If any artist cried out for a cross-licensed, multi-label retrospective, it was George Jones.
When Epic/Legacy released the double-disc The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country in 1994, he had recorded for no less than six labels -- in chronological order: Starday, Mercury, United Artists, Musicor, Epic, MCA (since then, he's added two more labels: Elektra and BNA/RCA) -- over the course of four decades, a discographical nightmare if there ever was one.
The Spirit of Country was the first (and, to date, only) to attempt a serious, multi-label overview of George Jones' lengthy career, and while it has a few flaws, it nevertheless is indeed essential as an overview of his prolific work, tracing his hits from 1955's "Why Baby Why" to 1989's wonderful "The King Is Gone (And So Are You)." That means there's nothing from his MCA records here, but that's not a major problem, since his peak ended when he left Epic, and that entire peak is chronicled here.
It is not chronicled evenhandedly, though.
Starday and Mercury account for the first seven tracks, then UA is rushed through in three cuts, before moving to five Musicor sides (including "A Good Year for the Roses," previously unavailable on CD).
This means the '50s and '60s are finished in 15 tracks, with the remaining 29 songs all from his Epic work of the '70s and '80s.
This is a bit of an imbalance, and it's hard not to wish that some of the missing songs -- whether it's "What Am I Worth" or "Things Have Gone to Pieces" -- were here, but, that said, there are no truly essential items missing from his pre-Epic sides.
As far as the Epic material is concerned, the 1982 collection Anniversary may have arranged the material in a more dramatic fashion, but 14 of that record's 22 songs are here, including all the really big hits, although there are enough great songs absent -- "Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You)," "What My Woman Can't Do," "The Battle," and "Memories of Us" -- to still make that collection necessary (much as Rhino's The Best of George Jones [1955-1967] still serves a valuable need).
But, this set not only has songs unavailable on other collections, it does do its job very well, providing the best available overview of George Jones' career.
It might not have everything, but it has all the important sides, and there simply isn't a better way to get acquainted with George Jones than this.