In September 1973 a unique and mystical patch of Southern California was the site of a heroin overdose, a corpse-napping and a subsequent well-intended, but badly botched, cremation. The deceased was alt-country patron saint/ex-Byrd and Burrito Brother/friend of Keith Richards: Gram Parsons. Just as the Rolling Stones were initially inspired by the likes of Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Solomon Burke, there would be a period in the early 1970’s where Parsons would occupy Keith’s attention and briefly influence the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

Given the broad sonic reach of the “alt-country” genre, one might expect that Paint It Black: An Alt Country Tribute to the Rolling Stones to be a fully plugged in, loud, proud and boisterous salute capturing all the sweat, swagger and energy of the group. But that would require leaning on the Mick Jagger side of the sound. Instead, producer Jim Sampas has chosen to throttle-down, and to lead with Keith (with the Grievous Angel as guardian). It results in an exceptionally cohesive and even-keeled album – a rarity among tribute compilations. That should come as no surprise, though, since we know Sampas for his work on other quality salutes: last year’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan’s ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’, and This Bird Has Flown: A Tribute To The Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’.

In 1977, Keith was busted for heroin in Toronto, so it’s fitting that Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers lead off the collection by covering the song Keith wrote about the incident. They set the tone by turning Keith’s sarcastic “Before They Make Me Run” into something mellow and reflective. The downshifting is also evident on other tracks. Soft drum brushing and Hannah Prater’s sultry vocals on The Bittersweets’ “Loving Cup” reinforce that Exile On Main Street highlight as one of the Stones’ best love songs. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time – what a beautiful buzz. Giant Sand takes “Jumping Jack Flash” from a crossfire hurricane to a gentle summer breeze, adding a dash of Roger Miller “King Of The Road” cool to the mix.

The other thing that makes Paint It Black so cohesive is the lush and smoldering vocals from the women who are so prominently featured throughout. Margo Timmins is everything you would expect in a well-chosen Cowboy Junkies version of “Moonlight Mile.” Hem‘s Sally Ellyson delivers “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” with the tenderness of the lullabies she’s known for. And Mary Gauthier’s “Dear Doctor” duet with Lee Harvey Osmond’s Tom Wilson is effective (and much preferred to Mick Jagger’s duet with his falsetto self).  There’s the prior-mentioned Hannah Prater, Barbara Kessler’s faithful reading of “You Got The Silver” and finally Karin Bergquist of Over The Rhine on “Waiting On A Friend.” It’s the women of Paint It Black that ground the album in a cool, comfortable and sustained place.

With a run time of a little over an hour, this record makes good company for a leisurely drive from Indio to Twenty-Nine Palms with time to stop and snap a picture at the Joshua Tree Inn. Live too far away for a California desert pilgrimage? Paint It Black will at least make you feel as if you spent some reflective time with Gram Parson’s ghost in Room #8.

Paint It Black: An Alt Country Tribute To The Rolling Stones Tracklist:
01. Great Lake Swimmers – Before They Make Me Run
02. Matthew Ryan – Streets Of Love
03. Cowboy Junkies – Moonlight Mile
04. Hem – You Can’t Always Get What You Want
05. Everest – Sweet Virginia
06. The Bittersweets – Loving Cup
07. Giant Sand – Jumping Jack Flash
08. Lee Harvey Osmond & Mary Gauthier – Dear Doctor
09. Over The Rhine – Waiting On A Friend
10. The Handsome Family – Faraway Eyes
11. Blue Mountain – Torn And Frayed
12. Brian Ritchey – Paint It Black
13. Neal McCarthy & Ivo Matos – Wild Horses
14. Barbara Kessler – You Got The Silver
15. Anders Parker – Coming Down Again

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