When Keith Richards first met Gram Parsons in 1968, he felt he’d known him all his life. “There was an immediate recognition,” he wrote in his autobiography, Life. “What we could have done if we’d known each other earlier.”
It’s easy to discern the influence Parsons had on Richards, who had a cosmic country streak with 1968’s Sweetheart of the Radio with the Byrds and 1969’s The Gilded Place of Sin with the Flying Burrito Brothers. His death at the age of 26 only further cemented his legacy as a country-rock pioneer, and Richards has long cited him as having an effect on the Rolling Stones.
How far that effect went has been a hot debate between fans over years, particularly when “Wild Horses” enters the conversation. The song is the final track on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe, a year before the Stones’ version was released on Sticky Fingers — an album that turns 50 years old this week. Many have speculated that Parsons actually wrote the song and never received credit, specifically because of its dreamy cowboy lyrics that are more associated with him than the Stones.
But interviews with Parsons and Richards debunk this myth very clearly. “I absorbed so much from Gram, that Bakersfield way of turning melodies and also lyrics, different from the sweetness of Nashville — the tradition of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, the blue-collar lyrics from the immigrant world of the farms and oil wells of California, at least times where it had its origins in the Fifties and Sixties,” Richards wrote. “That country influence came through in the Stones. You can hear it in ‘Dead Flowers,’ ‘Torn and Frayed,’ ‘Sweet Virginia,’ and ‘Wild Horses,’ which we gave to Gram to put on the Flying Burrito Brothers record Burrito Deluxe before we put it out ourselves.”
Parsons also explained the song’s genesis months before he died in 1973, claiming he heard it the night of Altamont, when the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Stones both played the ill-fated festival. “We were all just shaking from the whole experience and they were leaving the next day — or at least Mick was, to take his suitcase of money to Switzerland,” Parsons said with a laugh. “And he said, ‘I want you to hear this song man, because I think it’s something that you might be interested in. And he played me ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Brown Sugar.’ And I really dug it. They recorded them in Muscle Shoals about a week or two before.”
“It was a couple of months later I got a call from him, and he said, ‘If I send you the master, will you put a steel guitar on it?’ He sent me the master and I got Denny Cordell to produce it,” he continued. “And we went into the Record Plant and I got Leon Russell in there. And somebody came in with some sort of strange dust and things just went haywire. The engineer forgot where he was and things like that. So they didn’t use that track, and I asked Mick if we could put it on our mixed album if we didn’t release it as a single, and he thought about it and said alright. And then they didn’t release it for almost a year after that. I don’t know why, it’s a beautiful song.”
You can hear the Burrito’s version above, which features Russell on piano. It takes on a heavier feel from the Stones’ version, with Parsons’ vocals sounding as if they’ve been dipped in whiskey and left to dry in the desert. One can only imagine how amazing his take on “Moonlight Mile” would have been.