As the year draws to a close, it’s only natural to look back — and not just over the last 12 months. Here are 10 compilations that offer some of CMT.com’s favorite country music from the last 50 years. From George Jones to Tim McGraw, we recommend any of these collections, all released in 2006, to the enthusiastic music fan on your Christmas list.
Waylon Jennings, Nashville Rebel (Legacy Recordings)
This four-disc set spans from 1958 to 1995, but it really cooks when the ’70s roll around: “The Taker,” “This Time,” “Amanda” and, of course, those three classic duets with Willie Nelson. Along with the revealing liner notes and hundreds of photos, this deep-catalog collection gives the most thorough look yet at the Outlaw’s brilliant career.
George Jones, The Essential George Jones (Legacy Recordings)
With Jones’ overwhelming output, presenting his musical legacy on just two discs is tough, but this one gives it a shot — from “Why Baby Why” (1955) to “Choices” (1999). Several songs here rarely make a “best of” disc, but the set hits the highlights as well: “Tender Years,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Door” and the magnificent “The Grand Tour.”
k.d. lang, Reintarnation (Rhino)
Blessed with a big voice (and big bones, to borrow a song title), lang’s outrageous appearance in the early ’80s met with confusion, resistance and healthy record sales. With 20 tracks culled from her country years, the ambition consistently heard in her delivery rings true. Check out the eye-popping photos and colorful commentary, too.
Tim McGraw, Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 (Curb)
This collection offers two collaborations never before found on a McGraw album: “Like We Never Loved at All” (with Faith Hill) and “Over and Over” (featuring Nelly). The No. 1 solo hits include “Not a Moment Too Soon,” “Everywhere,” “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” “The Cowboy in Me” and the Grammy-winning modern classic, “Live Like You Were Dying.”
Ronnie Milsap, The Essential Ronnie Milsap (RCA)
One of the finest vocalists that Nashville has ever known, Milsap charted a No. 1 hit every year from 1974 to 1989. You just can’t beat the original versions of “Pure Love,” “It Was Almost Like a Song” or “Smoky Mountain Rain.” Still an exceptional singer, Milsap will join George Strait’s concert tour in early 2007.
Nickel Creek, Reasons Why (The Very Best) (Sugar Hill)
This adventurous acoustic trio largely found its initial audience through music videos — and all seven of the clips are included in this retrospective, released before the youthful band takes a hiatus at the end of next year. Live versions of “You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain” and “The Fox,” recorded in 2000, round out the 14-track CD.
Buck Owens, 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection (Rhino)
The biggest country star of the 1960s and a very savvy businessman, Buck Owens always resisted putting all of his classics on one disc. Following his death in March, Rhino Records collected every No. 1 hit, from 1963’s “Act Naturally” to 1988’s “Streets of Bakersfield.” “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Tiger by the Tail” remain irresistible.
Kenny Rogers, 21 Number Ones (Capitol Nashville)
“The Gambler” is recognized worldwide, but there are so many other treasures here: “Lucille” (so upbeat and yet so sad), “She Believes in Me,” the Grammy-winning “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County” and “Lady.” Even as a guilty pleasure, there is no denying “Through the Years” or the karaoke standby, “Islands in the Stream.”
Phil Vassar, Greatest Hits: Volume 1 (Arista Nashville)
Before breaking as a country star himself, this piano-playing songwriter amassed several No. 1’s by other artists. Here, Vassar unites his own hits (“Just Another Day in Paradise,” “In a Real Love”) with his own renditions of his biggest writing credits (“Bye Bye,” “My Next Thirty Years”). Plus a new single, “Last Day of My Life,” kept the hit streak going.
Hank Williams Jr., That’s How They Do It in Dixie (Curb)
A career-defining hit if there ever was one, “Family Tradition” is still sung by every aspiring honky-tonker. (Everybody now: “To get drunk!”) This cream-of-the-crop collection also boasts intoxicating favorites like “Born to Boogie,” “A Country Boy Can Survive” and the CMA Award-winning duet with Hank Sr., “There’s a Tear in My Beer.”
Here are some country music reissues that we also enjoyed in 2006:
Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (Legacy Recordings)
Initially edited as a single disc in 1969, this package now boasts Cash’s full concert from the California prison, including 13 previously unissued performances, never-before-seen photos and a DVD featuring a 1969 British documentary. Guests included Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, the Carter Family (with Mother Maybelle) and June Carter Cash.
Johnny Cash, Personal File (Legacy Recordings)
This two-CD set collects 49 previously unreleased tracks that had been stored on tapes marked “Personal File” at Cash’s office and recording studio near Nashville. With sessions dating back to 1973, the song selection reflects Cash’s far-ranging interest in all kinds of music, including poems, old Carter Family songs, 19th century ballads, Irish songs and covers of songs popularized by Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Horton, the Louvin Brothers and others. Listening to the discs, it’s like sitting in Cash’s den with him and listening to him reminisce about memories of people he had known, places he had been and songs he has loved.
Merle Haggard, Strangers/Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive/Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home/The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, Mama Tried/Pride in What I Am, Hag/Someday We’ll Look Back (Capitol)
Ten early albums for Capitol Records have been condensed into five CDs — leaving room for a few unreleased tracks and alternate takes, of course. Spanning from 1965 to 1971, when he established himself on the charts as a working man’s poet, the discs are digitally remastered from original studio tapes, and the vintage album covers are intact.
Willie Nelson, The Complete Atlantic Sessions (Rhino)
Already in his 40s and without hassles from Nashville, Willie Nelson indulged in two concept albums: Shotgun Willie (1973) and Phases and Stages (1974) — just before finding fame with “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (and a different label). Those two seminal albums are packaged with a bushel of bonus tracks and a full-length concert disc from the Texas Opry House.
Gram Parsons, The Complete Reprise Sessions (Rhino)
A patron saint of California-style country, Parsons found his footing as a solo artist on GP (1973) and Grievous Angel (1974). His 1973 death elevated his iconic status among the cool kids, but the sweet sounds herein keep his legacy relevant. A third disc offers rare session outtakes. Emmylou Harris famously contributes harmonies.
Dolly Parton, The Acoustic Collection 1999-2002 (Sugar Hill)
With no luck rejuvenating her career on the country charts, Dolly Parton accepted an offer to make a bluegrass album for Sugar Hill Records in 1999 — resulting in two Grammys and some of the most glowing reviews of her career. This set brings together three acoustic albums for the label, plus a bonus DVD of remixes, videos and tribute songs.
Elvis Presley, Elvis #1 Singles (RCA)
The legend of Elvis now transcends his music, although his songs remain a huge part of his appeal. This ambitious and nostalgic set from RCA revives 20 top singles (from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Burning Love”) and packages them as individual CDs, complete with the original B-sides and album artwork. Clutch tightly to your chest and swoon.
Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Legends of Country Music (Legacy Recordings)
At last, we have a fitting tribute to the king of Western swing, the late Bob Wills. This four-CD box set packs 105 songs and photos and memorabilia from throughout his long career. It opens in 1932 with two recordings by the Fort Worth Doughboys, with Wills on fiddle and Milton Brown singing lead. Wills formed the Texas Playboys in 1935 with Tommy Duncan as lead singer, and that lineup forms the bulk of this set. A 1969 stroke left him unable to perform, but he was able to attend a 1973 Playboys alumni recording session in Dallas. Three Cindy Walker songs recorded at that last session close this collection. Wills died two years later.
Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (Rhino)
Twenty years ago, Dwight Yoakam turned heads in Hollywood — and eventually worldwide — with his twangy, yet edgy, approach to traditional country music. This deluxe edition brings together the intriguing demos that secured his record deal, his groundbreaking debut album and an energizing 1986 concert from the Roxy.
CMT editorial director Chet Flippo contributed to this story.