Country music fans will hear an iconic artist live at an iconic venue when Kris Kristofferson Live at Gilley's drops on Friday (Sept. 2). Taste of Country readers don't need to wait that long.

During this exclusive premiere, listen to all 15 songs from a Kris Kristofferson show recorded at Gilley's in Pasadena, Texas, on Sept. 15, 1981. It begins with "Me and Bobby McGee," a song co-written by Kristofferson and made famous by Janis Joplin and several country superstars. Live versions of "The Pilgrim," "For the Good Times" and "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" bolster the middle portion of the live album before "Loving Her Was Easier" and "Why Me" close. Too many albums are labeled as "essential" in the 21st century, but this project truly transports country fans back to an essential era in the genre's history. The Live at Gilley's album is raw, rowdy and inspired.

Several months before his death in May, Mickey Gilley penned the liner notes for Kris Kristofferson Live at Gilley's — Pasadena, TX: September 15th, 1981. Below are the late singer's memories of that show, and the importance of his honkytonk in Southeast Texas.

We opened Gilley’s up in 1970 and around the same time I started doing this little local TV show on Channel 39 in Houston. I had no idea what I was doing, but I like to think I got better as I went along. I told my business partner, if this show kicks off, Gilley’s will really come alive on the weekends. And sure enough, we got a tremendous amount of people coming in on the weekends. Even during the week people would come out just to see what was going on at this little club. It started filling up, and we started adding on. That’s how it started to grow. We had a lot of things going on. We had quite a few pool tables, pinball machines, punching bags, things of that nature, but maybe the biggest draw was the pair of mechanical bulls we had. They became iconic.

Then Urban Cowboy comes along, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. At first I didn’t know what to think of the movie, because I didn’t like the Esquire article it was based on. I thought the writer was making fun of country music. But when I heard that John Travolta might do the movie, suddenly I love that article! John is the one who made it all come together, especially with his dance moves. Anybody else doing that film — I don’t think it would have had the same impact. And the soundtrack was just as popular!

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It was truly a unique venue to play because of the way it was laid out. Gilley’s could hold several thousand people, but the club was very intimate. You were right there on the stage with people all around you. You could bend down and shake hands with people. We had a dance floor, although I remember some acts wanted you to sit and listen. So we’d set up chairs on the dance floor. And there was a little bar where you could sit and drink and look straight at whoever was singing. Right next to the club was the recording studio, and we recorded everything that was done onstage. We could record onto the 24-track machine that we had in the studio, then we would do the mixing. I think we spent a hundred dollars or so per roll, and it usually took four rolls to tape a show. So we recorded everybody who would give us permission.

We booked a lot of shows around that time, including some people I didn’t think would want to play the club. We got some acts that made me think, Are you kidding me? Jimmy Buffett, Merle Haggard, Loretta, Conway. We had just about everybody in the industry. I think they all wanted Gilley’s on their resumé. Kris Kristofferson was one of those artists that I didn’t think would want to play Gilley’s, because he was such a big name and a tremendous talent. He’s such an amazing songwriter, a great performer, and was a good match for our crowd. It was totally jam-packed every night, but we’d have an especially big crowd whenever an artist like Kris would come to town. I think people just wanted to be a part of what Gilley’s was all about.

50 Classic Country Artists Today’s Fans Should Know

Today's country music stars owe a debt of gratitude to the legends who formed and cultivated the genre, starting in the early 20th century. These 50 classic country artists remain relevant today. Some developed a style that's emulated on today's country radio. Others set a bar for vocal talent or songwriting skill.

This list of 50 influential classic country artists features country music singers who started their careers before 1990. It's ranked by each artist's current influence on the country music format today, not individual, lifelong impact. Tell us where we got it right or wrong on Twitter.

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