Written by Emilee Lindner • Photography by Randall Michelson/Getty Images • March 15, 2017
Not many artists would perform at a prison. And even fewer artists would want to record an album there. Johnny Cash did both, famously—first at Folsom Prison, then at San Quentin. Just as Cash was experiencing a lull in his career, and getting his life back together after facing his drug problem, he convinced his label to record him at the prison with openers Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers. Many of his songs were crime- and prison-themed, including “The Wall,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “25 Minutes to Go” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Throughout the show, Cash jokes with the inmates, laughing at the irony of not being able to curse among them and getting water in a questionable tin cup. The album was crazy successful and reached the top of the Billboard Country Album Chart that year.
Garth Brooks’ Double Live is one of the best-selling live albums of all time. After its release in 1998, the recording went 21-times platinum. Twenty-one! Brooks played his country hits like “Last Dance” and “Friends in Low Places” along with covers of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” and Billy Joel’s “Shameless.” He also enlisted an A-list band for the show, including Trisha Yearwood singing backup, Keith Urban on electric guitar and Bela Fleck on banjo. For an anniversary edition in 2014, a duet with Huey Lewis was added.
“Welcome to the Ryman. I hope we sound as good as you do,” Emmylou Harris said, opening her concert at Nashville’s iconic Ryman Auditorium. “It’s a place where you feel the hillbilly dust.” The Ryman, then in need of a renovation, got so much support from Harris’ shows that it was able to reopened with much-needed repairs in 1994 and continues to be a Nashville staple. As for the album recorded there, it included many of Harris’ favorites songs, like Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Mansion on the Hill” and John Fogerty’s “Lodi.” There are several songs by Bill Monroe too. Complete with double bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin, Harris’ acoustic band, The Nash Ramblers, bucked the smoother, more produced country sound gaining popularity with Garth Brook’s Ropin’ the Wind and gave the recording a more authentic, grittier Nashville sound. Want to see Emmylou for yourself? She's on tour soon.
The outlaw country star loved sharing his music in a live setting, and as it turned out, his fans liked it that way too. Straddling the line between Southern rock and country, Jennings recorded Waylon Live at three shows: one at Dallas' Western Place and two at Austin’s Texas Opry House. His popular songs "Rainy Day Women," "This Time," and "Good Hearted Woman” were included on the final cut, with covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ "T For Texas," Willie Nelson's "Me and Paul," and Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter." The most arresting aspect of the live album is not Jenning’s whole-toned, twangy alto, but the joyous steel guitar provided by Ralph Mooney. The album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart and remains to be a staple of live album discography to this day.
At the very beginning of Dixie Chicks’ Top of the World Tour, Natalie Maines made her now famous comments about the Iraq War, saying, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The blowback, as you may know, had the country music community up in arms. But the controversy didn’t affect the rest of the tour, however. The trek went on to be the highest grossing country tour of the time, which we can forever relive with Top of the World Tour: Live. The live album includes rousing renditions of hits from their breakout albums, Fly and Home, like “Goodbye Earl,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Long Time Gone” and their cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide.” Dixie Chicks happen to be on tour this year, too. Grab tickets here.
Willie Nelson became everyone’s favorite ginger country outlaw in the ‘70s, when he truly came into his own. His band, The Family, joined him for a performance at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, which eventually became the double disc. The concert included cameos from Emmylou Harris and Johnny Paycheck on multiple songs—all coming together on a rolling, harmonious “Amazing Grace.” The album went to No. 1 at the top of 1979. Willie's on the road now too; check out the dates.
After Neko Case took a break from alt-country with Blacklisted, she returned with this 2004 live album, which is filled with steel guitar, country harmonies and even a little banjo. The excellently mixed album was recorded over the course of seven shows in Chicago and Toronto. Case only included two songs from her catalogue and added two new originals, using her silky smooth howl on “Blacklisted” and “If You Know.” Covers include Nervous Eaters' "Loretta," The Shangri-Las' "The Train From Kansas City," and Loretta Lynn's "Rated X,” along with standards “Wayfaring Stranger” and “This Little Light.” And to show off a little bit of Case’s dark stage banter, the album ends with the spoken word intro to “Tigers Have Spoken,” in which Case suggests we feed children to tigers. Heh.
As one of music’s most memorable voices, Patsy Cline delivered her beloved vocals to an adoring crowd at the Cimarron Ballroom in 1961. From romantic heartfelt ballads to the rollicking album opener “Come On In,” you’ll hear all sides of Cline on the LP, which was later released in 1997. In between her crooning, you can hear Cline’s banter asking the band for a note or telling the crowd about a recent car crash: “Took six nurses to tie me up in that bed,” she says with true badassery. As for the instrumentation, it’s a full aural experience—with a clarinet that won’t quit and a choir of men providing backup. When Cline isn’t being sweet on “I Fall To Pieces,” she’s yodel-y and gritty with “Lovesick Blues.” A classic talent that’ll have you falling to pieces for all sides of the country legend.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing that hits you when you put on Merle Haggard’s 1981 live album is the applause—it courses into the record, building louder and louder until you realise, yes, you’re in the presence of a legend. Although Haggard released Rainbow Stew Live at Anaheim Stadium only to fulfill a recording contract, we’re sure glad he did. While some live country efforts portray an intimate venue feeling, you get the feel of a larger crowd with this one, as thousands sing along with songs like “Misery and Gin,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” and “Our Paths May Never Cross.” Haggard’s voice is clear and soothing as he sings about how whiskey is his best friend, and a little extra reverb on the steel guitar may send you into a dreamy trance. But like any good live album, it’s all about the hoots and hollers from people who love music just as much as you.
After one particularly impressive guitar solo by Don Rich on Carnegie Hall Concert, Buck Owens jests, “Boy, you talk about a ham. That must be pure pork!” That’s the kind of feel-good friendliness spread throughout the entire 1966 recording of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos. With dozens of country hits—”Together Again,” “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail,” “Waiting in Your Welfare Line”—and medleys mixed with other people’s tunes—”Twist And Shout” and “Hello Trouble,” there’s a lot of music packed into this set. There’s a lot of goofiness, too, and you’ll find yourself chuckling as you enjoy the music… and the ham.