Album Review: George Jones – Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets
Over several days in the winter of 1993, during one of the worst ice storms in Tennesee history, George Jones, producer Brian Ahern and a boatload of country and pop stars retreated to the famous “Bradley Barn” studio to record Bradley Barn Sessions, an album of Jones classics performed as duets between The Possum and special guest stars. Upon its release in 1994, the resulting project was largely panned by critics as a good idea that failed to live up to its considerable potential, due primarily to the incompatibility of Ahern’s slick, over-orchestrated production with the sparse honky-tonk sound that made Jones famous.
If those words seem anachronistic in the review of an album released in 2008 one has only Bandit Records to blame, for seven of the twelve tracks on Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets were recorded during the original Bradley Barn Sessions but didn’t make the album cut. Unfortunately, few of these unreleased tracks sound any better than their 1994 brethren.
It’s not that Ahern’s production is bad. In fact, by contemporary Music Row standards, it’s rather good. But for George Jones, even George Jones circa 2008, it’s just too layered. Much of the problem might be explained not by Ahern’s choices but Jones’ selection of companions: his studio musicians for the Bradley Barn Sessions included Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Leon Russell and Vince Gill, not to mention less famous virtuosos like Pig Robbins, John Hughey and Jerry Douglas, all vying for the chance to make their picking heard on a legend’s recordings, and it’s hard to imagine even the most strong-willed producer telling one of those luminaries that they really ought to sit one out. The result is orchestration that’s too thick, with too many musicians playing too many instruments, and much of the Jones magic gets lost in the process.
Three of the remaining five songs on Burn Your Playhouse Down were recorded for but not included on 1988′s Friends in High Places, leaving only two tracks that do not directly parallel previous work. Album-opener “You and Me and Time” with Georgette Jones, George’s daughter with Tammy Wynette, is a worthy song about the dynamic between the child of a divorce and her single parent, and while Georgette doesn’t quite possess her mother’s trademark teardrop vocal, her sultry performance leaves little doubt about her parentage. Jones’ voice, however, is no longer of studio quality, and while 2005′s Kicking Out the Footlights…Again survived on the monumental occasion of Jones’ collaboration with Merle Haggard, his 2007 recording with Georgette doesn’t fare so well. “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me,” a recently discovered 1977 George and Tammy duet, appropriately closes the album but is an unremarkable addition to their combined catalog that should be valued only by fans desirous of a complete collection.
These two tracks simply don’t compensate for the remaining ten, which feel like a redundant mixed bag of songs that weren’t good enough to make two previous, related collections. Mark Knopfler’s vocal contribution to “I Always Get Lucky With You” is even worse than Jones’ performance on the opening track, while the exciting pairing of Jones and Dolly Parton on “Rockin’ Years” is undercut by hopelessly broken lyrics like: “rockin’ chairs, rockin’ babies/Rock-a-bye, Rock of Ages/Side by side, we’ll be together always.” “Selfishness in Man,” performed with Vince Gill, is inferior to both Jones’ solo version and the recent definitive recording by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
The album’s few highlights include title track “Burn Your Playhouse Down,” performed with Keith Richards, which comes the closest of any song on the collection to actually sounding like a classic George Jones recording, and Mark Chesnutt’s appearance on “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” one of the great traditional weepers. However, even serious Jones fans can be excused for finding better ways to spend their hard-earned dollars, especially if they already own the two collections that spawned ten of the twelve tracks.
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