Willie Nelson – Willie and Family Live

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better live country album than “Willie and Family Live”. Granted that is just my opinion, but I will tell you this: you will never sway me from that opinion, so don’t even try. I would even go so far as to rank “Willie and Family Live” in the top 5 of any live album of any genre. Then again, like much of Willie’s recording career, it really does it injustice to pigeonhole this record as strictly country music. Sure, that is what is at its core, but it’s so much more.

Willie Nelson is a true artist. Musically, he never tried to be something he wasn’t. Like the truest of outlaws, he rebelled against Memphis and Nashville pressures to sound this way or that. Once he had a following, Willie stuck to his guns and played what Willie wanted to play; what his fans wanted him to play. Willie Nelson was always there, first and foremost, for his fans.

“Willie and Family Live” is exactly what its name implies. Willie’s family was his band, his friends, and his fans. This is their album. This is their story told through the art of Willie Nelson. Some artists use a brush, some use chisel; Willie Nelson uses a Martin N-20 classical guitar that he named Trigger. From 1969 to 1978, when this album was recorded, Willie had used Trigger to create his art so often and so passionately that he had worn a hole right through the top of the guitar. Somehow, that made Trigger sound even sweeter. It’s funny how that can happen. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it was the personal connection Willie made between himself and his fans that got stronger with time that made Trigger sound even better. Yeah, listening to “Willie and Family Live” now, I know that’s what it is.

Billie Holiday – Billie’s Blues

When you look up the word “singer” in any dictionary, if it said nothing else, it should say “Billie Holiday”.

Billie Holiday defined what every singer should aspire to achieve: to take any song they are given and make it their own. Billie Holiday knew no other way to sing. She never received any musical training, she had absolutely no singing experience the day she walked into a nightclub asking for a job, any job, just so she could eat. They asked her if she could dance. She tried, but failed miserably. They asked if she could sing. She gave that a shot. A legend was discovered.

Life was not kind to Billie Holiday. Music made it easier for her, and while it did lift some of the burden for a time, it never made her life easy. In her singing, along with the pain, Billie Holiday’s voice always carried a note of strength and fortitude. “Lady Day”, as her friend and long time collaborator Lester Young referred her, would go on to influence countless artists in the decades that followed her.

Sadly, the same night Billie Holiday sang her first song, at that same nightclub, she also had her first drink. Alcohol would prove to be Billie Holiday’s nemesis. She died in 1955 at the age of 44 from cirrhosis of the liver, ending the 20 year career of a jazz legend.

Johnny Cash – Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

Although it may sound like the title of a greatest hits record, “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is not. It is only the second album by Johnny Cash, released in 1958. “Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous” is a collection of the songs Johnny Cash was famous for performing live; the songs that got him signed to the infamous Sun record label. Johnny Cash went on to become a legend in country music and a huge influence in both country and rock and roll. His songs are still revered today as some of the greatest songs ever recorded.

A biopic movie of Cash’s early life “Walk the Line” was released in 2005. Although the movie portrays the song “I Walk the Line” – Cash’s biggest hit off of this album – to have been written about his future wife of 35 years (until his death in 2003) it was actually written as an ode to his first wife, Vivian.

B. B. King – Live At The Regal

It was on a cold night on November 21, 1964, in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago, when B. B. King recorded one of the most highly regarded blues albums of all time.

There’s a reason B. B. King is a blues legend. To know that reason, all you need to do is listen to “Live at The Regal”. The blues is meant to be more than just listened to; it’s music that needs to be felt. That cold November night at The Regal Theatre, B. B. King felt it and just as importantly, the audience felt it. Then again when I listen to B. B. King’s distinct voice and guitar, the real question I have to ask with “Live at the Regal” on the turntable is “how could you not?”

Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More From The Road

Lynyrd Skynyrd didn’t create Southern rock. They didn’t reinvent it. But in the seventies, Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the select few who defined the genre. When it was released in 1976, “One More for from the Road” became the quintessential live southern rock album.

Prior to the recording of this masterpiece, Skynyrd had added Oakie guitarist Steve Gaines into their fold, solidifying the band’s signature three lead sound. His influence is most noted on the 13 plus minute closing track “Free Bird” where the band’s three guitarists trade off solos in what has become one of the most legendary live performances ever captured on any recording.

“What song is it you wanna hear?”

Louis Armstrong – Hello Dolly

I know that when a lot of my friends hear the nickname “Satch” they think of guitar legend Joe Satriani. I do too, but I also think of Jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

His full name was Louis Satchmo Pops Armstrong and he played the trumpet. Man, could he play the trumpet! With his deep gravelly voice – one of the most distinct to ever grace popular music – he was as charismatic on stage as he was skillful on trumpet.

The title song from this album earned Louis Armstrong the only Grammy he received while alive. He was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1972.

One of my favorite items in my listening room is a statue of Louis Armstrong. Holding his trumpet in one hand and a handkerchief in the other (he would work up a sweat when he played) and donning his distinct smile, it truly conveys the love he had for playing music. But I don’t need that statue to know that, all I need to do is listen to him play.