To some, it might have seemed like just another superduet. But Keith Richards was pretty damned excited. "This is an amazing collection of people," he announced as he traded quick grins and affectionate jokes with George Jones during a brief photo session at Bradley's Barn, a low-key studio in Mount Juliet, Tenn., just outside Nashville.
Earlier, Richards and Jones had been joined by a group of musicians that included the legendary likes of Elvis superpicker James Burton, Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs to record songs for Jones' upcoming duets collection. Scheduled for an October release, the as-yet-unnamed disc, to be produced by Brian Ahern, is planned as a fond affair with a decidedly acoustic vibe featuring new and old Jones songs.
In addition to the players in the studio with him this fine late-winter day, other Jones collaborators will be Mark Knopfler; the trio of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Harris; and younger country stars such as Travis Tritt, Alan Jackson, Mark Chestnutt and Trisha Yearwood, among others. Most notably, though, the occasion of the recording will effect the delectable reunion of Jones and his ex-wife, Tammy Wynette.
Richards actually cut short a mixing session for the Rolling Stones' upcoming album with producer Don Was to fly to Nashville to record with the world's greatest country balladeer. Upon arrival just before noon, Richards set up an impromptu bar and waited, having made the scene well in advance of Jones and unaccustomed to Nashville's early studio calls. Jones, meanwhile, was rumored to have been driving around trying to work off a case of nerves.
When Jones finally did stride in, Richards greeted him from behind the bar, smiling broadly and asking, "What can I get you, sir?" It was a measure of the long-sober Jones' newfound confidence that the invitation was received as pure salute. Despite his initial jitters, Jones has become a pro at working with his admirers. His feisty 1992 single "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" corralled a host of them, and in addition to a track with Sammy Kershaw from Jones' new CD, High-Tech Redneck, he and B.B. King paired on "Patches," the brilliant finale to Rhythm Country and Blues. Over the course of the afternoon, Jones and Richards worked on "I'm Gonna Burn Your Playhouse Down," an ultrarare 1958 song written by Jones and Lester Blackwell. They took the tune at a leisurely pace as Jones concentrated hard on a tune that was, he maintained, so old he'd nearly forgotten it. The second song was another '50s Jones number popular with U.K. audiences called "Say It's Not You." Jones had voted for something more recent or uptempo. But this one gave Richards the chance to blow up his fuzzy yawp into a proper honky-tonk performance.
In between tunes, Richards leaned over the bar and recounted how, as an English teenager, he was knocked out by U.S. country like Jones'. "You'd get the singles," Richards said, "then you'd be tracking down B sides. This was music that came in purely through the ear. All you knew was that you loved the sound of it."
This story is from the May 5, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.