The 20 Best Country Live Albums of All Time, Part II

  

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 Recorded in 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, it’s a remarkable historical document and an encouraging affirmation of the ability of great music to cross boundaries and bring people together.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?

Comments

  1. says

    Interesting list. I don’t all of these albums. I’m glad to see Snider and the Cash album make it, though I figured they would. I would have put Folsom Prison at the top, but I haven’t heard the Jennings album. Since you recommend it so highly, I must/will check it out. My top five would be:

    1. Johnny Cash, Folsom Prision
    2. Emmylou Harris, Live at the Ryman
    3. Todd Snider, Near Truths…
    4. Kris Kristofferson, Broken Freedom Song
    5. Reckless Kelly, Live at Stubbs

  2. Nicole says

    Your favorite is mine too. That’s a win. I’m never going to get into Garth Brooks no matter what anyone says though; it’s a lost cause.

  3. Andrew Leprich says

    To be honest, I’ve never thought much of live albums, but then again the only one I’ve ever heard is Garth Brooks’ Double Live, so I guess that opinion isn’t exactly well-informed. Judging by your descriptions, I’m guessing they offer an entirely different experience that studio albums can’t hope to replicate. I’m planning on picking several of these up in time. Thanks for the great article.

  4. Rick says

    Love Cash’s prison albums and have the Alison Krauss album, but can’t say I have any interest in the others. I will comment that Texas and Oklahoma are well represented. The whole Waylon and Willie inspired “outlaw” country music scene was just not something I ever connected to. I like some of Waylon’s songs just fine, but never enough to consider an album of his songs live or otherwise.

  5. Paul W Dennis says

    I have most of the albums in your top 20 although Reckless Kelly and Todd Snider have never impressed me at all. My top 20 would be as follows

    1 Waylon – Live Expanded
    2. Ernest Tubb Live At The Spanish Castle
    3. Buck Owens Live In London (a sentimental favorite – I was in the audience)
    4. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison / San Quenton
    5. Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall
    6. Willie Nelson Live at Panther Hall
    7. Merle Haggard Live at Billy Bob’s
    8. An Evening With John Denver
    9. Roy Clark Live (the “Great Pretender Medley” alone is worth the price of the album)
    10. Buck Owens at Carnegfie Hall
    11. Sonny James – Live at Tennessee State Prison (this album would be in my top five were it not for the very short playing time of the album
    12. Garth Brooks – Double Live
    13. Dixie Chicks – Top of The World Tour
    14. Lester Flatt – Live Bluegrass Festival (with Bill Monroe)
    15. Ricky Skaggs – Live In London
    16. John Conlee – Live at Billy Bob’s
    17. Hank Williams Jr – Live at Cobo Hall (docked several spots due to short playing time)
    18. Homer & Jethro – Live at The Country Club
    19.The Stoneman Family – Big Ball in Monteray
    20. Emmylou Harris – Live at the Ryman

  6. says

    I totally forgot about the John Denver live set. I love that album. It’s probably the album that was most played at my house growing up. My mom wasn’t much into music. With a zillion kids, music was more like needless noise to her. But she’d never complain when we played that album. It was universally enjoyed in the family. I’d have to put that in my top five to bump the Recklessess down to six.

    Paule,
    Have you tried the Reckless Kelly album in question? I’m not saying that you’d like it, but it’s pretty different than their rock type music. It’s acoustic.

    Their version of “You Shook Me All Night Long” is much more bearable than Big & Rich’s.:)

  7. Michael A. says

    A great list overall, C.M.

    Emmylou Harris’ Live at the Ryman should have been the first one I thought of. Good call, Leeann.

    • says

      CM,
      I really think you’d like it. It’s what got me into Emmylou. Before that, I just figured she’d be a taste I wouldn’t ever acquire. It’s essentially an album of covers done in a stripped down, string band-like form.

      • says

        I’m pretty into all of her ’70s stuff, but have never been sure how much of her work after that would interest me, so I guess that’s how I missed this one until now.

        Glad you mentioned it.

  8. Paul W Dennis says

    You’ll note that my list basically is solid country,without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing.

    There are actually many more good live albums than you would think. Buck Owens issued about five live albums – I’ve really always loved the BIG IN VEGAS album. The Hag has issued a bunch of them – RAINBOW STEW/LIVE IN ANAHEIM is excellent but too short, and the second Billy Bob’s album is also great.

    Johnny Cash’s JOHNNY CASH SHOW album was live from his TV show,and I guess you could call Cash’s THE HOLY LAND a live album . JOHNNY CASH AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN (not released until the CD era) captures Johnny at his early 1970s peak

    The sound quality is not quite up to snuff but the Patsy Cline album LIVE AT THE CIMARRON BALLROOM is very worthwhile. Ditto for JIM REEVES ON STAGE, issued by RCA in 1968, and it reveals that Jim could do vocal impressions quite well,plus ditto let the weather bother him (it was an outdoor performance and it started raining at some point

  9. Mike K says

    I received the Waylon expanded double CD set as a gift and it is not only my favorite live album, but also probably my favorite Waylon album.

    I love the Todd Snider and John Prine picks as well. I think you picked the best Prine live album, but “Live on Tour” and his most recent “In Person & On Stage” are very good as well.

    One more that did not get a mention is David Allan Coe’s Live at Billy Bob’s. It is another excellent live album, however you have to like DAC.

  10. Fred says

    Ok, nice. So what about Chris LeDoux ‘Live’? If it wasn’t for him there wouldn’t have been any Garth Brooks. I’ve just been the Cheyenne Frontier Days and the mainstream musical influence of Chris is so underrated.
    Check it out, it leaves Garth looking like a wannabe.

  11. Andrew Leprich says

    I have to say, in the past eighteen months or so since this article was published, I’ve purchased over a dozen of these albums and now own sixteen of the twenty-one albums featured (still missing the Reckless Kelly, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and -how did this happen?- Johnny Cash albums). I can’t say I’m disappointed with any of the selections. Great write-ups.

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