Whether you agree or not, you have to live with the consensus opinion that George Jones is the greatest country singer alive today.

Everyone says it.And besides, it's probably true.

Jones whines, slurs notes and words, displays incredible range and showcases his pain - all those things that people who love to hate country music hate about him. But for pure "white soul" music, nobody's ever done it better than the Possum.

His vocal cords are made of elastic, surgical tubing.

"The Essential George Jones" is a retrospective. And like all retrospectives, it is very valuable and also very inadequate. The problem is that collections like this tend to follow the big hits and neglect some of the sterling vocal work that never made the charts (all songs here made the Top 10). Still, we get a heady dose of the duets and solo shots that were actually unheralded in their time, but now look like classics.

All the biggies put in an appearance: "A Picture of Me," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "She's My Rock" (The double CD set features 44 cuts). But the fun comes in the smaller wonders. "Maybelline" (with Johnny Paycheck), "Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You)" - a song about an old boy drinking whiskey from a Fred Flintstone water glass - and several fine duets with Tammy Wynette from the days of their turbulent marriage.

Most Jones fans have already heard all these songs in the versions here. In fact, most fans will have these versions. But getting them together in a new format and new order will save some CD scanning. And it's fun listening to the singer's voice mature, hear his confidence peak and wonder as his sense of injustice and hurt grow deeper through the years.

George Jones has courted the devil in his life - from demon rum, to violence to broken hearts. And "The Essential George Jones" shows he's battled his way to a draw.

Possum fans will also enjoy the booklet that comes with the set. It not only includes dates of recordings and how high each song charted, but there's a running text that fills in the details of the writing and singing.

Every song tells a story.

"The Essential George Jones" tells the story behind every song.