No other period of George Jones' long, legendary career is as murky and mysterious as his stint at Musicor, his home from 1965 through 1971. He left United Artists for Musicor after "The Race Is On" topped the charts in 1964, once again following his producer, mentor, and manager, Pappy Daily, to new, seemingly greener pastures that just happened to be financially advantageous to Pappy. George was UA's flagship country artist, but Musicor had only one other hit-maker on its roster and that was Gene Pitney, the operatic pop singer who flirted with country music in 1965, the year George joined Musicor, and a year after the British Invasion stole much of Pitney's pop audience. George and Gene cut two albums' worth of duets which brought them both a bit of crossover, but Pitney's star continued to fade in the late '60s as Jones' burned bright, so Daily did what any huckster would: he ran his lone star into the ground, having him record almost 300 sides in just over six years, flooding the market with singles and LPs, churning out records -- on Musicor as well as RCA and its budget-line Camden offshoot -- well after George severed ties with Musicor and Pappy by buying out his contract in 1971.
In a fitting irony, this profligate parade of product found its counterpart in an utter dearth of CD reissues of Musicor material. A handful of cuts showed up on Rhino's 1991 The Best of George Jones
, the Pitney duets were collected on a generous 1994 CD by Bear Family, the same years some cuts appeared on a two-disc retrospective from Epic called The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country
, but the bulk of the Musicor recordings remained unavailable due to various legal reasons until 2009, when Bear Family released all of them in two big box sets. Walk Through This World with Me is the first volume, covering the first two-and-a-half years of Jones' time at Musicor, a quarter of a decade that produced several huge hits, many forgotten gems, and a bunch of standard-issue Texas honky tonk elevated by the natural grace of George and the grit of his Jones Boys. In a move that seems a test to prove whether the old adage of whether a great singer could sing the phone book is true, Daily would have Jones sing almost any old song, provided that he owned the copyright. He had a stable of regular writers, most quite talented, working overtime to turn out material, and when that failed, he dug up public domain gospel numbers he could arrange, then filled out sessions with current hits and re-recordings. Since Pappy did have Leon Payne
, Dallas Frazier
, and Peanuts Montgomery
on his short list, he gave George lots of good, sometimes great, songs to record, and unlike Col. Tom Parker
, he wasn't loathe to have George cut a tune if his company couldn't get the publishing. That said, there are times during this box where it seems as if Daily was almost testing the old adage of whether a great singer could sing the phone book and sound good. Of course, that's giving Pappy a bit too much credit -- he wasn't there for art, he was there for commerce, picking songs and pushing Jones to break Musician's Union rules (according to George, they once recorded a full album in three hours, way beyond the union's three-song limit), but letting the singer conduct the band and set the arrangements, something that's made clear by the session tapes that conclude this five-disc box. This hands-off approach might explain why the first half of the Musicor years doesn't depart greatly from the sound of George's UA recordings; there are a few cuts that show a heavy Roger Miller
influence, and a few that bear traces of the Bakersfield twang of Buck Owens
, along with some Merle Haggard
, but by and large, this is hardcore country with an emphasis on sweet, mournful ballads, and when it comes to this sound, nobody does it better than George Jones.
Certainly, there are varying degrees of inspiration in addition to song quality, but even when George and the Jones Boys are on autopilot, this music is enjoyable, the sound of a working band working at near peak. True, it takes a dedicated listener to sort out the wheat from the chaff, to pick out gems whether they're forgotten singles like "Small Time Laboring Man" or excellent readings of the gospel standard "Unclouded Day" or Lefty Frizzell
's "Run 'Em Off," or even to find the hits "Things Have Gone to Pieces" or "Walk Through This World with Me
," but the hunt is a large part of why this set is fun. This may not be the biggest or best music George Jones ever made, but in a curious way, it's the greatest testament to his talent because it truly takes a great singer to keep songs this inconsistent interesting.