10 Best Country Hits That Were Recorded Live
Some of the best country music happens live, so it's no big surprise that some of the biggest hits in country music were actually recorded at live shows.
Johnny Cash re-wrote country music history with a couple of live albums that he recorded at prison gigs, and it's no surprise that he makes more than one appearance on the list. One of the best country hits recorded live is a cover of a cover from an artist that didn't even release it to country radio.
Most of the best country hits that were recorded live come from live albums, but a couple of them were originally recorded live at awards shows before making their way to country radio.
Sure, you'll see some of the expected names in this list of country live cuts, but there are also some artists that you probably won't be expecting. Some of these songs, you might not have even consciously realized were live after hearing them all these times, and at least one of these songs is from a superstar who made most of his impact in rock music ... but his legacy in country music is almost as significant.
Written by Kyle Fleming and Dennis Morgan, "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool" hit No. 1 when it was released as a single from Barbara Mandrell's 1981 live album, Barbara Mandrell Live. There are actually two versions of the song; a studio version that features inserted applause, and a true live version that was recorded with the rest of the tracks at the Roy Acuff Theater in Nashville. The song features a guest appearance from George Jones, who is also name-checked in the lyrics.
Ricky Skaggs was right in the middle of one of the hottest streaks in country music history when he released his Live in London album in 1986. "Cajun Moon" is a lively, upbeat song that shows off the one-of-a-kind instrumental talents of Skaggs and his band, and it became his 10th No. 1 single when it was released as the second single from the album.
John Denver had built a career as one of the most popular entertainers across all genres when he released his live album, An Evening With John Denver, in 1975. John Martin Sommers, a multi-instrumentalist in Denver's band, wrote the "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," and a studio version was originally included on Denver's Back Home Again album in 1974. But it was the high-spirited live version from the later live album that became one of Denver's signature hits, reaching No. 1 on both the U.S. Hot Country Songs chart and the Billboard Hot 100. Though some consider the track cheesy, there's no doubt it belongs on any list of the top country hits that were recorded live.
Elvis Presley was the King of Rock and Roll, but he also had an immeasurable impact on country music. He scored the biggest country hit of his career posthumously with "My Way," which was released as a single in October of 1977, two months after Presley's death. Recorded as part of the TV special Elvis in Concert, the live track reached No. 2 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Johnny Cash scored the biggest mainstream hit of his career with "A Boy Named Sue," which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was released as a single from Cash's 1969 live album At San Quentin. It also topped the Hot Country Single chart. Written by children's author Shel Silverstein, the song told the story of a boy named Sue who sought revenge on the father who named him and abandoned him. The line, "I'm the son of a b--ch that named you Sue" was bleeped on both the single and the album. Cash also has another song (or two) on our list of the 10 best country hits that were recorded live.
Tim McGraw co-wrote "If You're Reading This" with Brad and Brett Warren just weeks before he debuted the song live at the ACM Awards in 2007. Inspired by an article about war casualties, the powerful track resonated with the American public so much that radio stations began playing the live track from the broadcast on the air, driving the song to No. 35 on the country singles chart with airplay that was not solicited. Curb Records then remixed the live version and released it as an official single, adding it to later pressings of McGraw's Let It Go album. The song reached No. 3 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
"Seven Bridges Road" isn't technically a country hit, but it's a country song that was a mainstream hit for the Eagles in 1980 when it was released as a single from their Eagles Live album. Written and first recorded by Steve Young, the song was a ballad for solo voice. Ian Matthews first recorded it in a close harmony version in 1973 that was produced by Mike Nesmith. The Eagles version draws heavily from that arrangement, and it was a staple of the band's set for years, then was revived for their final tour before their initial breakup, when it was recorded live and reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. Ricochet later revived the song in 2000.
Johnny Cash figures more prominently in the list of best country hits that were recorded live than any other artist. Written by Kris Kristofferson and previously recorded by both him and Ray Stevens, "Sunday Morning Coming Down" became a No. 1 hit for Cash in 1970. His version was recorded live at a performance at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium as part of Cash's TV show and released as a single from the subsequent album, The Johnny Cash Show. It also earned a CMA Award for Song of the Year.
Alan Jackson was inspired to write "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the song captures an entire nation's disbelieving grief. He debuted it at the CMA Awards in 2001, and by the next morning country radio stations from coast to coast were playing the song. It debuted at No. 25 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart and reached No. 1 in six short weeks, going on to win CMA and ACM Awards, as well as a Grammy for Best Country Song. The live version was finally released along with a studio version on Jackson's next album, Drive, in January of 2002, after Arista moved up the release date from May to meet demand.
Johnny Cash wrote "Folsom Prison Blues" in 1955 and included it on his debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, but it didn't become a hit until a live version was released in 1968 as the single from his seminal live album, At Folsom Prison. The raw, supercharged performance reached No. 1, and the album revitalized what had been a career in decline, winning Cash a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male. "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" is probably one of the most familiar lines from country music across popular culture.