s pace is slow, the pedal-steel whines and we hear of a boozy drive through the San Joaquin Valley in Central California where Pentecostal religion and a woman with faraway eyes bond into a perfect C&W adventure. On a Black religious radio station, the narrator hears the preacher say that the Lord is always on your side, so “I was so pleased to hear this that I ran 20 red lights in His honor/Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Lord.”
When the Expanded Version of “Some Girls” was released a couple years back, it showed just how much Country music the Stones had been recording during that time. They covered Country classics (“You Win Again”) and their own tunes. As so often, “Do You Think I Really Care?” works so well because it is exactly about NYC: “I saw her on a highway/On a D-train
I saw her eatin’ a pizza/On 75th and Broadway/Saw her on a subway/On a biplane/Ahh, I’m getting tired o’ this shit/I need a Yellow Cab/Help me get outta this rain”.
Surprisingly, “Emotional Rescue” had no Country songs, but it did have “Little Indian Girl”, a sort of Tex-Mex/Caribbean blend with horns describing the chaos of Cubans fighting in Angola. And 1981’s “Tattoo You”, the Stones’ last great album, had not a single Country song or Nashville influence. That trend continued through the next two dismal albums, “Undercover” (1983) and “Dirty Work” (1986). The band was now close to breaking up thanks to a bitter feud between Keith and Mick about the musical direction, Jagger’s ambitions for a solo career based upon more contemporary styles, egos, drug habits, and probably just the fact of being in the same damn, famous band for 25 years.
In 1989, for a cluster of reasons (money, money, money, and show biz careers), they declared a tense peace and the result was “Steel Wheels”, a sturdy, professional album which led to a cash-alicious world tour. With a more current production sound, it was still a return to familiarity. R&B, Blues, straight Rock without the wobbly rhythmic guitar (Keith was somewhat straighter after six happy marital years). Country stuck up its head too. “Blinded by Love” has a Cajun feel, a fiddle weaving between the acoustic guitars and drawling vocal phrasings, bemoaning the way a woman can take a man down (Anthony and Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, and Edward, Prince of Wales, tossing away the crown for Wallis Simpson).

1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” was another slick production (without a travelled-out Wyman) followed by a mega-mega tour. Unfortunately, it was weaker than “Steel Wheels”, partially because Jagger had used up his best songs on his solo trip, “Wandering Spirit” (1993). “Evening Gown” and “Hold On to Me” were two excellent Country tunes guided by Rick Rubin. “Voodoo” does have “The Worst”, a sloppy, C-level Keith Nashville quickie and “Sweethearts Together”, a better, truly Tex-Mex song with an accordion by Flaco Jimenez (the real deal). It is romantic and soppy but that fits the genre. Tex-Mex does not lend itself to irony. Don Was’ direction was not really about a rootsy buzz, so a few better tracks were relegated to singles b-sides. Two are Country wonders, “Jump On Top of Me” and “Drive”. The former is a straight ahead sex in the truck rocker, slinky guitars, a pedal-steel lead, Jagger singing up a storm. They are having fun! If Garth Brooks had done it, it would have been a smash Country Chart single for weeks. “Drive” is almost reminiscent of the Rockabilly days in Memphis. Again, layers of guitars support a story of a disillusioned man who needs to escape (“I’ve got itchy fingers, I’ve got muddy feet/And my mind is wanderin’ in the steamin’ heat/My head is swimmin’ full of dirty lies/I’m tired of spinnin’ freaky alibis”).
The Road to Money led on as the WGRRB hadn’t had enough even after 36 years. The same map – slick production by Don Was, commercial, basically an advertisement for the next beyond-mega-mega tour. Such is “Bridges to Babylon”, the CD with the worst Stones cover art of all time with (no kidding) a semi-Mesopotamian lion god in the desert. I think Keith thought it was the big cat roaming his backyard in his Connecticut mansion. Every studio musician in LA played on it. Two Country songs made the final amalgam of musical styles, “Already Over Me” and “Always Suffering”. The latter is too mediocre to mention. The former is B level, a smooth, moody seductive sheen as Jagger details his manipulative lover who’s taken him down South, her heart empty and his full of pain (“On the way down to Mexico/As I danced in your rodeo/You say poverty is picturesque/As you dragged your nails across my cross”). If it would have been rough and ragged and without Jagger’s forced melodramatic voice, it would’ve worked.
Thank God, the WGRRB took a long, seemingly final hiatus. But nope, they had to kick the can further up the road. As with “Voodoo”, Mick had recorded a solo work (“Goddess in the Doorway”) with Country songs. Two were cut-and-paste but one, “Don’t Call Me Up” would have been a touching addition to “A Bigger Bang”. “Bang” was way better than the two previous band efforts. It had a stripped down production and they went back to what they knew best – the Blues and Rock. It begins with the best Stones rocker since “Mixed Emotions”, the raucous “Rough Justice”. As for Country, the second track has a Country aura, “Let Me Down Slow”. Mick is not the aggressor anymore, he’s the vulnerable male walking through a park at night, headed for a roll in the grass (“If you’ve something to say/Don’t be too direct/Cause I feel a little fragile/Don’t hit the nail on the head”). Keith plays a sweet lick sounding of maturity and Ronnie swings wildly on his slide, tossing a touch of the dangerous into the mix.
I guess that’s the case for the old guys. I think of a greatest hits CD for the geezers, “Stone Country”. The cover would have a giant Stetson on the front, the Tongue and Lips logo featured on the hat’s front. The title would be done in letters resembling cactus limbs and buds. If a lot of the mentioned tunes were on it, it still wouldn’t sell as hugely as The Eagles’ “Greatest Hits (1971-1975)”, but I think a number of music fans would say that the slick Malibu dudes are not as good at Rodeo Muzik as the often-frayed, Gene Autry loving, drunken cowboys from the British Isles, the land where Folk music gave birth to Country and Western in the first place.


— GK Nomeland

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