Critics seem to agree that the original version of Dead Flowers is a bit of a mess, though like most older Rolling Stones tracks, it still shows up on classic rock radio from time to time. Mostly, its weakness springs from irreparable tensions between the song’s performance and its innate compositional character: a co-write from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, born of Richards’ continued friendship with Gram Parsons, the song is eminently countrified, which makes it ill-suited to both Jagger’s voice and the band’s overall performance trends at the time.
Indeed, Rolling Stone magazine, in its review of 1971 origin album Sticky Fingers, panned the recording, writing that “the mere thought of the Stones doing straight country music is simply appalling. And they do it so poorly, especially the lead guitar.” And although they would later go on to include a version of the song on 1995 small-venue retrospective Stripped, a close review of live takes from the era of its birth, such as this 1971 performance, seem to show Jagger bored with the verses, and a ragged acceleration into the chorus that suggests everyone on stage is eager to get the damn thing over with.
But as a composition, Dead Flowers is decidedly redeemable: a simply organized, deliciously dark first-person country song framed as a bitter and dismissive parting shot from a tainted self-effacing narrator to an insufferable rich girl who’s been proudly slumming in the “ragged company” of the heroin rock underclass, with the titular arrangement and its live graveside complement a beautiful and potent symbol of the complex connections that can linger under regret and resentment. No wonder, then, that the song has gone on to become one of the most covered Stones songs in recent memory – at least in those several genres which pull from rock towards country, and for artists who dip into the Country Rock canon.
As with several of our previous Single Song Sunday subjects, although nominally born in rock, Dead Flowers has gone on to become a switched-genre standard through coverage – most notably, we suspect, through the influence of Townes Van Zandt, whose reinvention, released on live covers album Roadsongs in 1993 but played in concert for years beforehand, turns the song into a pensive solo picker, trading the high country rock bombast of the original for a slow, ragged syrupy mourning that brings the bitter darkness of its heroin lyrics into focus. Van Zandt’s take would go on to be used in The Big Lebowski, and sure enough, that placement, and the general resurgence of his popularity in the modern Americana and roots camps, seem to have prompted several recent covers which clearly owe their intonation to his drawling cowboy countryfolk – see, for example, the in-studio solo take from Northampton, MA singer-songwriter Erik Alan, or from John McCauley of Deer Tick, whose own 2012 solo video version only benefits from the lazy lowbrow outdoor setting, from his slouched posture to the cans of beer at his feet.
But Townes’ version comes from secondhand sources, too – and even as they must have influenced his own tired take, those who took on Dead Flowers in the early years pushed the song into other developing genres as well. Tracing this summer’s newest live covers – both Wilco’s recent version from their now-famous all-covers festival set and the Deadly Gentlemen cover I recorded on Wednesday at their CD release show – through the newgrass and jamgrass movements all the way back to the version recorded in 1976 by psychedelic country rock Grateful Dead spin-off New Riders of the Purple Sage is a neatly linear exercise in inheritance and songsourcing.
Hard rockers, too, have often nodded to the song when they cross into country. The infamous Guns & Roses “unplugged” cover is too far from folk, but Uncle Tupelo‘s hard-edged roots rock seems to nod to that bombast without straying too far from the No Depression camp, even as it anticipates Townes’ recording. Even anti-popstar Ke$ha has covered it without much irony – and though it seems a bit anomalous for a crowd of young emo kids to enact the song’s narrative, she and her friends pull it off reasonably well in their YouTube hallway session.
The result of this braided path is a set of covers that tend to split between countrified rock and bluegrass on the one hand, and slow solo guitar takes on the other, allowing us to play the folk side of each camp broadly, while still acknowledging other covers that fall outside our focus. But variants exist beyond those poles, too. Though the slow, sunshiny lyrical delivery seems a bit too fluffy, for example, Brooklyn artist Batja‘s grungy genre-crossing version brings a refreshing acoustic reggaepop sound to the song, transcending mere curiosity. Electrograss jamband supergroup Stir Fried comes through with a live session that rocks hard even as it shows its bluegrass and folk roots. And Steve Earle‘s version, recorded live in Calgary and released on the 2008 bonus disc of his seminal “power twang” album Copperhead Road, eschews the rock’n'roll error of the original for punkgrass sentiment that flavors the lyrics with an appropriate anger.
On the slower side, Cowboy Junkies translate the song into something inevitably, almost dismally their own, with mandolin, slide, and accordion riffs that fill the stretched-out spaces in a version that surprisingly predates Townes’ release by a few years. Bluegrass pickers The Brothers Comatose take it slow, too, putting harmonies against wistful, sparse banjo to great effect. A brand new take from the lead singer of Reno, Nevada country bar-band Hellbound Glory puts acoustic countryrock vocal mannerisms against gentle solo guitar strums, trading heroin for whiskey as it collapses the waveforms of the song’s history into a tender backporch intimacy, while The Record Low, in a 2007 Hear Ya session coda, wail broken pain into the night. And seemingly defunct old-timey stringband revivalists The Powder Kegs find a different middle ground, with fiddle strains and a mournful twang that seems perfectly suited to the song.
In the end, though confounding when couched in pure rock and roll, the class criticism and countrified sound Mick and Keith found in Dead Flowers continue to resonate among a wide swath of American artists with a better sense of how to play it straight, offering redemption to song and sentiment. Below, as evidence: a bouquet of our favorites, from roots rock to singer-songwriter solo takes to true-blue bluegrass and beyond – download en masse, or hit ‘em up separately to consider the beauty of each bud and blossom.
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