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10 Essential Country Live Albums

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In honour of Charley Crockett’s excellent new album, Live From The Ryman, I’ve compiled a list of other live albums that every country music fan should own. Although many of these artists faithfully reproduced their studio recordings on stage, the real charm of these recordings is often their interactions with the audience. It’s here that their true personalities come out, and demonstrate the unique bond between artists and their fans. So, let’s drop the needle and go double live gonzo!

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison / At San Quentin
It’s hard to separate these two albums, seeing as they were released a year apart and capture Cash in a similar electric atmosphere. These were the records that brought The Man In Black back from the brink and made him an international celebrity. No stranger to performing in prisons, the real magic in both At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin lay in how easily Cash interacts with the prisoners. The mix of old favourites, humour (“A Boy Named Sue”), hope, and just the right amount of rebellion combined to create a listening experience unlike anything before or since.

Merle Haggard – Okie From Muskogee
Released on the heels of Cash’s albums in late 1969, Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee capitalized on the title track’s popularity as a single by capturing it front of an actual Muskogee, Oklahoma audience. It also symbolized Haggard’s return to the state his parents escaped during the Great Depression, adding extra weight to the performances. Despite Haggard and the Strangers racing through some of the hits, the response on record remains overwhelming.

Willie Nelson – Country Music Concert
Recorded in 1966 in the friendly confines of Fort Worth, TX’s Panther Hall, Country Music Concert found Nelson at a transitional point in his career, accompanied only by Johnny Bush on drums and Wade Ray on bass. All of his songs made famous by others up to that point are included, along with an interesting cover of the Beatles’ still-new “Yesterday.” While Nelson’s later live albums, such as 1978’s Willie & Family Live, displayed he and his road-hardened band in all their glory, Country Music Concert is an intimate moment that would never be reproduced again.

Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – Carnegie Hall Concert
Also recorded in 1966, Carnegie Hall Concert marked the height of Owens’ popularity. Somehow managing to cram over 20 songs onto the original 25-minute LP (thankfully the CD resissue is twice as long), Owens and his on-stage foil, singer/guitarist Don Rich, blaze through “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail,” “Together Again,” and many others, while adding some of the folksy humour Owens would later become known for as Hee-Haw‘s co-host. However, the highlight is a run-through of “Twist & Shout,” repaying the Beatles for covering “Act Natually.”

Jerry Lee Lewis – The Greatest Live Show On Earth
Most Lewis fans consider 1964’s Live From The Star Club, Hamburg as his definitive live recording, and rightly so. But after returning to the U.S., Lewis wanted to make another live recording in front of an audience he could better relate to, ultimately choosing to document two show in Alabama. Clearly feeling more at home, yet no less fiery, Lewis mixed in a few more country numbers to his standard rock and roll set, including Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be.” The end result was the first step in the Killer’s eventual return as a country music hitmaker.

Waylon Jennings – Waylon Live
Unlike some of his peers, Jennings didn’t hit his commercial stride until his mid-1970s makeover as an “outlaw.” Following a string of hit studio albums came Waylon Live in 1976, drawn from several Texas dates over the previous two years. By this point, Jennings had solidfied his signature sound with the Waylors, allowing his supple voice to work its magic on “Rainy Day Woman,” “This Time,” and a suprisingly potent cover of “House Of The Rising Sun.” And as with many of these albums, the expanded CD reissue is recommended.

Patsy Cline – Live At The Cimarron Ballroom
For fans of Patsy Cline, any recordings she made during her all-too-brief life are to be cherished, so it was a major discovery when a full concert taped in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the summer of 1961 surfaced in 1997. Along with stellar performances of “I Fall To Pieces,” “Walking After Midnight” and other hits, she indulges in a little rock ‘n roll with “Shake, Rattle & Roll,” along with a couple standards never laid down in the studio. Most poignant is Cline’s between-song banter, in which she shares news of her life, including a recent, near-fatal car accident. Of course, a plane crash would take her life less than two years later, adding more significance to Live At The Cimarron Ballroom.

Emmylou Harris – At The Ryman
It’s easy to forget that when Harris decided to record a live album at the Ryman Auditorium at the turn of the 1990s, the venerable Nashville institution was on the verge of being condemned. Yet, Harris’s commitment to her vision helped spark a movement to revitalize the building, with the project fully completed 20 years later. On At The Ryman, Harris and her accompanying cast of virtuosos turn back the clock to when only acoustic instruments were allowed on the hallowed stage, mixing songs by Bill Monroe and Boudleaux Bryant with more contemporary material by Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen.

Alison Krauss & Union Station – Live
Released as a double CD in 2002, Krauss and company’s first official live recording served the time honoured purpose of most live albums by offering the easiest entry point to an artist’s back catalogue. However, in Krauss’s case, the crowd’s feedback pushed her and her band to new heights, leading them to put on a clinic in modern bluegrass. Live also built on Krauss’s growing mainstream popularity through her involvement with the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, as evidenced by the audience’s response to “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Down To The River To Pray.”

Steve Earle & The Dukes – Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator
This one has more personal meaning to me since it was partly recorded at a show in my hometown, Kitchener, ON, where Earle surprisingly played often. Still riding high on the breakthrough success of Copperhead Road, Earle and the Dukes ran through a tough set of his best known material, which, in 1991, pretty much defined what “country rock” was all about. Yet, those with inside knowledge could see Earle was reaching the depths of his drug abuse, and it seemed like no coincidence that the album ended with his version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” He would disappear soon after, thankfully re-emerging sober several years later.

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