Whenever country-rock pioneers of the late ‘60s and very early ‘70s come up — whether it’s the Byrds, Burritos, Poco, Michael Nesmith, et al. — the Rolling Stones tend to be left out of the conversation. Maybe that’s fine: It’s not as if there aren’t other reasons to bring them their (dead) flowers. Still, they were experimenting with hybrid genre elements as early as 1968’s “Beggars Banquet” LP. Those latent elements mostly stayed kind of latent: Even though Keith Richards — admirer of Merle Haggard, close pal of Gram Parsons — took it very seriously, Mick Jagger admitted, “I don’t know if I’m able to do it without being tongue-in-cheek.” But if the group could only move so close to country in the end, country was sure able to move closer to them over the years. Think of how many cues the loud and rowdy Southern rock movement took from the Stones before it started crossbreeding with country later in the century.
A new album produced by Robert Deaton, longtime executive producer of the CMA Awards, marries mainstream country stars to Stones classics with mostly satisfying results. “Stoned Cold Country: A 60th Anniversary Tribute to the Rolling Stones” doesn’t so much bend the Jagger-Richards catalog to a pure country sound as it collects some genre practitioners who have a strong rock ‘n’ roll bent and has them hew fairly closely to the Stones’ originals… with more steel guitar. Now, “…with more steel guitar” may sound like a glib, dismissive phrase, but when you’ve got players like Paul Franklin or Dan Dugmore popping in for extended solos — as they do on Steve Earle’s “Angie” or Elle King’s “Tumbling Dice,” respectively — suddenly it’s that steel that can feel like the real star for a minute, not the Stones or their Tennessee suitors.
Not everything among the collection’s 14 tracks pays off. Sometimes the stars who are brought in sound like they’re about to get lost in Glimmer Twins glossolalia, but sometimes it sounds like they just stopped by for some Stones karaoke — which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself, so even the least of these tracks still carry some kind of kick.. The all-star players (including veteran bassist Michael Rhodes, who, sadly, died earlier this month) can recreate the work of Richards, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor just about down to the lick. Sometimes, the most promising combinations of a great artist and great song result in something that’s just adequate. Earle seems like the perfect pick for “Angie,” but the anguish isn’t there. (Maybe it wasn’t with Mick, either, but he did a swell job of faking it.) Ashley McBryde has everything it should takes to start up “Satisfaction,” but the treatment feels relentlessly slick.
Elle King has a much more idiosyncratic voice, but it’s not what “Tumbling Dice” needs to get rolling. Maren Morris seems like a good match in theory for “Dead Flowers” — and she’s one of the best country stars we have, God bless her — but she can’t quite make herself into a convincing heroin fiend. (Many, of course, would hold that to her credit.)
Highlights abound, though, especially when you get singers with a strong Southern soul leaning to their voice, filling in some of the melodic licks that Jagger always kind of slurred his way through. That happens with Brothers Osborne teaming up with the Black Americana duo the War and Treaty on “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” or Jimmie Allen turning the mercenary disco of “Miss You” into something just a few degrees closer to actual R&B. Brooks & Dunn are an inspired choice for “Honky Tonk Women,” a song that’s in the direct lineage of something like their own “Play Something Country.”
The vocal quartet Little Big Town beautifully turns the latent country of “Wild Horses” blatant with no small help from lap dawg Franklin. Eric Church finds a whole different internal rhythm to “Gimme Shelter” that’s kind of a gas. (His perpetual on-stage backup singer, Joanna Cotten, has probably been waiting years for him to record this so she could wail the Merry Clayton part.) And although it sounds wrong on paper, there’s something delicious about Lainey Wilson’s sweet, very strong Louisiana accent combining with the druggy surrealism of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” She knew she would meet her country-rock connection — and she did!
As a TV-turned-record producer, Deaton is as meticulous with making these tracks feel like they belong in the Stones’ cinematic universe as he would be on any given one of the many awards shows he produces. That is to say, Stones fans who just want to hear new versions of these songs but aren’t necessarily big on country won’t much feel that things get too twangy for them here, by any means, even with the handful of tracks that do bring the steel out into the spotlight. There may have been a slight opportunity missed here, though, to take some of the Stones’ more rocking songs and bring them into the realm of traditional country. Remember how Alan Jackson once sang, “Don’t rock the jukebox / I wanna hear some Jones / ‘Cause my heart ain’t ready / For the Rolling Stones”? What a kick it would be to hear a Jackson or a George Strait take a Jagger-and-Richards classic and turn it into something George Jones really would recognize as country. But that would be someone else’s album to make.
Anyway, as outstanding as some of the tracks here are, the best one belongs to a non-country artist, rising blues-rocker Marcus King, who, with his band, just tears up “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” with a lead guitar that sounds like it could cut through steel wheels. You exit “Stone Cold Country” wanting to hear King cut a whole album of Stones covers — and knowing that before and after Mick and Keith indulged in a kind of fringe country, they were a great “blues cover band,” just like their old rival Paul McCartney said.