The bottom half of the countdown included some Texas, some Bakersfield, some folk, some bluegrass, and even a little mainstream. The top half strikes a similar balance with an entirely different set of artists. Read on for the 10 Best Country Live Albums of All Time, as decided on by the panel of experts inside my head.
Oh, and don’t forget to weigh in with your own favorites in the comments!
10. In Person – Charley Pride
When it comes to audience-performer connection, this one ranks right up there with Cash’s prison recordings. Pride sounds damn happy to be at Fort Worth’s Panther Hall to sing for the folks, and the Texans sound damn happy to have him. Recorded in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, it’s a remarkable historical document and an encouraging affirmation of the ability of great music to cross boundaries and bring people together. Charley Pride has never sounded more alive on record.
9. Live at the Philharmonic – Kris Kristofferson
One of the great ‘lost’ live recordings, Kristofferson’s December 1972 show at New York’s Philharmonic Hall wasn’t released until 1992. Kristofferson was at the peak of his powers, most of his classic songs already under his belt but not yet on the downside of his commercial career (“Why Me” was just getting ready to hit). The singer-songwriter also brought along a few friends, including Larry Gatlin, future wife Rita Coolidge, and a young unknown named Willie Nelson who would be taking the nation by storm in short order.
8. Double Live – Garth Brooks
Listen, I get it. Really, I do. Garth Brooks was so ubiquitous for so long, and is still so heavily played in recurrents, that you would probably be just fine never hearing “The Dance” again. But imagine coming to this album for the first time if that hadn’t been the case: Double Live captures a supreme showman in all his kinetic glory, but it also captures the essence of mainstream country music during the ’90s. You can’t understand any of it without understanding the guy who towered over all of it. This is a Garthmania time capsule.
7. Live at the Old Quarter – Townes Van Zandt
Seminal live recording by seminal Texas songwriter. It demands your full attention, but even if you give it, you won’t be able to grasp everything in one sitting. Townes was on a whole other plane.
6. Alison Krauss and Union Station Live – Alison Krauss and Union Station
All Music’s Rick Anderson writes: “The simple fact is that every time Krauss opens her mouth to sing, angels stop what they’re doing and take notes. There may be no musical pleasure quite as pure and sweet as listening to Krauss sing ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You’ or ‘When You Say Nothing at All.’ And when she starts in on the impossibly beautiful gospel tune ‘Down to the River to Pray,’ the effect is almost disturbingly moving.” Yep. The musicianship is about as good as it gets, too.
5. Keepers – Guy Clark
No people-launching cannons or pyrotechnics here. Guy Clark just chats and sings, which is all that’s needed when your songs include “L.A. Freeway,” “Texas 1947,” “Homegrown Tomatoes,” and “That Old Time Feeling.” It doesn’t hurt to have Verlon Thompson, Darrell Scott, and Kenny Malone backing you up, either.
4. VH1 Storytellers – Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson
Once-in-a-lifetime guitar pull between Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, featuring great acoustic versions of, well, everything these guys touch: “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky,” “Worried Man,” “Family Bible,” “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Flesh And Blood,” “Crazy,” “Unchained,” “Night Life,” “Drive On,” “Me And Paul,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Always On My Mind,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “On The Road Again.” Yes, I listed every single track. With all the interplay between the two legends, there’s also more of each performer’s personality and sense of humor here than you’ll find just about anywhere else in his discography.
3. Near Truths and Hotel Rooms Live – Todd Snider
Anyone who’s been following me for any length of time shouldn’t be surprised to see this rank high on my list. Todd Snider is one of the absolute best songwriters working today in country, folk, or any other genre, and this live album is everything I like about him distilled into 75 minutes of storytelling and song. But as good as it is, it’s not significantly better than the average Todd Snider concert. See him live if you ever get the chance.
2. At Folsom Prison / At San Quentin – Johnny Cash
So much has been said and written about these two albums that I don’t feel the need to get too verbose here. Just know that if you somehow haven’t heard them yet, you’re not allowed to die until you do.
1. Waylon Live: Expanded Edition – Waylon Jennings
Cash gets the attention, but Waylon Jennings is the man with the best live album in country music. Already a classic in its original 1976 edition, Waylon Live has only improved with time: a 1999 reissue expanded it to the originally-planned double LP (single CD) length of 20 tracks. Four short years later, Waylon Live: The Expanded Edition more than doubled that track count to 42, spread out over two discs. Why so much attention to updating this particular live album? Because it’s Waylon and his band at their absolute best, possibly even surpassing Honky Tonk Heroes and Dreaming My Dreams (much less Wanted!) as the definitive outlaw recording. It just doesn’t get any better than this, and I think I’d be afraid if it did.
Well, there you have it: The 20 Best Country Live Albums of All Time. What do you think?