Sometimes it flat out sucks being an adult. When it all gets too heavy, I often find refuge in simple, mournful country ballads. The Glimmer Twins (aka Mick & Keith) penned “Wild Horses” and included it on the Stones’ 1971 release Sticky Fingers. It’s a song I return to frequently.
The subject of the song is a bit nebulous. Keith is often quoted indicating that it’s about being on the road and wishing you weren’t. Others claim it’s about addiction or love gone awry. In any case, the lyric is poignant no matter the intended or interpreted meaning.
“Wild Horses” is the type of tune that gets hauled out by hummers and strummers from your neighbor’s bonfire to an after party at the Grammys. The simple chord structure and wistful sentiment beguile singers and players. You don’t have to be a super-shredder to have fun with it, and the chorus encourages folks to belt out a harmony.
I think that’s where some of these covers got their inspiration – from artists messing around with the tune in casual jam settings. It’s a favorite Rolling Stones number for many people (apparently including Ms Jerry Hall), so you really can’t go wrong with it live or in the studio.
Artists have been covering this song since before these guys had a chance to release their own recording of it (more on that later). There are a lot of faithful versions and there are others that ride this pony in a completely different direction. I’ve compiled a list of 10 great versions of “Wild Horses,” covering a range of styles. I suspect you might be digging out that old acoustic halfway through, so here’s a link to the guitar tab.
recorded live at The Blues Kitchen, January 2019
Rival Sons are best known for kicking out the jams and keeping the rock-n-roll torch burning. This YouTube exclusive for The Blues Kitchen (A UK bbq joint that also hosts weekly live sessions and interviews) finds Jay Buchanan and Scott Holiday literally unplugged. The interplay of 12 and 6-string string acoustic guitars stays faithful to the Stones’ original, with the added zest of Jay’s slide accents.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings
from the 2011 compilation Sticky Soul Fingers – A Rolling Stones Tribute
The late Sharon Jones along with the Dap Kings contributed their up-tempo version to this collection of notable soul artists covering the Sticky Fingers song cycle. Sharon’s vocal runs hot, as the band cooks in 6/8 time, with the rhythm guitar setting the groove. I dig the dramatic bridge, featuring baritone sax.
from their 2008 covers album Southern Rock Masters
Lead singer Phil McCormack & company polish up their faithful version with arena-ballad bombast. If you close your eyes you can see the swaying crowd, with lighters, beers and joints held aloft. The rich vocal harmonies are particularly notable.
recorded live – provenance unkown
Speaking of arena bombast, Shirley and the boys are doing their rendition in a pretty big room somewhere. Despite Butch’s huge kick drum and the chorused acoustic guitar, my girl keeps this big version intimate in spirit. It melts me when she kicks to her upper register in the chorus. (Disfruta de los subtítulos adicionales en español del video.)
from the 1997 compilation Stone Country – Country Artists Perform the Songs of the Rolling Stones
Blackhawk see the Stones’ country-rock influence and raise them a solid bluegrass take. This track is a highlight on an otherwise uneven collection of country Stones covers. The arrangement features mandolin, acoustic guitars and three-part vocal harmony in what feels like 2/4 time to me (or is it 2/2?). Sick musicianship.
from the 1971 debut album “LaBelle” (video courtesy of MOR Music Clips)
If Patti had any more to give on this vocal, she would’ve had to borrow it from a member of the studio audience. In this clip, the girls and their band take this laid-back country rock ballad and create a breathtaking soul experience. The transformation of the source material is akin to Cocker’s own of “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
Flying Burrito Brothers
from the 1970 album Burrito Deluxe
In a 1973 interview, Gram Parsons claimed that Mick sent him the master tape after the Stones had recorded the song at Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama, and asked Gram to put some pedal steel on the track. Apparently, due to the arrival of “some sort of strange dust,” that session went sideways and the track was never used. The Burritos did cut a version, and it actually came out a year before Sticky Fingers was released. It does sound like a Gram song, in a similar vein as his “Love Hurts.” Great harmonies with Bernie Leadon and Chris Hillman, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s steel is indeed a tasty addition to the arrangement.
from the 2002 compilation Paint It Black – A Reggae Tribute To The Rolling Stones
I love this sunny reggae version! It takes all of the melancholy and cheers it up. There are over 500 albums and compilations of Gregory Isaacs material, so it’s cool that he found room for “Wild Horses.” As different as this version is, it feels remarkably faithful to the original. Weird. See if you agree…
Buddy Miller & Shawn Colvin
from the 2016 album Buddy Miller & Friends – Cayamo Sessions At Sea
Buddy Miller leans into the melancholy in this version, with Fats Kaplin’s mournful pedal steel bringing the high lonesome. Shawn Colvin’s tender vocal reminds me of her appearance on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show. Shawn tells Larry that people aren’t very interesting if they haven’t experienced depression. Larry replies, “Yeah, sometimes I’m so interesting I can’t get out of bed.” This version is here for that.
from the 1992 album Blind
The Sundays give “Wild Horses” the ethereal, jangle pop treatment. It was the b-side of their single “Goodbye,” but it became a signature tune for the band. Their version was used in the 1996 film Fear, and also made its way onto the soundtrack album of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and resurfaced in an episode of the series Friends from College. So, yeah, you may have heard this one.
Are you strumming yet? I didn’t make it past the Rival Sons rendition before I got the guitar out. “Wild Horses” strikes a delicate balance between despair and transcendence, but its arc ultimately bends toward hope. It’s an inspiration to artists and fans alike. We will ride this son of a bitch some day, by God.