Cayamo 2017: A music cruise preview

By Paul T. Mueller

The 2017 edition of the Cayamo music cruise sails southward today, with a few changes to mark the 10th edition of the singer-songwriter-focused festival at sea. For the first time, Cayamo will be leaving from Tampa, instead of Miami as in previous years. And the sold-out cruise will be aboard the Norwegian Jade instead of the Norwegian Pearl, its home for the past seven years.

But the biggest change, for better or worse, may be the schedule. Cayamo has never been exactly a relaxing experience, but Sixthman, the Atlanta-based Norwegian Cruise Lines subsidiary that produces the seven-night voyage, seems to have been determined to stuff this year’s schedule with an almost unbelievable number of performers and shows. To accommodate this wealth of talent, shows on non-port days will start at 10 a.m., instead of noon as in years past. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out, given that musicians – and many Cayamoans – tend to be the nocturnal type, and in many cases will have been up late the night before. The large roster of performers will also dictate a lot of overlap between shows, making for some tough choices when deciding what to see and what to (regretfully) let go.

Much of the lineup on Cayamo 2017 reads like a Who’s Who of previous Cayamos – Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell, Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Steve Earle, Paul Thorn, Glen Phillips and Jim Lauderdale, among others. The Wainwright family is almost a lineup unto itself, comprising Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, Sloan Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche and Suzzy Roche. And of course it wouldn’t be Cayamo without Shawn Mullins, the only musician who’s been along for every sailing.

Returning veterans in the not-quite-household-names category include rocker Will Hoge, The Secret Sisters, Angaleena Presley, Sam Lewis, Ruby Amanfu and Beth Wood, among others.

This year also marks the debut of some much-anticipated newcomers on Cayamo 2017, among them Oklahoma phenom Parker Millsap, genre-spanning singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan, multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, folk-rocker Amy Helm, veteran Americana performer and producer Gurf Morlix, country singer turned blues singer Bonnie Bishop and vocal powerhouse Sarah Potenza. Several bands will also make the voyage, including the bluegrass-oriented The Mulligan Brothers and Trout Steak Revival and the harder-rocking North Mississippi Allstars and American Aquarium.

For a little added intrigue, there will be at least one “stowaway,” an artist whose identity hasn’t yet been revealed. Who this might be has been the subject of considerable pre-cruise debate, fueled on social media by cryptic hints from Sixthman.

In addition to the usual straightforward sets, several special themed shows are scheduled, including a Songs of Protest set featuring singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters; Buddy Miller’s Guitar 101, with six-string aces Miller, Thompson and Tasjan, along with Luther Dickinson and Tom Bukovac; a tribute to the late Guy Clark, and a Shawn Mullins Variety Show, whatever that might entail. Several “and Friends” shows promise the interesting collaborations that Cayamo is known for. For those able to stay awake, three late-night “Last Man Standing” jams, hosted by fiddle wizard Luke Bulla, are slated for the Jade’s Atrium stage.

As if the music weren’t enough, there will also be a couple of port calls. The Jade will spend a day at Cozumel, off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and a day at Roatan, a Caribbean island that’s part of Honduras. Also available will be such shipboard activities as a songwriting class (Camp Copperhead at Sea) hosted by Steve Earle; three guitar workshops; a beer tasting hosted by Paul Thorn, and the popular Sand Art event with Kacey Musgraves. Passenger jams can be expected to continue far into the night, while early risers will have the option of joining Jim Lauderdale on the pool deck for morning T‘ai Chi.

Lari White’s “Old Friends, New Loves”

Americana Music News- Lari White, literally a star of stage, screen and recordings, has a new double-EP out called Old Friends, New Loves. We had the chance to talk with her about her new release on board Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise 2017.

Review: Kevin and Dustin Welch in concert

 By Paul T. Mueller

Dustin and Kevin Welch

Singer-songwriters Kevin and Dustin Welch (father and son, respectively) bring somewhat different approaches to the Americana table. Kevin’s songs and performing style tend toward the traditional, while Dustin’s are often edgier. Performing together February 4 at Houston’s Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, they complemented each other’s styles and reinforced each other’s energy, making for a highly enjoyable experience for the several dozen in attendance.

The Welches’ show, part of the church’s UniTunes Coffeehouse series, featured 17 songs, interspersed with commentary on how some of them came to be. Kevin Welch’s songs explored themes such as love, faith and doubt, usually in a straightforward way and accompanied by skillfully played acoustic guitar. Dustin’s songs were often less explicit; his father noted after one of his son’s songs that he had “no idea” what it was about. Mystery aside, Dustin sang with conviction, accompanying himself on acoustic and resonator guitars and banjo.

Some highlights:

  • Kevin’s “Millionaire,” an anthem to appreciating non-material blessings
  • “Marysville,” Kevin’s tribute to a small Australian town devastated by a wildfire in 2009
  • Dustin’s “Far Horizon,” an exploration of doubt and faith that featured a powerful, bluegrassy duet between Dustin’s banjo and Kevin’s guitar
  • Kevin’s “Heaven Now,” played by request but only after the singer had looked up his lyrics online
  • Dustin’s “Don’t Tell Em Nothin’,” a kind of post-crime tale that the singer dedicated to the criminal-defense attorneys in the audience
  • Kevin’s as-yet-unrecorded “The Flower,” told from the point of view of a teenage girl dealing with difficult circumstances and featuring some powerful slide guitar by Dustin on the resonator

Both Welches declared their gratitude for the audience’s attention (one fan drew laughs by mentioning that he’d skipped Taylor Swift’s pre-Super Bowl show in order to be there). They closed with Kevin’s “A Prayer Like Any Other,” a gentle request for divine oversight, co-written with Kieran Kane.

Merle Hazard: Invested in country music

Americana Music News – Nashville is full of talented artists, but you wouldn’t trust many of them  to manage your portfolio.

Enter Merle Hazard, a singer, songwriter and economics expert. (Hey, we all need something to fall back on.) If Weird Al had a doctorate in economics, he would be Merle Hazard.

Sans hat, Merle’s secret identity is Jon Shayne, a man of significant fiscal responsibility. We asked Merle about the melding of music and money management. His account:

Ever since the first rumblings of the financial crisis, in 2007, I have been putting out the occasional country song about the economy. I grew up mostly in Nashville, and I’m a money manager. Maybe it is a way of reconciling parts of myself that otherwise wouldn’t fit together. I have lately been putting out about one per year.

Musically, I love the old country records produced by Billy Sherrill and Owen Bradley. My latest number is styled more in the tradition of Flatt and Scruggs, however. I still remember hearing “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” as a young boy. (Ironically, that was in an apartment in Manhattan, where my family lived until I was six.)

I also love Tom Lehrer and Cole Porter. In some ways, they are my natural musical home, more than country. I listened to a lot of Tom Lehrer and Top 40 pop, growing up.

The name “Merle Hazard” is first and foremost a pun on the economic concept of “moral hazard.” It is also a tip of the cowboy hat to the Merles who preceded, particularly Merle Travis and the late,  great Merle Haggard.

My songs live mainly on YouTube. Sometimes the PBS NewsHour and the BBC World Service use them in reports, and professors use them in the classroom. The song that gets quoted the most is “Inflation or Deflation?” That one showed up in a German economics journal and in a couple of books on economics.

For my first few songs, I was timid about approaching Nashville session pros, fearing that they would laugh. And I mean laugh “at,” not “with.” With help from one session musician I got to know, I finally began to realize that they might not mind, and might even find the project amusing, at least if I paid them what they normally make for sessions. I started to use a group of Opry sidemen out in Hendersonville for some tracks and they did wonderful work.

For my latest song, “How Long (Will Interest Rates Stay Low)?,” the idea was for a Flatt-and-Scruggs-style number. I asked Alison Brown, Nashville’s queen of the banjo, for help. We have some mutual friends from college days, and connected that way. She has a great sense of humor and has been generous beyond measure. She appeared in the video, as does her daughter. Alison assembled a dream band consisting of herself, Tammy Rogers King, Trey Hensley, and Garry West, who is her husband, for that one. I was totally blown away by their playing and hope to do more with Alison and her musicians in the future.

My songs read mainly as humor. But they are all about things that bug me, as a money manager or as a citizen. “How Long (Will Interest Rates Stay Low)?” is a a joke, of course. But it is also a kind of lament, if you take the perspective of a retiree trying to earn income on bank CDs, or a money manager like me who is trying to help clients. 

Band of Heathens tops Americana chart with “Duende”

Americana Music News – The Band of Heathens have just topped the Americana Music Chart with Duende, their fifth album. The album bumped Jamestown Revival out of the top spot.
We had the opportunity to visit with the band’s Ed Jurdi on Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise two weeks ago:

Review: Sandy Beaches Cruise 2017

By Ken Paulson

The Sandy Beaches Cruise, the much-loved music festival at sea hosted by Delbert McClinton, rocked – in more ways than one – throughout its 23rd annual edition.

While the U.S. was shivering from a wide-ranging cold front, the temperatures on the Holland America Oosterdam were far more pleasant, but accompanied by high winds and waves. That left a number of artists struggling to keep their footing on stage and dancing audience members discovering moves they didn’t know they had.

But this is one cruise where the weather is almost irrelevant. People return to the Sandy Beaches Cruise every year because the musical talent is deep and the vibe is relaxed. When cruisers meet each other, the first question is almost always “How many of these have you been on?” There’s status in numbers.

week kicked off with Marcia Ball and Teresa James, strategic scheduling that got the audience up out of its seats on the very first night. That pattern held throughout the week with highly danceable music from McClinton, Marc Broussard, Jimmy Hall, Clay McClinton, Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Wayne Toups and Mike Zito.

The Mavericks performed three exuberant shows, though one was in the face of powerful winds and a cascade of sea spray. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more challenging performance environment, but the band – and the faithful – stayed the course.

The World Famous Headliners, a band comprised of NRBQ veteran Al Anderson, Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin, Michael Rhodes and Greg Morrow, were cruise favorites. There are a few songs on which their three lead vocals mesh and sound strikingly like the Band, but with a sense of humor. The Headliners have recorded two fine albums, but almost never perform, so those on board for the cruise the past two years have probably seen a majority of their shows.

The McCrary Sisters are the spiritual heart of the cruise, offering up a powerful mix of soul and gospel. Their medley of “I Can See Clearly Now/Let the Sun Shine In” was a musical weather forecast, with a bit of wishful thinking thrown in.

The surprise of the week was a salute to Eric Burdon and the Animals, led by Red Young, who played with Burdon for decades. It turns out that Teresa James and members of the Rhythm Tramps also served as latter-day Animals, and they joined Young on this impressive revue of Burdon’s best. James herself took the lead on “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

“Pianorama” is always a highlight of the Sandy Beaches Cruise. This impromptu annual jam session led by Marcia Ball brings together nearly a dozen great keyboard players. Adrenaline flows and the performances are inspired.

Lari White, Etta Britt and Kree Harrison offered up impressive solo showcases, while the Band of Heathens, the Howlin’ Brothers and Mingo Fishtrap delivered well-received sets, tapping into country, rock and traditional music. No one had a more traditional sound than the Quebe Sisters who channel brilliant harmonies (they say the Mills Brothers are their model) and a love of Bob Wills into a vibrant and contemporary take on Western Swing

The Sandy Beaches Cruise songwriters sessions are always entertaining and probably merit a larger venue. One show was dedicated to Lubbock, Texas (in a back-handed sort of way.) It featured a very funny monologue by Jaston Williams of “Greater Tuna” fame, who explored the city’s quirks. “Our homosexuals were not all that gay,” he noted. Gary Nicholson had a great story of his own, recalling a truly crazed friend who rescued him from a biker gang. Delbert shared his own account of seeing UFOs high over Lubbock. Kimmie Rhodes organized the session, which also included stories and music from Sharon Vaughn.

Other songwriting shows featured Bruce “Hey Baby” Channel, Bob DiPiero, Donnie Fritts, Danny Flowers, HalleyAnna, Terry McBride, Tom Hambridge, Spooner Oldham, Kevin Welch, Dustin Welch and Lari White, among others.

Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real was this year’s revelation. Fresh off backing Neil Young, Willie Nelson’s sixth child delivered a high energy show reminiscent of the power trios of the late ‘60s. His own material – highlights included “Four Letter Word” and “Can You Hear Me Love You” – was complemented by nods to the past, from Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

And then there are Doyle and Debbie, aka Bruce Arnston and Jenny Littleton. The duo, along with Matt Carlton, offer up the story of a washed-up country star who latches onto a talented and desperate young woman and launches a comeback tour. The show, which features songs like “When You’re Screwing Other Women (think of me)” and “Fat Women in Trailers,” has been touring – and on the cruise – for a decade, and for good reason. It’s one of the funniest and most irreverent shows you’ll ever see.

The final show of the Sandy Beaches Cruise  always features Delbert McClinton and a wide range of guest artists. Gary Nicholson assembled about a dozen friends from Nashville, who joined him in singing “More Days Like This,” a fitting sentiment after 7 days of soulful and satisfying performances.

Delbert McClinton’s “Prick of the Litter”

Americana Music NewsDelbert McClinton is about to release “Prick of the Litter,” his 19th album. We spoke with him on board his annual Sandy Beaches music cruise, a weeklong music festival at sea that features the Mavericks, Marcia Ball, Teresa James, World Famous Headliners and many more country, blues and Americana artists.

Townes Van Zandt remembered at 20th annual “wake”

By Paul T. Mueller

There were few tears but plenty of laughter and good fellowship at the 20th annual Townes Van Zandt wake, held Jan. 1 at the Old Quarter Acoustic Café in Galveston, Texas. The event takes place every year on the anniversary of the 1997 death of the revered singer-songwriter from Texas. Free to the public and open to anyone who wants to get onstage and play, it’s one of the signature events at the iconic dive bar in downtown Galveston. The club is the successor to the Houston venue where Townes Van Zandt recorded one of his best-known albums, 1973’s Live at the Old Quarter; it was founded and, until recently, owned by musician and former Van Zandt bandmate Rex Bell, who goes by “Wrecks.”

The Townes Van Zandt wake at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe

The wake, which this year also honored Guy Clark and Leonard Cohen, started about 6:30 p.m. and ran until a little after 2 a.m. Scores of music fans packed the tiny club, at times almost certainly exceeding its legal capacity. Over the course of the evening, something like 25 performers, both professional and amateur, performed nearly 30 of Van Zandt’s songs (some were covered by more than one artist), sometimes assisted by the audience. The only rule (and it was broken once or twice) was that the songs had to be ones written by Van Zandt, Clark and Cohen. Fifteen different Clark songs were performed, along with four of Cohen’s.

The line between amateur and professional seemed a bit blurry at times, but those performing included Bell and his wife, Janet; singer-songwriters Joanna Gibson, Matt Harlan, Marina Rocks, Tommy Lewis, Robert Cline Jr., Chuck Hawthorne, Drew Landry, Charlie Harrison, Cody Austin, Lazarus Nichols, Smith & Turner, and Libby Koch. Most performers were from Texas, but some came from beyond the borders of the Lone Star State, including one from Virginia and Dutch musician Jacques Mees, touring Texas for the first time with vocalist Jolanda Haanskorf.

Gary Reagan, Joanna Gibson, Janet Bell and Wrecks Bell

Gary Reagan, an accomplished acoustic guitarist and longtime wake attendee, backed many performers with beautiful picking and slide work as well as harmony vocals. “Playing ‘Rex’s Blues’ with the Rex for almost 20 years is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” he noted.

During his time onstage, and in the course of introducing other performers, Bell offered stories about and memories of his old friend, describing him as “a beautiful, beautiful man” who, despite his demons, never took out his frustrations on anyone else. Bell, who recently sold the Old Quarter and plans to relocate to Arkansas, noted that he had suffered a stroke last July 4, but “I’m making a great comeback.” During one of his mini-sets he sang “Rex’s Blues,” which Townes Van Zandt wrote about him decades ago. “I hated that song,” Bell said, but eventually reconciled himself to it. Two other artists also performed the song, despite what one said was an “unwritten rule” that it not be played. Other songs that got multiple readings included the lovely “If I Needed You,” sweetly done by Bell and Gibson, and the dark and nihilistic “Nothin’.” Marina Rocks’ solo rendition of the latter was suffused with a scary intensity worthy of Townes himself; it was one of the standout performances of the evening.

The assembled cast celebrates Townes Van Zandt

Other notable performances included a heartfelt, if somewhat halting, version of “Tecumseh Valley” by a man who gave his name as Robert and said he’d traveled from Virginia; a suitably sad rendition of “Marie” by Bobby Hoskins, whose gruff delivery on that song and two by Clark left the sometimes chatty audience in churchlike silence, and a cheerful take on Clark’s “Stuff That Works” by a colorfully dressed lady who introduced herself as “Jackie Sue, the next big thing” and told the audience, “I believe the Old Quarter is stuff that works!”

Gracing a small table onstage, and available to anyone in need of a bit of liquid courage, were a party-size bottle of vodka and a two-liter bottle of Diet Orange Crush – reportedly the ingredients of Townes’ cocktail of choice. Several performers, amateur and professional alike, partook of these libations over the course of the evening.

Gibson, the evening’s first performer, said she had attended every Townes wake since the event’s founding. “What a great way to start the new year,” she noted. Gibson was one of the few to take on Cohen’s catalog, leading off with nice renditions of “If It Be Your Will” and “Suzanne.” Other Cohen interpreters included Nichols, with a hoarse but heartfelt “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and Galveston’s own Billy Marabella, whose rendition of “Suzanne” included a recounting of his personal history with the song.

The wake ended with a fine rendition of Van Zandt’s “Snowin’ on Raton,” with Matt Harlan, Libby Koch, Chuck Hawthorne, Tommy Lewis and Charlie Harrison taking turns on vocals. As the last few audience members dispersed into the foggy streets of Galveston, performers and club staff gathered onstage with Wrecks and Janet for a group photo.

New releases: Paul Thorn, Kimbrough & DeMeyer

Americana Music News – New and recent releases:

Review: John Egan’s “Magnolia City”

By Paul T. Mueller

egan_magnolia_150On his latest collection, Magnolia City, Houston-based singer-songwriter John Egan goes back to the basics – a stomp board, a couple of National steel guitars, and a voice well suited to a 10-song mix of classic blues and folk songs and well-crafted originals.

Although Egan seems comfortable fronting a band, he’s more often to be found playing on his own, and he has said that Magnolia City is an effort to reproduce the feel of those solo gigs. It succeeds, fueled by Egan’s skilled picking and slide work and his minimal but effective percussion. His singing is improving with age; here he demonstrates a range of styles, from the howling and growling of an old-time bluesman to more contemporary crooning as the material dictates.

The original songs include the soulful blues of “Harder Than a Stone,” the gentle lament of “Looking for a Place to Fall” and the more raucous blues-rock of “Where the Angels Fly.” The quiet tone of “It Ain’t the Gun” contrasts with its tough-minded message, denouncing the violence that’s become all too common in Houston and elsewhere. The introspective “Man I’ll Never Be,” also on the quieter side, deals with love and expectations.

John Egan pays tribute to a predecessor and fellow Houston bluesman with fine renditions of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Once a Gambler” and “Mojo Hand.” He also takes on Townes Van Zandt’s “Marie,” and if his matter-of-fact reading of that ballad’s sadder-than-sad lyrics doesn’t quite match the pathos Van Zandt brought to them – well, whose could? More successful is a lively reimagining of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” featuring a little less twang in the vocals and a little more in the strings.

Clean production by Egan and Steve Christiansen complements the music, as does the CD’s simple sleeve, featuring monochrome images by Houston photographer Ray “Texas Redd” Redding.

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