In American history, the career of the cowboy was only viable for the briefest window of time. The invention of barbed wire in the 1880s spelled the end of the sweeping open ranges of the American West that cowboys traversed while driving their herds. But much like some intense periods of music, that brief window spawned an unending universe of lore.
And a key piece of that lore is the lone cowboy, out on a drive across the range, resting on a bedroll under the panorama stars, strumming his guitar in the glow of the cook fire, humming tunes about getting back home.
"Wild Horses" is a cowboy song for a different era of lore, the era of the touring rock musician. That musician, too, left home for long periods to ply the only trade they knew. And that musician also strummed songs longing for home, and for the idealized loves they left back there. All these ideals pining for ideals.
Now, musicians have been traveling the land for much longer than rock n' roll has been around, for much longer than cowboys were ever around. The medieval troubadours are an era of lore all unto themselves. The traveling chanting poets of classical Greece and China also appear in the tapestries of my daydreams. But make no mistake, the rock n' roll era is something unique that will endure long into the future with its own iconography. And that iconography was largely devised by this group right here, them Rolling Stones.
Their name itself represents it.
"Wild Horses," by calling back to the cowboy era, contextualizes it. There is comfort in knowing your loneliness comes as part of a long human tradition.
Ian Stewart, who played pianos and organs on all classic Stones records (but wasn't allowed to be an official member due to his incongruous age and clean-cut look), actually sat out tracking the piano on this song. His reason: Too many minor chords, which he disliked playing. He let his strict prejudices bar him from taking part of one of the greatest pure minor key songs, one that justifies the minor mode rather than contributing to any banality. It would be like an actor refusing to take a part in Star Wars because they disliked "sword movies."
I'm not a massive Charlie Watts fan, but his drums, particularly that popping snare, sound perfect when they enter for the chorus. They add just the right kind of lift to support that beautiful downward chord shift.
Mick Jagger, if you didn't know, is one of the best vocalists of any era. For a voice that can be so easily parodied, he really had so much flexibility, allowing him to be constantly inventive. He could go from the pep of "Satisfaction" to the pained, long yowls of "Wild Horses," and it was all in his wheelhouse.
Keith Richards deserves so much credit for fashioning the ultimate strummed guitar patterns, over and over, in their heyday. He was no Hendrix-esque finger contortionist. But he was no mere punk rocker either. The best period of the Rolling Stones, in my opinion, was based on his ability to craft basic yet brilliant strum patterns for songs like "Brown Sugar," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," and clearly "Wild Horses."
I've never owned Rolling Stones records, because it's my policy of only enjoying them in the rare moments I encounter them on the radio, in movies, or what have you. So each time I happen upon "Wild Horses," it's the same elated feeling. Today's a day I get to hear one of the purdiest of purdy songs!