The 11 years covered in this first of two Don Gibson retrospectives by the German Bear Family label are the most captivating in his career. Beginning in 1949, Gibson began recording as part of the hillbilly jump band Sons of the Soil for Mercury. From the moment Gibson's lead vocal comes through the mix it is evident that even if he wasn't writing a lot of songs at the time, he was performing them as if they were his. Early on he issued four tracks, including the underground classic "Automatic Mama," a rockabilly prototype. A year later, Gibson & His King Cotton Kingfolks were at RCA working with Stephen Sholes and they issued eight sides that offered a more complex version of the Sons' style of country, bluegrass, and pop, with just a shade of jump thrown in. In 1952, Gibson moved to Columbia as a solo artist and recorded with Don Law and Troy Martin, and guitarist Chet Atkins, which is where his mature voice began to take shape, as evidenced by his first songwriting credit, "No Shoulder to Cry On," and a smoking version of Johnnie Masters' "Walkin' in the Moonlight." His chart success was evident, too, placing tracks steadily in the Top 40 of Billboard's country chart In 1955 Gibson moved again to MGM, where he recorded his first true smash and a bona fide country music classic: "Sweet Dreams." Yet it wasn't until he returned to RCA in 1957 that Gibson made of himself a living legend in recording arguably the greatest two-sided single ever issued in the history of the genre: "Oh, Lonesome Me" b/w "I Can't Stop Loving You," which sold not only for him, but was redefined by Ray Charles on his legendary Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album. The late MGM period and his reunion with RCA is exhaustively documented here with alternate and unissued takes as well as unreleased tracks. Gibson was fortunate enough to be a big enough star when players like Floyd Cramer, Atkins, Rusty Kershaw, Buddy Harman, and Bob Moore were redefining the Nashville studio sound. The gospel tracks here -- from the albums No One Stands Alone and That Gibson Boy, as well as Sweet Dreams, which he re-recorded three more times before the end of 1960 -- were all so far above the bar artistically that it was difficult for critics to define Gibson, hence his crossover into the pop world where he influenced a young Gram Parsons among many others. In all there are 122 tracks on this four-CD set, and a fine booklet that offers exhaustive and accurate track information and a fine biographical essay. The sound is fine and the packaging, like all of German Bear Family's boxes, is exquisite. But it's in the music that the truth of Gibson's legend is borne out and on CDs two and three are where the songwriter finally eclipses the singer, though the singer remains a force of nature capable of interpreting any song in a personal and original way; just check out Gibson's read of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On." This is essential for serious fans of the legendary music and for any Gibson collector because of its wealth of previously uncollected material. Volume two focuses on the years 1961 to 1968 and contains more gems, but this is the defining one.