The start of 2015 found a bevy of roots music's best artists taking to the open ocean for a week of concerts, social gatherings, and hi-jinks. (Spoiler: watch out for Kacey Musgraves if she's on a scooter.)
Cayamo Roots Music CruiseCity: Miami, St. Barts, and St. Croix
Venue: Cayamo Cruise Ship
Since the early 20th century, roots music performers have been bridging the divide between the homemade craft of rural music and delivering that music to a larger audience. This is done without losing the music's rustic appeal, selling in numbers that allow these artists to pursue music as a viable vocation. This path has been paved by audience awareness, demand, and technology, which has led from Vaudeville to traveling medicine shows to radio barn dances.
Times have been hard in the past, and the current turbulence in the music industry has opened opportunities for new and novel ways of reaching audiences and making a living. Music festivals are one such way. They're a growing and potentially lucrative environment for getting music in front of a large audience. Their strength, however, can also be a weakness. Crowds can be overwhelming. Plus, the lineups at these events tend to look like an indie music buffet.
This puts off some people, namely the well-heeled middle-age-to-retiree demographic who prefer wine and craft beer to Blue Ribbon, prefer less crowded and rowdy listening conditions, and will always take good food and clean room to crashing on someone's apartment floor.
Enter Sixthman. Since 2001, the events planning company has partnered with cruise lines to produce music-themes cruises for sea-loving music fans. Sixthman founder, president and music enthusiast Andy Levine caught the cruise bug while managing the band Sister Hazel, who he scheduled for a four-day cruise. He has since made good on the Sixthman motto: "LIVE LOUD".
It might just be me, but I think out of all the music cruises under his belt, Cayamo may be one of Levine's favorites. He seemed genuinely heartbroken to not be able to make the 2015 edition of the cruise -- the first one he's missed -- because of family obligations.
Nevertheless, he was at port to meet us all, greeting everyone with energy, smiles, and a welcoming high-five before we took off on our eight-day escapade, from 17 to 24 January.
As an Americana music fan, I have long been aware of Cayamo, a Sixthman roots-music cruise that has featured John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Shovels & Rope, Brandi Carlile, and many others. I knew it was inevitable that one year I would go; as it turns out, 2015 was that year.
The warm beaches are incidental. The loyal community around Cayamo, a name fabricated roughly from "island" and "love" (and easy to copyright) will let you know that it is here primarily for the music. The official motto for the cruise says it all: "A Journey Through Song".
Performances take place in half a dozen cozy venues and communal spaces, with the largest theatre, the Stardust, seating just over a thousand travelers. Shows began in the afternoon and continued into the next day's early morning. Fats Kaplin, multi-instrumentalist and sideman for Buddy Miller, Jack White, and others, observed, "It's like a really large house concert." He's right.
Main acts like John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile, Lyle Lovett, and Richard Thompson perform with their own bands in the larger rooms. Performers appearing lower on the bill appear with one or two backing musicians. But in spirit of community, members of other bands, like Nashville's Skyline Motel guitarist Tom Bukovac and multi-instrumentalist Ian Fitchuk, showed up to add their touch to many of those shows.
The shows are timed like clockwork for maximum efficiency: roughly an hour for each performance, with encores reserved only for main acts.
The "blind faith" show on the third night held a pleasant surprise: a song swap with country music upstart Kacey Musgraves and wry folk sage John Prine. Musgraves, to her great credit, has publicly stated that her "favorite artist is John Prine because of amazing songwriting." The young Texan, who most everyone I asked had not heard of, showed her composure and chops while seated across from her songwriting hero. They traded songs and banter. Musgraves' performance of "My Idea of Heaven is to Burn One With John Prine" was a definite highlight; all throughout, Prine beamed and smiled. Her talent, wit and proximity with Prine was enough to win over the Cayamoers.
Another standout for me was roots-music Cinderella man Doug Seeger, who performed several excellent shows with fiddler Barbara Lamb. Seeger even took advantage of our time anchored in St. Croix to earn a little cash street busking, as he did for so many years on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
Though the cruise featured many great performers, there was no denying that the community deemed Brandi Carlile the queen of Cayamo. Working the crowd for seven voyages has led to her building a loyal onboard fanbase. After seeing her in the big room flanked by the identical Hanseroth twins on bass, guitar, and backing vocals, it's easy to see why. Her show had a heart-on-her-sleeve intimacy spiked with a big-energy bombast of a rock show, like a female version of Bruce Springsteen. The crowd, and I, loved it.
Musgraves and Carlile appeared to hit it off. Carlile gave Musgraves a shout-out from her stage, also appearing with Musgraves during the latter's closing pool-deck show to perform a spirited duet on "The Trailer Song".
Then came the scooter incident. In the wee hours of a prior night, Musgraves got the mischievous idea to take a mobility scooter that had been sitting idle over the course of her stay for a spin. While on said scooter, and in the company of some of her band mates -- I'm thinking booze was involved -- she took the elevator to the sixth floor where she "tore around the casino at top speed laughing [her] head off." While on this adventure, she ran into a member of Carlile's band, who informed her that she was puttering around on Brandi's grandma's scooter. She asked if would she kindly return it when she was done.
Ah, boat shenanigans.
"Better late than never", John Prine quipped as he strode onstage on one of his three solo show of the voyage. Clad in a dapper, dark suit (as were bassist Dave Jacques and guitarist Jason Wilber), Prine's reference was to the previous year's missed cruise, his absence due to recovery from lung cancer surgery. Though the years have taken a toll on Prine, he sounded great, and held forth as the wry folk sage with a sparkle in his eye.
Another stand-out was the John Fullbright Unlikely Trio show that turned out to be a quartet -- an Unlikely quartet, one might say -- featuring Fullbright on piano, Chuck Cannon, Holly Williams, and Jim Lauderdale. The performers took turns performing covers and originals on the theme of redemption, ending with a lovely group rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", led by Williams.
Many other great memories were made throughout our week on the boat. Lyle Lovett recalled fans he met on the ship's elevator: "This will be an all elevator request set", he quipped. The Americana-pop powerhouses Humming House and the Lone Bellow blew away the crowds. Alabama's Kristy Lee and the Dirt Road Revival brought down a mighty sound of gospel, soul, and rock. Niiki Lane brought an edge to the event, with her throwback groove, twang sound, and "Buddy Fucking Miller" shirts she made on the ship. As she explained, "I asked Buddy why he didn't have shirts in the merch area. He said, 'I don't tour.' I said, 'You'll have shirts by morning.' We're taking pre-orders."
The Seattle roots rock quintet the Dusty 45s were a huge hit. Throughout their dynamic stage show, they encouraged the typically sedate audience to "raise hell".
Lucinda Williams was her usual swaggering self, at the top of her live game. Elizabeth Cook overcame sea sickness that had plagued her on a previous week's cruise to play a new song, "Methadone Blues", glamming up the joint with her wardrobe.
On a trip to the merch area, I noticed a Todd Snider shirt for sale. This was odd, as Snider wasn't listed on the bill or in the schedule left in my room. While walking around the ship a few moments later, I noticed a pic of Snider on the interactive notice boards all over the ship. "Stowaway aboard", it read, "See him at midnight at the Stardust." Sure enough, Snider held a surprise performance that night and the next afternoon on the pool deck.
Apparently, Snider's surprise shows were a sort of mea culpa for abruptly canceling shows from last year's cruise. When I posted on the typically congenial Cayamo Family page what reason was given for the last years' cancellation, the response was a curt "Don't open up that can of worms" and "Just look at him. It's not hard to figure out."
I guess some tempers remained frayed. Sometimes, what happens on Cayamo stays on Cayamo.
Is it peculiar that contemporary interpreters of poor, rural folk music are performing their craft on a luxury liner bound for the Caribbean Sea? Not when you consider that the cruise line industry is serving many of the working public, allowing them an easy way to see the world and enjoy entertainment they might not find at home. Cruise lines need attractive events to draw customers. Musicians need gigs, exposure and a creative environment. Audiences that are passionate about music can experience once in a lifetime events through events like Cayamo. Often, audiences can also participate in the creative process itself as ideas are exchanged and collaborations occur during the voyage.
It's a win-win bon voyage.
Splash image: Kacey Musgraves (left) and John Prine (right). Photo courtesy of Baron Lane.