March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

Various Artists

Long a major presence in country music, Mercury Records has turned out some pretty terrific discs—especially during the 1960s—most of which are probably unknown to the genre’s new glut of ’90s fans.

This three-CD boxed set is a reminder of the company’s rich musical past and also, unfortunately, of its often soulless present. Only a compilation spanning 50 years could open with the spare, playful sounds of Sheriff Tom Owen and His Cowboys doing “A New Ten Gallon Hat” (the label’s first country session in 1945) and close with a song like last year’s slick, overproduced “Any Man of Mine” by Shania Twain. The rewards in between are many, including Leroy Van Dyke’s rousing twanger “Walk On By” (1961), Roy Drusky and Priscilla Mitchell’s duet “Yes, Mr. Peters” (1965)—a cheatin’ song that’s begging to be revived—and a 16-year-old Dolly Parton trilling “The Love You Gave,” a pop tune that could have come straight from the Brill Building.

But beware of Billy Ray Cyrus’s clay-footed “Achy Breaky Heart,” which lurks amidst the many treasures found here. (Mercury)”

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