By Mark Bennett
There’s a school of thought regarding cross-genre duets that says “the stranger, the better.” This year’s Snoop Dog-Willie Nelson collaboration leaps to mind.
No such shock-value pairings appear on George Jones’ “Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets.” Even his matchup with Keith Richards on the title track blends smoothly. The Rolling Stones guitarist coaxes the old bad-boy out of Jones as they trade lines of this you-done-me-wrong Lester Blackwell song, including “I’ve got an achin’ in my heart, and arson on my mind; I’m gonna burn your playhouse down.” Jones is 77, and Richards is 64, so we can only hope it’s more retrospective bluster than insidiousness.
Still, Richards and the other 11 artists who share the mic with Jones don’t try to jolt his longtime fans. Two highlights come from roots rockers Leon Russell (on Jones’ original “The Window Up Above”) and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler (on “I Always Get Lucky With You”). While Russell’s closing-time howl and Knopfler’s English mumbles distinctively complement Jones’ gentle delivery, their musicianship shines. Russell, best known for his Concert for Bangladesh-era repertoire, adds deft piano to “Window Up Above,” while Knopfler solos gracefully on “Lucky With You.”
The 12-song collection appears seamless, despite coming from a variety of recording sessions, ranging from a 2006 teaming with his daughter, Georgette Jones, on the opening track, “You and Me and Time,” to the 1977 duet with his most famous partner, late ex-wife Tammy Wynette, on the disc’s finale, “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me.” In between, tunes from 1988 and 1993 sessions couple the Possum with country singers Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Shelby Lynne, Mark Chesnutt and Marty Stuart, and bluegrass veterans Ricky Skaggs and Jim Lauderdale.
For poignancy, the family tracks are hard to top. Jones’ daughter co-wrote the intro song through the real-life eyes of a child lost and hurt by her parents’ divorce, who eventually finds a connection, as an adult, with her father. The closer, a lost recording uncovered in the Epic Records vault, could easily have been a wistful chart-topper when it was taped three decades ago. On this 2008 album, “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me” stands as a shimmering reminder of a singing duo that sounded as if it was meant to be.