George Jones is widely considered the greatest singer in country music -- as well as one of the greatest singers in American popular music -- and while his style gradually grew richer and more nuanced, he arrived pretty much fully formed, a force of nature, as Mercury's 1994 double-disc set Cup of Loneliness proves. Over the course of 48 tracks (51 tracks on the limited-edition initial box set release, packaged in an exceedingly flimsy cardboard book-style box), the best of Jones' earliest work for Starday and Mercury records is unveiled -- not everything, but close enough, particularly because the quality of the material is so consistently strong, whether it's on raw, hardcore honky tonk ravers or through the wrenching ballad style that became his signature. Both are on full display on this tremendous set, which finds Jones at his purest as a country singer. Later, his songs were sweetened a little, through both production and song choice, but here, even a novelty like "Who Shot Sam" (as well as "Revenooer Man" on the 51-track version) sounds like a wild, unruly complement to barroom ravers like "If I Don't Love You (Grits Ain't Groceries)," "White Lightning," "No Money in This Deal," and "Why Baby Why," not to mention such great tear-in-my-beer ballads as "Just One More," "Color of the Blues," and "Window Up Above." What's great about this set is that it fills in the little details and forgotten singles left out of such otherwise excellent collections as Rhino's The Best of George Jones or Mercury's previous The Best of George Jones: Hardcore Honky Tonk. By featuring such weird, woolly songs as "Slave Lover" next to pure gospel like "Family Bible," or by airing such country classics as "You're Still on My Mind," "Heartaches by the Number," and "(I'll Be There) If You Ever Want Me" next to such great lesser-known songs as "Relief Is Just a Swallow Away," "Big Harlan Taylor," and "I'm Gonna Burn Your Playhouse Down," this is the hardest, funniest, best pure country George Jones ever recorded. Though it's worth the search for the 51-track version, the 48-track version packs the same punch, and it's beyond essential, especially for those who are only familiar with the cinematic scope of his Billy Sherrill Epic recordings. This is the sound of the Possum as the great country singer, where his music bristles with energy and invention. He recorded many, many sides as great as these later, but he never did hardcore country better than he did on the music captured on Cup of Loneliness.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2