10 Essential Country Live Albums by Roots Music

In honor of Charley Crockett’s excellent new album, Live From The Ryman, I’ve compiled a list of ten other live albums that every country music fan should own. While many of these artists faithfully reproduced their studio recordings on stage, the real charm often lies in their interactions with the audience. Here, their true personalities come out, showcasing the unique bond between artists and their fans. Let’s drop the needle and go double live gonzo!

1. Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison / At San Quentin

It’s hard to separate these two albums, as they capture Cash in a similarly electric atmosphere just a year apart. These records brought The Man In Black back from the brink and made him an international celebrity. Performing in prisons wasn’t new for Cash, but the real magic in both At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin lies in how easily Cash interacts with the prisoners. The mix of old favorites, humor (“A Boy Named Sue”), hope, and just the right amount of rebellion create a listening experience unlike anything before or since.

2. Merle Haggard – Okie From Muskogee

Released in late 1969, Okie From Muskogee capitalized on the title track’s popularity by capturing it in front of an actual Muskogee, Oklahoma audience. The album symbolized Haggard’s return to the state his parents fled during the Great Depression, adding extra weight to the performances. Despite Haggard and the Strangers racing through some hits, the overwhelming response on record remains compelling.

3. Willie Nelson – Country Music Concert

Recorded in 1966 in 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 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, like 1978’s Willie & Family Live, showcased he and his road-hardened band in all their glory, Country Music Concert captures an intimate moment that would never be reproduced again.

4. Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – Carnegie Hall Concert

Also recorded in 1966, Carnegie Hall Concert marked the height of Owens’ popularity. 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. The original 25-minute LP (expanded in the CD reissue) is filled with folksy humor and a run-through of “Twist & Shout,” repaying the Beatles for covering “Act Naturally.”

5. Jerry Lee Lewis – The Greatest Live Show On Earth

While most fans consider 1964’s Live From The Star Club, Hamburg as Lewis’s definitive live recording, The Greatest Live Show On Earth captures his desire to document a performance in front of a relatable audience, ultimately choosing two shows in Alabama. Mixing more country numbers into his set, including Charlie Rich’s “Who Will The Next Fool Be,” Lewis began his return as a country music hitmaker.

6. Waylon Jennings – Waylon Live

Jennings didn’t hit his commercial stride until his mid-1970s “outlaw” makeover. Following several hit studio albums came Waylon Live in 1976, drawn from various Texas dates. By this point, Jennings had solidified his signature sound with the Waylors, allowing his supple voice to work its magic on “Rainy Day Woman,” “This Time,” and a surprisingly potent cover of “House Of The Rising Sun.” The expanded CD reissue is recommended.

7. Patsy Cline – Live At The Cimarron Ballroom

For fans of Patsy Cline, any recordings from her brief life are to be cherished. The full concert recorded in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1961 surfaced in 1997, featuring stellar performances of “I Fall To Pieces,” “Walking After Midnight,” and more. Cline indulges in rock ‘n roll with “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and shares news of her life, including a recent near-fatal car accident. The poignant banter adds significance, given her untimely death less than two years later.

8. Emmylou Harris – At The Ryman

Harris’s decision to record a live album at the Ryman Auditorium at the turn of the 1990s helped spark a movement to revitalize the building. At The Ryman features Harris and virtuosos turning back the clock with acoustic instruments, mixing songs by Bill Monroe and Boudleaux Bryant with contemporary material by Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen.

9. Alison Krauss & Union Station – Live

Released as a double CD in 2002, Krauss and company’s first official live recording served as an entry point to their back catalog. The crowd’s feedback pushed the band to new heights, offering a clinic in modern bluegrass. Live built on Krauss’s growing mainstream popularity through the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, evident in the response to “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Down To The River To Pray.”

10. Steve Earle & The Dukes – Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator

Partly recorded in Kitchener, ON, Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator captures Earle at the height of his Copperhead Road success. Running through a tough set of his best-known material, the album ends with his version of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” signaling the depths of his drug abuse. Earle would disappear soon after, re-emerging sober years later.

These essential live albums highlight the power of country music’s live performances, capturing the magic that happens when artists connect with their audiences in unforgettable ways.

Tune in tonight for Live Country Music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, EmmyLou Harris and much more all Night Long on the Live Country Radio Show!