Album Review: George Jones – Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets

Matt Clark | August 19th, 2008

George Jones - Burn Your Playhouse DownOver 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.

2.5 Stars

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  1. Chris N.
    August 19, 2008 at 10:04 am

    I would disagree that Jones’ voice is “no longer of studio quality,” it’s just not being set loose on age-appropriate material.

  2. Rick
    August 19, 2008 at 11:10 am

    Another album you’ve succeeded in making me not want to buy! The 9513 has turned out to be a great help in keeping me on budget….(lol)

    Chris, On those rare times George performs on the Grand Ole Opry these days his typically voice sounds weak, thin, and frail compared to the glory days. Old age, all that boozin, and the near fatal car wreck have taken quite a toll on George’s pipes which is to be expected. Time waits for no man…..

  3. Shirley Beverly
    August 19, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Don’t criticize George Jones unless you somehow think you are a better singer. this man not only has a great studio voice he is still touring to sold out shows about 100 a year I have been to 2 within the past 9 months. This is a 5 star cd

  4. Stormy
    August 19, 2008 at 11:38 am

    But along the lines of what Chris was saying, on American V Johnny Cash could barely creak out a note, but it made songs like Farther Up The Road more powerful and poignant.

  5. Chris N.
    August 19, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    That’s what I was getting at. On his later albums Cash chose (with Rick Rubin’s help, of course) songs that were lent poignancy, gravitas and/or irony by the fact that his was clearly the voice of an older gentleman. Wrote a couple like that himself, too (“Like the 309,” “When the Man Comes Around”).

  6. Hollerin' Ben
    August 19, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    I think Matt had some good points about the production, it sounds as non-inspired as 90’s superstar duet records generally sound, and it certainly doesn’t live up to classic Jones.

    that being said, as a big George Jones fan, I thought that there were more than enough good moments to make the record really enjoyable. I mean, great classic country song + George Jones + all kinds of really talented singers. It’s hard to mess it up.

    and I thought especially that the Leon Russell duet on “Window Up Above” is funky as hell, and could live on a “greatest duets” cd.

    and I think that melody, sentiment, and performance more than carry a few weaknesses in the “Rockin’ Years” lyrics.

    but I’m a big fan of George Jones style country music though and I love to hear even mediocre Jones tunes. I’d be surprised if most big Jones fans are disappointed with this record.

  7. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I was not disappointed by this record. In fact, while there certainly were some reservations on my part, I thought it was pretty good as a compilation of “leftover” songs. I love George’s voice and it’s meant to sound old. I certainly don’t think it’s something for Jones fans to avoid. Ditto to Chris and Stormy regarding voices. I love Johnny Cash, but I think “When The Man Comes Around” is one of my favorite Cash songs, despite how much I love his younger voice.

  8. Bobby
    August 19, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    Wow, “Rockin’ Years” is one of my favorite duets. I loved the song since the Ricky/Dolly version in 1991 – if you can get a hyperactive 4 year old to pay attention to a simple country waltz, then you must be doing something right. I’m interested to hear what the Possum’s version sounds like.

  9. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    Bobby, I like the one with Ricky better. I’m not big on the production of the Jones version. I’ve always loved this song too. It definitely straddles the line of cheesy though.

  10. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    “and I think that melody, sentiment, and performance more than carry a few weaknesses in the “Rockin’ Years” lyrics.”

    Ben describes my feelings on the song quite accurately.

  11. Hollerin' Ben
    August 19, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    thanks Leeann.

  12. hairandtoenails
    August 19, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    “Bradley Barn Sessions” was my first George Jones album. I personally think its a great album, although I wonder if that view is colored by my nostalgia for my first time with George Jones.

    I think his 1990s-era voice sounds good. The problem with the MCA albums isn’t the voice or the production, its the large amount of filler songs. Lines like “she is the adjective/he is the verb,” in “Silent Partners” (from High Tech Redneck) are cringe-inducing.

    “Bradley Barn Sessions” is my favorite 1990s Jones CD because it lacked horrendous songs like that. All the songs were good or great. I had no problem with the slick production.

  13. Hollerin' Ben
    August 19, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    geez, strike my use of the word “non-inspired” from your memories please. Holy crap.

  14. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I, personally, love The Bradley Barns Sessions. Like I said at CU, it’s the album that got me into George Jones music and now I’m a lifetime fan. He sang with many of my favorite 90s artists, (the decade that brought me into country music), so they were what made me purchase the album in the first place, which is what prompted me to look deeper into GJ’s catalog.

  15. Chris N.
    August 19, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Hey Ben, remember a while ago when you said “non-inspired”? Good times.

  16. Hollerin' Ben
    August 19, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    oh the shame…….

  17. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 4:59 pm

    Ben,

    All we have to do is throw your words at you enough times and you’ll take them back? Cool!:)

  18. Hollerin' Ben
    August 19, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    it’s a strategy that works best when I use made up words, which apparently is something I do now.

    maybe I’ll try to convince all of you that I’m not a native speaker, that way you’ll pity me my mistakes…..

  19. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    I like to make up words too. Some letter combinations really should just be words, I say.

  20. Chris N.
    August 19, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    You guys are clearly unliterate.

  21. Razor X
    August 19, 2008 at 8:37 pm

    I’ve been looking forward to getting this album for a long time now. I had some reservations after hearing that it was going to get a less than stellar review from The 9513. But I decided to take a chance and get it anyway and I’m really glad that I did.

    I saw George on the Opry about a year and a half ago and his voice had deteriorated noticeably. I wasn’t expecting a great vocal performance on the newest recording, the duet with daughter Georgette. His voice does sound worn, and she definitely carries him, but it’s a touching performance nonetheless. The duet with Ricky Skaggs is my least favorite song on the album; I can see why they chose not to use this one for The Bradley Barn Sessions (a CD, that I, like a lot of others here, really loved). But I can’t say anything bad about any of the other tracks. I wasn’t expecting to like the Keith Richards or Mark Knopfler tracks very much, but I was pleasantly surprised by them. The duet with Dolly, was as expected, wonderful. And the duet with the late, great First Lady of Country Music, which closed the album, made me nostalgic for the 70s. It may not be as good as those classic George and Tammy duets, but man, it was good to hear them sing together again.

  22. leeann
    August 19, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    I didn’t mention it in my review, but I didn’t like the Skaggs duet either. It seemed that Skaggs needlessly overshoots and ends up sounding obnoxious, which is odd because I usually like Skaggs.

    I was also surprised by how much I liked the Richards duet.

  23. Dylan Gramm
    August 19, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    What’s the Jim Lauderdale track like?

  24. Razor X
    August 20, 2008 at 6:09 am

    The Jim Lauderdale track is excellent. Another one that I liked better than I thought I would.

  25. leeann
    August 20, 2008 at 6:41 am

    I *did* mention the Lauderdale song in my review. I really liked it. He sounds great and his harmony is strong too. It’s one of the tracks that stood out to me.

  26. Brady Vercher
    August 20, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    “You and Me and Time” was pretty poor, as was the elder Jones’ voice, but I’m kinda with Ben on “Rockin’ Years,” and the performance of “Selfishness In Man” was rather pedestrian; it’s almost non-inspired.

    Some of the songs just don’t work for me as duets, either. Having two dudes sing songs like “I Always Get Lucky With You” and “The Window Up Above” doesn’t really add anything positive to the interpretation and creates a weird dynamic. I did like a few of the songs, but like Matt said in the review, I don’t think it’s really worth the money.

    I’d like to second Chris’ comment about choosing age-appropriate material. Other than some of Cash’s recordings, Ralph Stanley’s performance of “O Death” comes to mind when I think of a song that works for someone who’s voice has deteriorated. It’d be cool to hear what Jones could do with the right material, maybe even revisiting a song like “Choices.”

  27. leeann
    August 20, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    But I don’t really think that his voice had deteriorated by 1993, which was the time period of most of the recordings with the 3 of the others being even earlier than 1993. The only one that really seemed to show real wear was the one that was recorded last year.

    I liked the Vince duet too. I didn’t think it was either uninspired or noninspired.:)

    I certainly didn’t regret spending my $9.49 on it, which is what I did first thing yesterday morning.

  28. leeann
    August 20, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    As for songs that seemed awkward with two guys singing on them, I used to feel the same way about his version of “Good Year For the Roses” with Alan Jackson, but I’m just really used to it and love that version.

  29. Chris N.
    August 20, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Somebody get Rick Rubin, STAT!

  30. leeann
    August 20, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    I wonder if Ruben will do something with Dolly? I remember that Dolly said that he had approached her about it once. What’s she waiting for?

  31. leeann
    August 20, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    Sorry, I missed that you were specifically talking about the 2007 recording before posting.

    The review says: “Three of the remaining five songs on Burn Your Playhouse Down were recorded for but not included on 1988’s Friends in High Places…”

    While the recordings occurred between ’88 and ’91, I think the actual Friends In High Places album was released in 1991 though…the title presumably playing off of Garth’s “Friends In Low Places”?

  32. Razor X
    August 20, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Yes, “Friends In High Places” came out in 1991 and was Jones’ final album for Epic Records.

  33. scooter
    August 20, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    I saw him a couple of months ago for the first time and his voice was different. He had trouble on the faster songs and trying to get low on “one woman man”. Most of the slow ones sounded pretty good. He joked that his voice went when he stopped drinking and smoking.

  34. SMITH
    August 21, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    Hmmm, not that I even remotely agree with the author of this review but wouldn’t a so called “Bad George Jones Album” be better than anything else being produced today???

    Anyone that knows the history between George and his daughter can surely appreciate this touching duet that cuts straight to the heart! Wow! Yes, George may be 76 but the emotion and feeling he puts in “You and me and Time” brings a tear to the eye everytime I listen to it. You believe every word and KNOW every bit of it is true!

    Folks, that is country music! Although pushing over 60 in every song on the album, George will still do something with his voice on each song that makes you smile and shake your head at the greatness that is George Freaking Jones!

    He is truly one of a kind and worth buying at any time at any place! PERIOD!

    PS: Dolly sings twice as hard in “Rockin Years” with George than she did with Shelton! It is pretty apparent to me that a 60 year old Jones out-performs a Ricky Van Shelton in his prime! No offense to Shelton or his fans(because he is great) but I call it like I hear it!

  35. Paul W Dennis
    August 21, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    I must differ from your assessment of this CD. While this is not George at his best, it is worth 3.5 to 4 stars, keeping in mind that this is sort of an internal ranking – a 3 star George Jones album is better than most artists 5 star efforts!

    While I think the drums are mixed a little too high on a few of the tracks, other than that I do not have a problem with the production. In fact, I think this is how country music should sound – singer front and center, drums essentially in the background and good but not in-your-face guitar solos

    For me the standout tracks were “Window Up Above” (w/ Leon Russell), “When The Grass Grows Over Me” (w Mark Chesnut), “Tavern Choir” (w/ Jim Lauderdale) and “You’re Still On My Mind” (with Marty Stuart)which dates back to 1962 andwas one of my favorite George Jones recordings. “Burn Your Playhouse Down” (w/ Keith Richards) is surprisingly good – I had zero expectations for that song since Richards is easily the poorest vocalist on the CD

    I don’t think any real George Jones fan will be disappointed with this disc

  36. Casey
    August 26, 2008 at 9:07 am

    This duet album is a must for any George Jones fan. I’m guessing the reviewer of this album is probally a big Rascal Flatts fan. The bottom line is George Jones is a living legend and at age 76 he is still selling out nearly every concert he performs. Yes, obviously his voice has aged, but thats a part of life, especially the hard life of cocaine and booze that Jones took. The man is known as the greatest country music singer of all time, find something critical to say about that. Like Waylon once said “If we could all sing like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.”

  37. Steve Harvey
    July 17, 2009 at 2:03 am

    CASEY wrote:
    I’m guessing the reviewer of this album is probally a big Rascal Flatts fan.
    ———–

    I’m guessing you haven’t read much of the criticism on this site.

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