Rhino's 1991 collection The Best of George Jones (1955-1967) covers his recordings for Starday, Mercury, United Artists, and Musicor -- in other words, it's the Pappy Daily years, featuring every label Pappy and the Possum recorded for before Jones severed ties with his producer/manager/mentor and moved to Epic and Billy Sherrill's luxurious productions in 1971. This is the foundation of George Jones' career, with his wildest honky tonk and sweetest ballads, and many of his most iconic songs -- "Why Baby Why," "White Lightning," "The Window Up Above," "Tender Years," "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Race Is On," "Walk Through This World With Me" -- among them. This is when Jones perfected his heart-wrenching ballad style -- still the standard all country singers are measured by -- and when he sang the purest hardcore honky tonk, dabbled in bluegrass with duet partner Melba Montgomery, dipped his toes into pop crossover with Gene Pitney (on the delirious "I've Got Five Dollars and It's Saturday Night"), and revelled in his love for novelties and silly songs, a taste he never lost in his entire career.
Through it's expertly chosen 18 tracks, this Best of George Jones touches on all these sounds, as it offers an abundance of country Top Ten hits, along with a couple other songs that might not have climbed as far on the charts but help fill out Jones' musical portrait. Given the size of the collection, it should be no surprise that it doesn't contain all of his hits from these four labels -- it skews toward the Starday and Mercury sides, with five selections from UA and four from Musicor -- but it is a little surprising that it stops seemingly arbitrarily in 1967,since his first Epic hit arrived in 1972, leaving five years undocumented. Some great songs were recorded during that time -- most notably "A Good Year for the Roses" -- and while it would have been nice to have them here, it's also true that during those five years he began to shift toward the ballad-heavy style that distinguished his Epic records, so they're more of a piece with that era. The 12 years covered here constitute his first golden period, when he could and did sing anything, and they're presented perfectly here. Combine this disc with Epic's Anniversary, and you have the essential George Jones on CD -- and two discs that are just slightly better than Epic/Legacy's very fine 1994 double-disc set, The Spirit of Country.