VERSIONS: “Dead Flowers”

Here we are again with a new “VERSIONS” in which our writers examine the whys and wherefores of different artists treatment of the same tune. This time out Clint West puts ‘Dead Flowers’ under the microscope:

In 1971 The Rolling Stones released the acclaimed album ‘Sticky Fingers’. Although partly recorded at Muscle Shoals Studio, Alabama, the song ‘Dead Flowers’ was recorded in London. A dark country ballad, the song is widely recognised as one of the album’s highlights. It was written during a period when the Stones, influenced by Gram Parsons, dipped their toes into country music and is one of the high points to emerge from that relationship. The song has spawned many covers over the years and hopefully we have brought you a few of the best. We start as ever, with the original, here performed live at the Marquee in 1971. It’s a wonderful clip, one of my favourites of the Stones. Jagger’s cod American accent is worth a whole new article and debate in itself.

Deciding what to put in, or more accurately, what to leave out of features like this is always a wrench. It would have been entirely appropriate to have included versions by Steve Earle, Caitlin Rose or Cowboy Junkies, but alas something had to give. So, slowly, three versions emerged from the dark recesses of a cluttered mind to take their place alongside the hallowed original:

Just five years after The Stones’ original release. New Riders of The Purple Sage featured ‘Dead Flowers’ on their 1976 mainly covers album ‘New Riders’. This country-rock version sticks fairly close to the original but benefits from an increase in pace and energy, whilst Buddy Cage’s excellent pedal steel playing gives it an authentic country feel. The American accents also sound rather more genuine too! It is included here, partly because it’s a damned fine reworking, but more because it shows just how well the song works as a bona fide country tune.

Townes Van Zandt had been performing ‘Dead Flowers’ live for a number of years before he included it on ‘Roadsongs’, an album of live covers released in 1994. Townes’ makes it sound like a Townes song. His sparse acoustic accompaniment and hard-worn voice, plus the resignation in his delivery prevail upon us the clear impression that Townes is not just singing the song, he is living it. It’s a masterful interpretation of the song and for many, the definitive version of it. In 1998 Townes’ superlative rendition of the song was given a much wider audience when it was included in the classic Coen Brothers’ crime comedy ‘The Big Lebowski’, clips from which are shown here accompanied by Townes’ version.

Mention of ‘The Big Lebowski’ brings us to our last version which carries an amusing introductory story about how the song came to be featured in the film, followed by a wonderful bluegrass arrangement of the song by the Deadly Gentlemen featuring David Grisman. On the two previous occasions that this writer has contributed to the VERSIONS series, I’ve ended with a bluegrass version of the song in question, and I see no reason to diverge from that path here. It might even be argued (well, by me at least) that the ultimate test of a great song is, ‘yes, but does it stand up as a bluegrass tune?’ Well, have no fears on that score as The Deadly Gentlemen show the way.

About Paul Villers 187 Articles
I am a professional curmudgeon. I don't care and neither should you. Buy me gin and we can possibly be friends.
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Stephen Goldsmith

Also on one of the Willie Nelson and Friends albums (three of them I think). Pretty good albums but the version of Dead Flowers is not one of the best.