Wild Horses

Wait, the Rolling Stones song? That’s right! This one is a bit outside the usual definition of “mountain music”, but I think you’ll agree that the version we’re talking about today fits right in with the Appalachian style; it’s also an important landmark in the bluegrass revival that started in the 70s!

Wild Horses was originally released in 1971 on the Rolling Stones’ famous album Sticky Fingers. It was released as a single, and was immediately popular, making it to the top 30 in the US and Canada. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were inspired by legendary country-rock musician Gram Parsons to write the song in a Nashville country style.

Gram Parsons is famous for how he blended country and rock music into something completely new. He is looked at today as the forerunner of roots music, or Americana, which takes all different forms of American music, including country, blues, jazz, rock, and Appalachian bluegrass, and blends them into one uniquely American genre. You can imagine how a country song by famous British rockers would excite him; it excited him so much, in fact, that he actually recorded his own version of the song a whole year before the Rolling Stones version came out!

Gram Parsons was famous for how he blended country and rock, but Wild Horses was covered by another group that was famous for doing pure bluegrass. Old and In the Way was founded by a group of musicians who shared a friendship over their love of traditional Appalachian bluegrass. The two most famous members, Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, met at a Bill Monroe concert in the 60s. Although Jerry Garcia had gone on to greater fame as the guitarist for the Grateful Dead, he had roots in bluegrass and played the banjo. David Grisman had been playing in several groups in the northeast, but always loved bluegrass, and went on to be a major player in the “Newgrass”, or progressive bluegrass, scene. He brought along his former bandmates Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn, and together they recorded a self-titled album in 1973.

This self-titled album went on to great acclaim and was actually the best-selling bluegrass album of all time for almost 30 years, until it was knocked off the top spot by the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000. It featured a few original songs and some old traditional standards, but it’s now often remembered for its beautiful, mountain-inspired cover of Wild Horses. And for good reason; it takes the slow, gentle beauty of the original song and adds a fiddle and mandolin-based arrangement that perfectly complements the longing and sadness of the lyrics about being away from someone you love and knowing the relationship is ending. It also features some excellent solos by Grisman and Clements.

The song was very influential not only in raising awareness about mountain music and giving it a “cool factor”, but also in the idea of bluegrass-inspired covers of pop songs, which is still seen today in the popularity of groups like Iron Horse and Hayseed Dixie. Give it a listen!

Do you have a favorite bluegrass version of a pop or rock song? Let us know in the comments!