George Jones has enough hard-core fans to make any collection that dares bill itself as "essential" a topic of heated debate among the cognoscenti. That said, this double-CD, 40-cut retrospective does an outstanding job of charting the career arc that made Jones the most influential country vocalist of his time -- and, by some estimates, of all time. Essential
tells the story of a career shaped wholly by two producers: namely, Harold "Pappy" Daily, who signed Jones to his Texas-based Starday label in 1954, and Billy Sherrill
, who brought Jones to Epic in 1970 and made him a legend. The only cut here not produced by one or the other of them is the final one, 1999's "Choices," a brutal bit of autobiographical lamentation produced by Keith Stegall for Jones's powerful Cold Hard Truth
album. Working with Daily through the '60s, Jones stayed true to a honky-tonk ethos but evolved from emulating Hank Williams (1954's "No Money in This Deal" is so Hank it's scary) to copping some Carl Perkins phrasing (1956's "Just One More") to establishing his own skewed, emotion-rich phrasing by the time of 1960's loping honky-tonk heartbreaker, "Out of Control." After Jones signed with Epic, Sherrill built on some of Daily's more extravagant touches (notably the pop-influenced background singers heard on cuts such as the No. 2 single from 1960, "The Window Up Above"), adding discreet strings to that formula and building up the instrumental tracks. The spectacular results occupy the last third of Disc 1 and all of Disc 2, including a couple of duets with Tammy Wynette, as well as monuments such as "The Grand Tour," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "The Battle," and 1982's "I Always Get Lucky with You," Jones's last No. 1 with Sherrill. Remastered and well annotated, this one's a for-sure keeper.