Personnel: George Jones; Melba Montgomery, Tammy Wynette.
Liner Note Author: Rich Kienzle.
Recording information: Beaumont, TX (01/19/1954-??/??/1999); Houston, TX (01/19/1954-??/??/1999); Nashville, TN (01/19/1954-??/??/1999).
Photographers: Don Hunstein; Slick Lawson.
It has a similar title and a similar length to Epic/Legacy's 1994 double-disc set The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country, but Epic/Legacy's 2006 collection The Essential George Jones is a different beast entirely. At 40 tracks, it's four songs shorter than the 1994 comp, but the real difference is in the song selection. Where The Spirit of Country offered a good overview of every label George recorded for between 1955 and 1989, Legacy could not get licensing for his work for Musicor in the second half of the '60s, which means there are a few big omissions here, including "Things Have Gone to Pieces," "Love Bug," "I'm a People," "Walk Through This World with Me," "Say It's Not You," and "A Good Year for the Roses." With the exception of "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and "Say It's Not You," all of those singles were on The Spirit of Country, and their absence is felt on Essential, as is the absence of novelty numbers like 1959's "Who Shot Sam" to 1976's "Her Name Is..." These silly songs are nearly as much a trademark of Jones' style as his signature ballad style, so without them -- and without the Musicor songs -- The Essential feels a bit lop-sided toward the serious hardcore honky tonk. Hardly a fatal flaw, of course, since this is where much of Jones' legacy lies, and it is a good, accurate overview of George's career, even if it's not as thorough or lively as The Spirit of Country. Apart from the aforementioned Musicor sides and his MCA work of the '90s (which is hardly a glaring omission), this offers a fair representation of his many labels: there are four cuts from Starday, six apiece from Mercury and United Artists, a whopping 25 sides from Epic -- which is appropriate, since he spent nearly 20 years on the label and had over 60 charting singles while he was there -- and, as a coda, a cut from his 1999 album for Asylum. Along the way, most, but certainly not all, of his big hits are presented, including "Why Baby Why," "White Lightning," "The Window Up Above," "Tender Years," "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Race Is On," "The Grand Tour," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Any George compilation that has all these hits, along with many other excellent songs, is bound to be a great listen and a useful overview -- it's just that the absences here are large enough that this can't quite supplant The Spirit of Country, which remains the best overall George Jones compilation. But if that set can't be found, this is a good substitute. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine