All readers of this website are fans of recorded music. I would assume that most also enjoy seeing and hearing music performed live. After all, there is electricity which permeates a live performance, the interaction of performer and audience coupled with the ambiance of the venue. Tempos are usually faster, there is banter between the performer and the band and/or audience, and often songs are performed that never are recorded by the artist.
That said, it can be very difficult to capture that electricity and the landscape is littered with poor live recordings, victims of either poor recording technology, poor venue acoustics or sub-par backing bands (I had a cassette copy – probably a bootleg – of a live Chuck Berry performance in France where he was backed by what was essentially a polka band, complete with tuba and accordion). Below is my listing of the greatest live country albums. My list is solid country, without too many fellow travelers such as Americana or alt-country artists. I may admire John Prine and Townes Van Zandt as songwriters but I cannot stand to listen to either of them sing. The less said about the Eagles and Gram Parsons, the better. In putting my list together, I’ve limited any given artist to one album, although I may comment on other live albums issued by the artist.
Yes, I know that bluegrass and western swing are underrepresented in my list as are modern era artists, although if I expanded to a top forty list, I’d have albums by Alabama, Tracy Lawrence, Tom T. Hall, Brad Paisley, The Osborne Brothers, Glen Campbell, Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Rhonda Vincent and Hank Williams to include. Moreover, over time there have been improvements in recording technology and the sound of live recordings has improved, so sonically, some of the albums I’ve left off will sound better than some I’ve included.
25. Patsy Cline Live at the Cimarron Ballroom
Patsy Cline only made 108 studio recordings during her short lifetime so the emergence of a decent quality live recording is indeed cause for celebration. The sound quality is uneven on this 1961 recording made at the Cimarron Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but the backing of ace steel guitar player Leon McAuliffe’s western swing band lends a more solidly country feel than did many of her commercial recordings, and finds her covering a few pop hits that she did not record commercially. This album was released on CD in 1997.
24. Jim Reeves – Live On Stage
World-wide, Jim Reeves may be the most popular country singer of all time. Although he died in a plane crash on July 31, 1964, he continued to have chart hits on the American country charts until 1984. As impressive as that seems, it is completely over shadowed by his international success – his album The Very Best of Jim Reeves reached #7 on the British pop charts in 2009!
This album was recorded during the early 1960s during a downpour which is somewhat audible on the album. Jim and his band run through a number of his hits and Jim shows his prowess as a vocal impressionist with his take on Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash and others during a short routine. RCA released this album in 1968 but has yet to release it on CD.
23. Glen Sherley
Glen Sherley (1936 − 1978) was an inmate at Folsom Prison when Johnny Cash’s live Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison was recorded, Glen, of course having penned “Greystone Chapel” which Cash performed on the album. Glen issued one album in his lifetime, a live album titled simply Glen Sherley , recorded in 1971 at the California State Prison at Solano near Vacaville. Glen is not a great singer, but there is something about this album that hard to put into words. Glen penned “Portrait of A Woman” which was a hit for Eddy Arnold and is performed on this album along with “Greystone Chapel” and his personal tribute to Johnny Cash, “Measure of A Man”. The band for this album was comprised of some of Nashville’s leading session players, including the great Lloyd Green on steel guitar.
22. Shoji Tabuchi Live At The Grapevine Opry
Shoji Tabuchi has never had a deal with a major label, and has never had a hit record, yet he remains one of the most popular live attractions in country music, selling out his theatre in Branson twice daily for 200+ dates each year. This album, featuring the Grapevine Opry house band, catches Tabuchi playing fiddle, singing and clowning around before an enthusiastic audience. Shoji’s abilities with the English language have improved considerably since this late 1970s album but he retains the charm and enthusiasm he had back then.
21. Alison Krauss and Union Station Live
I’ve never had the opportunity to see AKUS live and most of their albums are bogged down by too many down tempo songs, but they’ve long had the reputation of being better in person than on record, and if this live double CD is any indication, then I’d say the reputation as great live performers is well-deserved. The only criticism I have of this album is that the crowd noise between songs is mixed a little too high, but the performances are warm, spirited and virtuoso. Dan Tyminski takes four solo vocals and Ron Block has one, but most of the vocals featuring Alison’s shimmering voice is a truly appreciative setting.
20. Flatt and Scruggs At Carnegie Hall
This album was recorded in 1962 and released on vinyl in 1963, capturing the dynamic duo at the peak of their powers. The original vinyl album was excellent but the 1998 CD release added much additional music, and with it a broad sample of the magic spell that Flatt & Scruggs cast over audiences wherever they appeared, be it through hot instrumentals, superb vocals or Lester Flatt’s low-key humor.
Flatt and Scruggs issued another fine live album titled Live at Vanderbilt University that is worth the effort to find, as is the Lester Flatt Live Bluegrass Festival which features an appearance by Bill Monroe.
19. Emmylou Harris – Live at the Ryman
I think Emmylou Harris is the best female harmony vocalist the genre has ever seen, although I’m not terribly impressed with her as a lead vocalist. This album, recorded in 1991 at the Ryman Auditorium, catches Emmylou at her apogee, with the Nash Ramblers, an acoustic band that does not force Emmylou to strain to be heard, as accompaniment. This combination results in perhaps her finest vocal performances on record. The repertoire ranges from The music goes from up-tempo modern country like Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town”, to a lovely take on “Cattle Call”, a mid 1950s hit for Eddy Arnold.
Emmylou issued a live album in 1982 titled Last Date but she sounds uncomfortable as she shouts over her band, which featured the usual electric array of instruments. For Emmylou, quieter is better.
18.The Stoneman Family – Big Ball in Monterey
The Stoneman Family is somewhat of an acquired taste, and their 1964 album shows just what a frenetic and hyper-kinetic band Pop Stoneman raised. By 1964 Pop was already 71 years old and his involvement less than had been the case in earlier years. If bluegrass is “folk music in overdrive”, then the Stonemans are “bluegrass in overdrive”.
17. Homer & Jethro – Live at The Country Club
There have been lots of country comedians – Jerry Clower, Mike Snider, Ben Colder, Don Bowman, Cletus T. Judd, Pinkard & Bowden, etc. What differentiates Homer & Jethro from the rest of the country humorists (besides their incredible ability to ad-lib) is this: both Henry “Homer” Haynes and Kenneth “Jethro” Burns were superior musicians so when they hit a wrong note, it really was funny. Homer was a fine guitar picker, although not in Chet Atkins’ class, but Jethro was second to none in his abilities on the mandolin. While Homer & Jethro’s studio albums were very funny as they lampooned any and all musical targets, in their live albums the humor went up another level and became a little more risqué.
16. Hank Williams Jr. – Live At Cobo Hall
Before he fell off that mountain, and before all the redneck posturing, Hank Williams Jr. was en route to becoming an excellent mainstream county artist. This 1969 album catches Hank Jr. at a time when he was beginning to be his own man, and not merely a clone of his famous father. While the album has the obligatory Hank Sr. songs, it also features his own hit “Standing In The Shadows” and some covers of more recent material including Joe South’s “Games People Play”, Conway Twitty’s “Darling You Know I Wouldn’t Lie” and Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City”. Hank is in good voice and I would rank this album much higher except for its short playing time of only 26 minutes.
15. George Jones – Live At Dancetown USA
Released on CD in 1992 by British label Ace (a shorter version was released on vinyl in 1985), this recording of George Jones and his band, the Jones Boys, was recorded in June 1965 at Dancetown USA, a spot outside of Houston, Texas, that George often played. On this occasion, George’s band was augmented by Buddy Emmons on steel and Rufus Thibodeaux on fiddle, giving it a full sound. George at this point in his career had completed stints on the United Artists, Mercury and Starday labels and was already a veteran with 43 charted hits and at the peak of his vocal powers. Here you have it all – sixteen vocals by George (including “Bony Moronie”, a song George never recorded commercially), a Buddy Emmons solo on “Panhandle Rag” and nine tracks of vocals and instrumentals by the Jones Boys featuring vocals by Don Adams. Ace has preserved enough of the banter back and forth between George, his band and the audience to give you the feel of being there, without disrupting the flow of the concert.
Years later Epic released George Jones – First Time Live!, and it is worth having too, although the short playing length is annoying, but Live At Dancetown USA is the essential purchase for your George Jones collection
14. John Conlee – Live At Billy Bob’s
John Conlee was a successful artist whose peak period ran from 1978 until 1987, a period which saw Conlee score twenty-two top ten hits with sixteen of those reaching the top five. John Conlee has a very distinctive voice and the ability to select interesting, if sometimes bizarre, songs. Live At Billy Bob’s was recorded at the famed Billy Bob’s nightclub in Fort Worth, Texas. All the obvious hits are here as well as a few songs such as “Doghouse” that would have been huge hits if released earlier in John’s career. This album was released in 2000, at a time when John was badly underrepresented on CD.
13. Ricky Skaggs – Live In London
Recorded and released during the peak of Ricky’s country popularity, this live album captures the electricity of a mid-1980s Ricky Skaggs concert. Released in 1986 on cassette and vinyl (ten songs), and on CD (fourteen songs), the CD version containing slightly different sequencing than the cassette and vinyl versions. Ricky’s biggest single “Cajun Moon” was taken off his album as was the top ten hit “I’ve Got A New Heartache”, a cover of a song that was big hit for Ray Price in 1956. Strangely, immediately after this album, Ricky’s country chart plateau descended to a lower level. Interesting tidbit: Elvis Costello sits in on guitar, and duets with Ricky on “Don’t Get Above Your Raising”.
12. The Dixie Chicks – Top of the World Tour Live
Two disc set issued in November 2003, a representative sample of the material from their years as a major label act. Excellent set, although sonically, it could be better, and some versions of the songs are a bit too long. Enthusiastic crowds from various venues give one the feel of a live Dixie Chicks concert. Whereas I’ve downgraded some albums for short playing times, I’ve upgraded this one a bit as it really was an excellent value for the money, selling for the price of a single CD.
11. Garth Brooks – Double Live
Released in 1998, this live album has approximately the same strengths and weaknesses as the Dixie Chicks set above. This album is a bit noisy for my taste (essentially too many musicians playing at the same time), but if you like Garth Brooks, you’ll like this album.
10. Sonny James Live At The Tennessee State Prison
Sonny James had a long career as a country hit maker for Capitol Records during the period 1963-1971, basically owning the #1 slot as twenty-three consecutive records reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox country charts. After moving to Columbia Records in 1972, the hits began to try up, but instead of disappearing from view or re-recording his old hits, Sonny started cutting really interesting albums. This album, issued in 1977, was recorded at the Tennessee State Prison and featured an all-inmate band backing Sonny. The band, a nine piece group including some horn players, has a very hard driving, basically R&B groove to its playing (dare I describe any Sonny James recording as funky?) as it takes songs such as “In The Jailhouse Now”, “Abilene” and “Heartaches By The Number” at tempos previously unimagined.
I have docked this album heavily for the very short playing time (approximately twenty-two minutes). Were it a decent length, it would rank in my top three live albums. Sonny recorded another live album in 1969 on the Capitol label titled The Astrodome Presents In Person. Sonny performs a nice program of hits, standards and religious music, but the album is one to avoid as the echo in the Astrodome ruins the album.
9. Roy Clark Live
Roy Clark released a number of live albums over he years, but this one, released on Dot Records in 1972, is the one Roy Clark album. This album showcases Roy’s instrumental prowess and his innate sense of comedy – even when he’s not trying to be funny, Roy can be hilarious. The album is worth buying if only for the “Great Pretender medley” but there’s so much more to this album including his then-hit “The Lawrence Welk – Hee Haw Counter-Revolution Polka”, earlier hits such as “I Never Picked Cotton” and “Thank God and Greyhound” as well as some very flashy instrumentals plus his two biggest pop hits “Tips of My Fingers” and “Yesterday When I Was Young”. Parts of this album have been released on CD, but unfortunately, not the “Great Pretender medley”.
8. An Evening With John Denver
I’m not a big John Denver fan, and I don’t really regard him as a country music artist, but this is a magnificent album, filled with heartfelt songs, fine musicianship, excellent sound quality and so much more. I like the live versions of some of his hits better than I liked the studio versions, and for me that’s a rarity. This album was released on vinyl in 1975, and has been issued on CD. Songs such as “Country Roads”, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” and “Grandma’s Feather Bed” show that Denver could have been a mainstream country artist had he wanted to go in that direction
7. Merle Haggard – Live At Billy Bob’s
Recorded at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth Texas, this album is the best of a number of excellent live Merle Haggard albums. I give this 1999 set the nod because of its length – eighteen songs, including a new one in “Motorcycle Mama”. The crowd is obviously into Merle’s performance on this album, the band is razor sharp, and Merle’s whiskey-soaked voice was in top form. The sound mix is terrific; all instruments are heard clearly and the lead/back-up vocal arrangements add nicely to the general effect. Obviously, it is impossible for Hag to perform all of his hits in any one concert, but this provides a nice sampling of the hits, including “Mama Tried”, “Workin’ Man Blues”, “Silver Wings”, “Swinging Doors”, “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Misery & Gin”
Merle would record another live album for Billy Bob’s five years later (Live At Billy Bob’s – Ol’ Country Singer) without repeating any of the songs on this album; however, by 2004 Haggard’s voice was showing more signs of wear and tear. Earlier live albums such as Rainbow Stew/Live In Anaheim, Okie From Muskogee and Fighting Side of Me (Live From Freedom Hall) are worth hunting down.
6. Willie Nelson Live at Panther Hall
RCA never really knew what to do with Willie Nelson. One of the few things they did right was to allow Willie to record this album. In July 1965, Willie took his band which featured Johnny Bush and Wade Ray, and RCA recorded this album over two nights at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, sometimes described as Willie’s “home away from home”. Willie feels and sounds comfortable on this album and he has easy interactions with the audience as he performs some medleys of songs he wrote (one of the medleys is “Mr. Record Man / Hello Walls / One Day At A Time”), some full versions of songs he wrote (“I Never Cared For You”, “Touch Me”, “Night Life” , as well as a nice cover of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”.
5. Charley Pride Live at Panther Hall
This 1969 release was the second live album I ever purchased (Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison was the first) and, although I only started collecting record albums in the summer of 1968, by the time this album arrived in stores I had already purchased five of Charley’s albums so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong, as this album really exploded on my turntable with Charley winning the crowd over with the first few bars of “The Last Thing On My Mind” and keeping them throughout with banter and solid country music. At the time this album was recorded (1968) Charley had not had a lot of his own hits so while his first two hits are here (“Just Between You and Me” and “I Know One”), the album is largely composed of excellent covers of other people’s hits (“Six Days On The Road”, “Streets of Baltimore”, The Image of Me” and “Lovesick Blues”) and live versions of some of his album tracks (“Crystal Chandeliers”, “Got Leavin’ On Her Mind”). Charley’s band for this album includes steel guitar great Lloyd Green, who at times nearly steals (or is it steels?) the show with his playing. Charley’s cover of Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” was released as the single from this album and was the first Charley Pride single to reach #1 on any of the major country charts, reaching #1 on Cashbox and #3 on Billboard.
4. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison / San Quentin
This was originally released as separate albums, with Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison released in 1968 and Johnny Cash at San Quentin released in late 1969. In recent years they have been available as a two-fer or as stand alone albums in expanded form. As originally issued Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison was a terrific album, with liner notes penned by Cash that alone were worth the price of the album. As originally issued Johnny Cash at San Quentin was a disappointment, with only nine tracks (eight songs, since “San Quentin” was repeated) and a short playing time. The single released from the album, the Shel Silverstein composed “A Boy Named Sue” was for me the redeeming feature as far as the original album release was concerned.
Combining the two original albums made for a dynamite combo, but I’d suggest buying the two albums separately as released by Sony in their American Milestone series, with additional tracks (three bonus tracks on ‘Folsom’ and a whopping nine bonus tracks on ‘San Quentin’) helping to improve the quality and value of both albums. I still think that the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison album is the better album, but both are well worth the money.
3. Buck Owens – In London
My father spent thirty years in the US Navy and one of his better assignments was being assigned to the US Naval Legation in downtown London from 1969-1971. March 9, 1969 was my late father’s forty-fourth birthday and as a surprise birthday gift, I purchased tickets for us to see Buck Owens perform at the London Palladium. At the time I purchased the tickets I had no idea that Capitol would be recording the performance for issuance of a live album, but there they were, and there we were sitting about center stage, four rows back. Buck had already recorded at least two live albums (Carnegie Hall, Tokyo) but by the time this album was recorded, Buck had perfected his stage show, with the up-tempo numbers performed at brighter and faster tempos and the comedy bits being more tightly executed. As of March 1969 Buck had already notched 43 charted hits, so in order to get as many of his hits as possible, Buck had taken to putting together medleys of some of his hits, and there are two such medleys on this album. This album also features the fiddle playing of Don Rich on some Cajun tracks, and Buck’s most recent single “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass” is spotlighted. One single was issued from this album, a sizzling version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” that reached #1 in the USA and received a decent amount of airplay on the BBC. Buck’s band was not quite the classic band of a few years before with Jay Dee Maness having replaced Tom Brumley on steel guitar, and Jerry Wiggins having replaced Willie Cantu on drums, but the sound was tight and bright and hard driving and the fans more than satisfied by their performance. The CD reissue has a few extra songs on it but the album as originally issued would still be #3 in my rankings.
Buck Owens probably was the king of live recordings, issuing about ten live albums (some only issued in the countries where recorded) but at least six were issued in the United States. I’d highly recommend Carnegie Hall Concert and Big In Vegas as well. Carnegie Hall Concert has been reissued on CD, but Big In Vegas, a very different live album with more focus on Buck’s supporting acts, has not.
2. Ernest Tubb Live At The Spanish Castle
During the classic era of country music, Capitol Records enthusiastically released live albums on their roster of country and pop stars, RCA and Columbia would do so on occasion, but Decca (later MCA) simply would not release live albums, although they would take studio albums and dub crowd noises and applause and release albums misleading labeled albums. Consequently there are NO live albums of major country stars such as Webb Pierce, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Red Foley, Kitty Wells or Ernest Tubb on Decca.
Country music fans should be eternally grateful that former Texas Troubadour Jan Kurtis was able to talk Ernest Tubb into allowing him to record one of Ernest’s performances at Jan’s nightclub, The Spanish Castle, in September of 1965. ET was fifty-one years old in 1965, and his voice was near its peak, while ET’s popularity was past its peak but not drastically so, and he had one of the all-time great country bands. You want to know what it was like to attend a real country music show? Listen to this album and you will know, and you will know why the friends and neighbors continued to attend Ernest Tubb’s road shows long after he had slipped of the charts.
1. Waylon – Live The Expanded Edition
About eighteen months ago C.M. Wilcox did at Country California did his listing of the top twenty live albums in country music. Our lists overlap some, although I avoid the fellow travelers and stick more to real country artists. We both agree that the expanded version of Waylon Jennings’ 1976 album Waylon Live is the best live country album of all time. Although conceived as a double album, as originally issued, it was a single album of about thirty minutes playing time. That version would be in my top ten, but not #1. In 1999 Buddha Records released the album on CD as it was originally conceived – this version would be in my top five. Finally, in 2003 BMG released forty-two live tracks they had from performances in Dallas and Austin and put the whole tamale. Waylon and his band were in their prime, the performances sizzle, and in this case more is better – you’ll find yourself wishing they had another 42 such tracks to release.