‘Wild Horses’ was the “logical combination between their music and our music,” Gram Parsons, one of the pioneers of country-rock and close friend of Keith Richards, once said. In other words, the timeless classic that is ‘Wild Horses’ is also the bridge between the Rolling Stones’ blues background and country music.
The track appeared on their 1971 record, Sticky Fingers – although they wrote it in 1969 – and by their follow-up record, Exile on Main St. in 1972, they had fully crossed over (as far as they could) into their take on country music.
The importance of Gram Parsons’ involvement with the Stones cannot be overstated. Keith Richards recalled when Parsons came to live with him at his Redlands estate, stating: “We played music without stopping. Sat around the piano or with guitars and just went through the country songbook.”
Parsons’ influence would lead Richards to eventually write ‘Wild Horses’ which Parsons’ band, The Flying Burritos, would record as well. In fact, he would actually release their version prior to the Stones’ effort. Richards added, “Gram taught me country music – how it worked, the difference between the Bakersfield style and the Nashville style.”
Jagger added his thoughts in the liner notes in the 1993 Stones’ compilation album Jump Back, explaining: “I remember we sat around originally doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours. Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”
While Mick Jagger claims that the song isn’t about Marianne Faithfull (he wrote the verses), Faithfull claims that it was her who said to Jagger after awakening from a drug-induced coma in 1969, “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” This wasn’t the only song on Sticky Fingers that Faithfull helped the Stones with as, famously, she also co-wrote ‘Sister Morphine’, of which she is one of the accredited songwriters.
Other theories arose when another of Jagger’s long-time girlfriends said in an interview in The Observer: “‘Wild Horses’ is my favourite Stones song. It’s so beautiful. I don’t mind that it was written for Bianca.” This is less likely as Jagger didn’t actually meet Bianca until 1970 and, of course, the was released in ’69.
When it came to writing the classic, Richards claimed that ‘Wild Horses’ was written in the very special way that Jagger and Richards wrote their greatest hits back then. “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together this is it. I had the riff and chorus line, Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Wild Horses’ was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be,” Richards stated.
Mick Taylor – fresh in the band after Brian Jones was let go – played acoustic guitar in the Nashville tuning – the first four strings (E, A, D and G) are all tuned an octave higher. Richards, in his typical fashion, would mess around with the tunings and used a twelve-string guitar on the record. “‘Wild Horses’ almost wrote itself. It was really a lot to do with, once again, fucking around with the tunings,” Richards wrote in Life, adding: “I found these chords, especially doing it on a twelve-string to start with, which gave the song this character and sound. There’s a certain forlornness that can come out the open-tuned string.
“I started off, I think, on a regular six-string open E, and it sounded very nice, but sometimes you just get these ideas. What if I open-tuned a twelve-string? All it meant was translate what Mississippi Fred McDowell was doing – twelve-string slide – into the five-string mode, which meant a ten-string guitar.”