Review: The Mastersons’ “Transient Lullaby”

By Paul T. Mueller
Transient Lullaby, the most recent album by The Mastersons – singer/guitarist Chris Masterson and singer/multi-instrumentalist Eleanor Whitmore – reads as an account of the couple’s musical and personal lives. Marked by well-crafted lyrics and beautiful harmonies, these songs form an insightful look at the highs and lows of a life of almost constant togetherness, on and off the stage. They’re backed by Masterson’s excellent guitar playing and Whitmore’s fine performance on pretty much anything with strings, including but not limited to guitars, violin, cello and mandolin.

The album’s sequence seems to track the arc of a relationship; the 11 tracks cover a lot of emotional ground, and easy answers are in short supply. The first track, “Perfect,” sums up the beginning of a relationship, with a mix of wariness – “You seem like a great find/But I’m broken, so please be kind” – and optimism – “We’re not perfect, but we’ll turn these tears to gold.” Conflict surfaces in the title track, in the struggle between personal bonds and professional demands: “It’s time to go/It’s been great, but I can’t stay long.”

Several of the songs that follow explore, with sometimes painful honesty, the everyday conflicts that challenge relationships. The titles hold clues: “You Could Be Wrong,” “Fight,” “Don’t Tell Me to Smile,” “This Isn’t How It Was Supposed to Go.” But it’s not all darkness. “You are my light,” the couple sings on “Shine On.” “We’re gonna shine on/Gonna shine on.”

By the end of the album, restlessness seems to have won out. “The time has come for us to part ways,” Masterson sings on “Happy When I’m Movin’,”the last “official” track. “ ’Cause we both know/I’m happy when I’m movin’.” That would make for a sad ending if not for the bonus track, “Anchor,” which closes a lyrical circle by echoing a line in the opening track – “Can’t you feel me? I’m your anchor” – with a similarly upbeat sentiment. “ ‘Cause I want to be right by your side,” they sing. “I promise you/In a world untied, you’re my anchor.”

Instrumental support comes from Andrew Pressman and the late George Reiff on bass, David Boyle on keyboards, and Falcon Valdez, Cully Symington and Conrad Choucroun on drums.

New releases: Slaid Cleaves, Calico

Review: Gurf Morlix’s “The Soul & the Heal”

By Paul T. Mueller

On his latest CD, The Soul @ the Heal, Austin-based singer-songwriter Gurf Morlix celebrates humanity in all its flawed glory. These 10 songs comprise an unsparing examination of what’s good and what’s not so good in people, all seen through Morlix’s critical but sympathetic lyrics and conveyed in his familiar gruff voice.

Now in his mid-60s, Gurf Morlix has had the opportunity to observe a wide variety of people, from his early years in upstate New York through his long musical career in places like Nashville and Austin. It’s a safe bet he’s known the subjects of these songs, or people much like them. Some of his characters aren’t very likable – for example, the narrator of the ominous “Bad Things,” who insists, not entirely convincingly, that he’s “a good man who may have done some bad things.” Some, such as the wounded-by-love protagonist of “I’m Bruised, I’m Bleedin’,” come across as more victim than perpetrator.

But amid the darkness, there is also light. “Love Remains Unbroken” celebrates the emotional connections that help us through tough times; “Right Now” is an ode to focusing on the present instead of dwelling on the past or the future; “Quicksilver Kiss” recalls the first flowering of new romance; “Move Someone” is a plea for human interaction.

The contradictions of life are neatly summed up in “The Best We Can,” the album’s closing track, which is built around what Morlix has described as a “pretty chord” of the kind he rarely uses. “Ain’t none of us are noble/We lead tawdry little lives/We’re animals roaming the land,” he sings matter-of-factly. “We might be made of stardust, but that don’t make us special/And we gotta do the best we can.” It’s not exactly a rousing pep talk, but Morlix’s gentle, jazzy guitar and restrained optimism make for a welcome message for anyone dealing with the daily grind.

The songs’ thematic contrasts are echoed by the artwork of the CD cover – on the front a cross-section of a cherry, bright red and shaped like a heart, and on the back an amorphous splatter, also bright red, that looks a lot like blood.

In addition to producing, Gurf Morlix handled all of the singing here and much of the playing – guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion. Other contributors include Rick Richards on drums, Ray Bonneville on harmonica and Nick Connolly on B3 organ.

Conroe Americana Musical Festival’s winning debut

By Paul T. Mueller

Conroe, Texas – The good times continued through the weekend at the premiere edition of the Conroe Americana Music Festival. Fair weather, a strong lineup and a relaxed vibe made for a fine experience for the hundreds in attendance in the small city north of Houston.

Dale Watson and Ray Benson at Conroe Americana Music Festival

The schedule on Saturday, May 6, began at 12:30 p.m. and ran until midnight, with 26 shows at six venues. A noon-to-6:00 Sunday schedule featured 17 shows. Many fans found themselves trying to decide among several good options at the same time; the event’s relatively small footprint, spread over a few blocks, made it possible to see parts of multiple sets without spending too much time in transit.

Some Saturday highlights:

  • The appropriately named Caleb and the Homegrown Tomatoes, from Conroe, kicked off with a lively set that included “Family,” a look at the ups and downs of life on the road, and nice covers of the James Gang’s “Funk 49” and Robert Ellis’ “California.”
  • Sophia Johnson, a native of England who relocated to Austin a few years ago, played an energetic set of bluegrass and swing that showcased her impressive guitar skills. The supporting cast included Beth Chrisman on fiddle.
  • Texas honky-tonker Mike Stinson demonstrated his gift for catchy hooks and rocking riffs on songs such as “Late for My Funeral” and “The Box I Take to Work.” The set featured nice contributions from ace guitarists Lance Smith and Brian Whelan (for whom Stinson played drums in an earlier set).
  • Eric Taylor

    Iconoclastic singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, a mainstay of Houston’s folk scene in the ‘70s, played a few long songs featuring his unorthodox vocals and guitar playing, interspersed with rambling stories about marital misadventures and the time Lucinda Williams introduced Bob Dylan to Townes Van Zandt. Taylor eventually left the stage to his wife, Susan Lindfors, who played a couple of nice songs including her “A Matter of Degrees.”

  • Notable moments from Sunday:
  • Houston-based trio The Great Trumpet played an engaging set of energetic folk featuring guitar, washboard and cajón, plus nice contributions from a guest fiddler (but no horns). The songs were marked by interesting arrangements and nice harmonies by guitarist Andrew Smythe and washboard player/singer Sarah Haug.
  • Folksinger Ray Bonneville, a native of Canada now living in Austin, entertained an attentive audience at the Red Brick Tavern with songs exploring the problems and rewards of living, all filtered through his weathered voice and distinctive guitar playing. Selections included “When I Get to New York,” “Funny ‘bout Love,” “What Was I To do,” and a couple of requests “Canary Yellow Car” and “Tiptoe Spider.”
  • Honky-tonk star Dale Watson and Western swing master Ray Benson (frontman of Asleep at the Wheel) put on a clinic in crowd-pleasing showmanship during one of the festival’s closing sets. Songs included some by Watson (“I Lie When I Drink”), some by Benson (“Miles and Miles of Texas”), some by both (“The Ballad of Dale and Ray,” “Feelin’ Haggard”), and some classics (Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” Bobby Troup’s “Route 66,” Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln”). There was also plenty of comic interplay between the two veteran performers. The encore consisted of exuberant renditions of Hoyle Nix’s “Big Ball’s in Cowtown” and Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” featuring assistance from fellow festival performers Guy Forsyth, Jon Dee Graham, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis.Festival talent booker Tracy Brandon, speaking shortly after the last notes had faded and crews had begun breaking down the outdoor stages, pronounced the festival a success. “The fans had a great time,” Brandon said, noting that the event had drawn attendees from other states as well as from around Texas. Asked about future plans, she said the event’s producer, the Conroe Downtown Area Association, “hope[s] to continue to grow the festival.”

Drew Holcomb and Neighbors set for Ryman

Americana Music News – This is a very big weekend for Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. They’re playing two nights at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville – and they just have to drive across the river to get to their shows.

East Nashville is home base for this talented band, currently touring in support of their excellent new album Souvenir. We wrote  briefly and approvingly about the album in February, but may have undersold it. This is a band with top-notch musicianship and a healthy respect for hooks. “California” still looms large in our personal playlist.

Some tickets are still available for the Friday and Saturday shows, with Joe Purdy and Penny & Sparrow opening on respective nights.

2017 Americana Music Awards nominees announced

The Americana Music Association unveiled its nominees for the 2017 Americana Music Awards in a press event at the Country Music Hall of Fame.  It’s a nice mix of veterans (Rodney Crowell, John Prine), today’s mainstays (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) and emerging artists (Aaron Lee Tasjan, Margo Price and more.)

Album of the Year

“American Band,” Drive-By Truckers, Produced by David Barbe

“A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson, Produced by Sturgill Simpson

“Close Ties,” Rodney Crowell, Produced by Kim Buie and Jordan Lehning

“Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens, Produced David Bither, Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell

“The Navigator,” Hurray for the Riff Raff, Produced by Paul Butler

 

Artist of the Year

Jason Isbell

John Prine

Lori McKenna

Margo Price

Sturgill Simpson

 

Duo/Group of the Year

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry

Drive-By Truckers

Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives

The Lumineers

 

Emerging Artist of the Year

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Aaron Lee Tasjan

Amanda Shires

Brent Cobb

Sam Outlaw

 

Song of the Year

“All Around You,” Sturgill Simpson, Written by Sturgill Simpson

“It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell (with Rosanne Cash & John Paul White), Written by Rodney Crowell

“To Be Without You,” Ryan Adams, Written by Ryan Adams

“Wreck You,” Lori McKenna, Written by Lori McKenna and Felix McTeigue

 

Instrumentalist of the Year

Spencer Cullum, Jr.

Jen Gunderman

Courtney Hartman

Charlie Sexton

Conroe Americana Music Festival: Day One

By Paul T. Mueller

The inaugural Conroe Americana Music Festival got off to a promising start on Friday, May 5, in the charmingly restored downtown area of the small city north of Houston. Perfect spring weather and moderate crowds made for an excellent festival experience, and the eclectic mix of musicians matched the fine atmosphere with outstanding performances. The overall vibe was laid back, with flashes of intensity.

The promoters’ decision to hold the festival in four indoor venues – two pubs, an event space and a converted ice plant – and two open-air stages under festival tents worked out well for the event’s first evening. All of the venues are located within a few blocks of each other, making for easy show-hopping. The relatively large number of performers meant that six shows were going on simultaneously pretty much the whole time, causing some frustration for those who wanted to see everybody, but also dispersing the crowd and avoiding big crushes at any one venue.

Some highlights from the first night:

      Quiet folkie fare, accompanied by cello and mandolin, by Shellee Coley, a onetime Nashvillian now back in her native Texas. Coley filled one of the 6 p.m. opening slots, in the beautifully restored Martin’s Hall, with her own songs and also a well-received rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

          Texas music from Houston-area singer-songwriter Brad Boyer, accompanied by guitarist Chad Ware. Hampered somewhat by subpar acoustics and noisy bar patrons in the Sparkle Ice House, Boyer carried on with a mix of originals (“Five Stones and a Sling,” “Long Cold December”) and covers (Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta,” Guy Clark’s “Stuff that Works”). There was also a nice rendition of his tribute to Guy, “The Last Folksinger.”

          High-energy takes on introspective songs (“Never the Pretty Girl,” “Whisper My Name”) by Austin artist BettySoo, accompanied by a full band that included Will Sexton on guitar and Bonnie Whitmore on bass, in the Corner Pub.

          Rocking blues from Austin’s Peterson Brothers Band, with brothers Glenn Peterson Jr. on guitar and Alex Peterson on bass, along with two drummers, on an outdoor stage sponsored by Conroe’s Southern Star Brewing Co.

          A diverse mix of originals and interesting covers from Austin-based singer-songwriter-producer Gurf Morlix. The former included “The Best We Can,” which Morlix said is based on a “pretty chord” of the kind he rarely uses. The latter included “The

Peterson Brothers at Conroe Americana Music Festival

Massacre at Glencoe,” a ballad about an 18th century feud between Scottish clans, and Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Morlix closed with the lovely benediction “The Parting Glass.”

          Boogie with a side of spirituality from the seemingly ageless Billy Joe Shaver, who seemed right at home in the cavernous Sparkle venue. Backed by an enthusiastic young band, Shaver cranked through such familiar favorites as “Try and Try Again,” “When the Fallen Angels Fly” and “Live Forever,” plus newer fare such as “Hard to Be an Outlaw.” His brand of rocked-up country appealed to listeners and dancers alike.

The festival continues through the weekend of May 6-7.

Preview: Conroe Americana Music Festival

 

By Paul T. Mueller

Music gets another festival to call its own this year, with the Conroe Americana Music Festival set to debut May 5-7 in Conroe, Texas. The event, described by the promoters as “a grassroots premier festival featuring a mix of Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Folk, Texas Country, Roots Rock, Blues, and Americana music,” will take place in Conroe’s historic downtown, about 40 miles north of downtown Houston.

The festival’s website, http://conroeamericanamusicfestival.com/, currently lists more than 50 scheduled performers. They include such well-known names as Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis (aka the First Couple of Texas Americana), John Fullbright, Billy Joe Shaver, The Mastersons, Gurf Morlix, Angaleena Presley, Dale Watson and Ray Benson, and Mike Farris. Of course, there’s a heavy presence of Texas artists, familiar in the Lone Star State but possibly less well known elsewhere, such as bluesman Guy Forsyth; songstress Terri Hendrix, with longtime collaborator Lloyd Maines; rockers Uncle Lucius; former True Believer Jon Dee Graham; veteran folkie Eric Taylor; Houston-based honky-tonkers Mike Stinson and The John Evans Band; Austin-based blues-folkie Ruthie Foster, and Austin blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland. The complete lineup can be found here and the schedule here.

With free parking and short distances between the festival’s six venues, the weekend’s toughest task figures to be deciding which performer to see at any given time. There are six venues – four indoor spaces and two somewhat larger outdoor stages – with scheduling seemingly set up in hopes of dispersing the crowd. For instance, the Friday lineup includes shows by Gurf Morlix and the Mastersons both at 9 p.m., at pubs located across the street from each other. Those sets will be partially overlapped by four other shows, including Hendrix and Maines and Austin-based bluesmen The Peterson Brothers. Scheduling dilemmas may be eased to some extent by the fact that some performers will play more than once.

As is often the case at the outset of such events, ticket prices are reasonable: $35 for a one-day pass for Friday or Sunday, $50 for a Saturday pass, or $75 for a three-day pass. Parking is free and food will be available from several food trucks.

According to the festival’s website, the event was “(e)stablished through the Conroe Downtown Area Association (501c4) [and] the proceeds of the festival will be used to enhance the Historic Downtown Conroe area with improved signing and beautification projects.”

The Conroe Americana Music Festival gets under way at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 5, and wraps up at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 7.

New release: Two Tracks’ “Post Card Town”

Americana Music News – Coming May 19 is Postcard Town , the new album from the Wyoming-based Two Tracks. It’s clearly a tightly-knit band with comfortable harmonies and a fun approach.

They reached out to Will Kimbrough to produce this set and that has paid dividends.

Here’s their mini-documentary on the making of “Postcard Town”:

Reissue: James Talley’s “Tryin’ Like the Devil”

By Ken Paulson

A lot of us who were fans of  Jerry Jeff Walker, Rusty Wier, Michael Martin Murphey and others in the mid-70s were pleasantly surprised by a newcomer named James Talley. He released four albums on Capitol Records in that decade, including the highly admired Tryin’ Like the Devil.

That album is now back in a 40th anniversary edition, released by Talley’s own Cimarron Records. This edition comes with extensive liner notes and full lyrics, and is available at Talley’s site.

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The Whiskey Gentry’s new album “Dead Ringer” released

The Whiskey Gentry have just released their first album since 2013 and it marks a vibrant step forward for this Atlanta-based band. The talented Lauren Staley remains at the forefront, singing songs that draw on the joys and travails of playing music for a living. “Dead Ringer” captures the hunger for affirmation – “Everybody tells me I’m a dead ringer for a more famous girl on the radio” and the English degree left behind – “If you want to talk Shakespeare, then now’s your chance.”

“Dead Ringer” highlights include the blistering “Paris,” “Rock & Roll Band,” “Following You” and a wonderful cover of Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache.”

The Whiskey Gentry are on tour this spring, with upcoming dates in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. – Ken Paulson

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Prince conference planned for May

(Note: Full disclosure, I’ll be interviewing original Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson at this Prince conference presented by Salford University and Middle Tennessee State University – Ken Paulson)

Dez Dickerson

Salford University, Manchester, England  – An original member of The Revolution will talk about his time playing with Prince as part of the first ever conference devoted to the music legend.

Buildings across the city will be turned purple to mark the University of Salford’s Purple Reign:An Interdisciplinary Conference on the Life and Legacy of Prince held at The Lowry arts centre and the University’s Media City UK campus on May 24-26.

The event, hosted by the University and their US partners Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), will pay tribute to the star who died last April, and is thought to be the first ever Prince conference dedicated solely to the Minneapolis-born funk legend.

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Taking cover on Cayamo 2017

 

By Paul T. Mueller

Singer-songwriters usually, and understandably, focus on their own songs when performing. But many also perform songs they didn’t write, especially in a festival setting, where the audience tends to appreciate the different perspectives artists can bring to others’ work. The recently concluded Cayamo 2017 cruise, a singer-songwriter-focused festival at sea, featured many excellent cover performances.

Leaving aside shows that by definition were pretty much all covers (a tribute to the late Guy Clark, for instance), here’s a sampling (in no special order and by no means comprehensive) of artists’ takes on songs written by or usually associated with other artists.

  • Parker Millsap, “You Gotta Move” (Mississippi Fred McDowell)
  • Brandi Carlile, “Going to California” (Led Zeppelin)
  • Patty Griffin and Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Insider” (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
  • Richard Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (Sandy Denny)
  • Christian Lopez Band, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (The Beatles)
  • Bonnie Bishop, “Whipping Post” (The Allman Brothers Band)
  • American Aquarium “Spanish Pipedream” (John Prine)
  • Aoife O’Donovan, “Can’t Find My Way Home” (Blind Faith)
  • Steve Earle, “Rex’s Blues” (Townes Van Zandt)
  • Ruby Amanfu, “I Put a Spell on You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
  • Gretchen Peters, “Guadalupe” (Tom Russell)
  • Sarah Jarosz, “Come On Up to the House” (Tom Waits)
  • Gurf Morlix, “The Parting Glass” (Traditional)
  • Sarah Potenza, “Hallelujah” (Leonard Cohen)
  • Patty Griffin, “Where or When” (Rodgers and Hart)

For lack of a better title, the “Repeat Offender Award” (no offense) goes to the Christian Lopez Band, which, in addition to covering the Beatles, performed Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” Bill Withers’ “Use Me,” Steve Fromholz’s “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” Stephen Bishop’s “On and On” and Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Let it be noted that A) they did a fine job on all of these, and B) their original material was also excellent.

The “Reverse Cover Award” goes to Steve Earle, who introduced his own “Galway Girl” by predicting that 100 years from now, people in Ireland will still be singing the song, but will be insisting that it was written by an Irishman.

Quotable Cayamo 2017

By Paul T. Mueller

Things musicians say between songs are sometimes funny, sometimes profound, sometimes both. Here are some notable quotes from the stages of Cayamo 2017.

“I don’t have any songs about boats. I do have a lot of songs about death, so we’ll just do those.” – Gretchen Peters

“I’m here to do country music!” – Lee Ann Womack

“Are you often told you’re too young to be writing that well?” – Glen Phillips to 21-year-old Christian Lopez after the latter presented a new song in their songwriters-in-the-round show with Will Hoge

“Glen and I were 21 when Pearl Harbor happened.” – Will Hoge (who’s actually 44) to Lopez after Lopez described singing on an aircraft carrier

“Damn, I’m having a good time! Resistance is fun!” – Gretchen Peters, in the “Songs of Protest” show she hosted

“The dues-paying in Nashville is never-ending.” – Angaleena Presley

“There’s a responsibility to protect the repertoire.” – Luther Dickinson, on the North Mississippi Allstars’ approach to playing the blues.

Cayamo, I just found out, is an old Spanish word for ‘We printed the lineups too small.’ “ – Will Hoge, on the tiny type used on the show schedules provided to passengers

“Y’all just sit there and judge us? If we make you cry, do we get a prize?” – Aoife O’Donovan, a guest performer in the Secret Sisters’ “All the Girls Who Cry” show, to the Sisters, Lydia and Laura Rogers (who were in fact sitting, judge-like, at the side of the stage)

“How cliché are we, crying at our own show?” – Lydia Rogers, after a particularly sad song

“Oh, my god! Holy sh*t! I was worried! Thanks for voting for me! I never win anything!” – Sarah Potenza, who earned her spot in the lineup partly through passengers’ votes in the “Soundcheck” competition

“We’re songwriters. You can’t hurt our feelings.” – Lori McKenna, in a Love Junkies show

BJ Barham

“Thank you so much for cultivating this kind of community… It’s just as much fun as everyone told us. It’s a family reunion!” – BJ Barham of American Aquarium.

“We went from a latte president to an Orange Julius president.” – “stowaway” Chuck Cannon, on his new song “Tangerine Jesus,” sung to the tune of “Paperback Writer”

“It’s ‘Skunk’ time all over again!” – Loudon Wainwright III of “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” fame, on the expected success of “Meet the Wainwrights,” a musical introduction to his extended family

“If Elton John had had a baby with Tom Petty…” – Patty Griffin, introducing guest Aaron Lee Tasjan, before a lovely duet on Petty’s “Insider”

“You will always have my heart.” – Rodney Crowell to Emmylou Harris in their duet show

“Same back atcha!” – Harris to Crowell

“I’m going to keep singing this song until I die or it comes true, whichever happens first.” – Steve Earle on his optimistic “Jerusalem”

 

 

 

 

 

Cayamo music cruise review: An astounding line-up

By Paul Mueller

The 10th edition of the Cayamo music cruise enjoyed sunny skies, smooth seas and a fairly astounding musical lineup. The festival at sea, aboard the Norwegian Jade, left Tampa on Feb. 19, and returned a week later, after stops at the islands of Cozumel, Mexico, and Roatan, Honduras. As always, it was billed as “A Journey Through Song,” and as always it lived up to that promise. The number of shows and their scheduling made it difficult to see every performer, but that’s a good problem to have.

Most of the more than 50 performers played individual shows, and many appeared in themed and collaboration shows as well. Themed shows included a tribute to the late Guy Clark; a “Songs of Protest” show hosted by Gretchen Peters; a “variety show” hosted by Shawn Mullins; “All the Girls Who Cry,” a sad-song fest hosted by Alabama country-folk crooners The Secret Sisters, and a guitar-focused show dubbed “Buddy Miller’s Guitar 101.” There were several “and friends” shows, mostly featuring several singer-songwriters in an in-the-round format, and singer and multi-instrumentalist Luke Bulla hosted “Last Man Standing” jams that capped off three evenings’ music. Many made guest appearances at other artists’ shows throughout the week, and passenger jams, sometimes including professionals, were easily found all over the boat.

A weeklong festival inevitably produces too many high points to list them all, but here are a few. Be assured that at the same time as pretty much any of these shows, there was at least one other equally memorable show going on somewhere else on the Jade.

Sunday, Feb. 19: The opening set on the pool deck can be a tough slot, with many passengers still boarding and those already aboard busy looking around or reuniting with old friends. But singer-songwriter Christian Lopez, a West Virginia native who’s all of 21 years old, made the most of his rookie appearance, demonstrating a veteran’s savvy in capturing the attention of the crowd. Alternating between well-written originals and covers, and between full-band and solo formats, Lopez rocked hard and showed that he’d earned his spot

North Mississippi All-Stars

on the roster. Well-done renditions of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me” played to the sensibilities of the crowd, much of which was three times Lopez’s age, but in a respectful way.

Also: Brandi Carlile,  a veteran of the first Cayamo music cruise in 2008 and most since, had herself a great time at the sail away show later in the afternoon, proclaiming the cruise “the greatest Cayamo ever.” Assisted as always by the Hanseroth twins (Phil on bass and Tim on guitar), she tore through favorites such as “Wherever Is Your Heart” and “The Eye” and closed with a nice rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”

Monday, Feb. 20: East Nashville-based singer-songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan made his much-anticipated Cayamo music cruise debut at an evening pool-deck show, and fully met his fans’ high expectations. Accompanied by fellow singer-songwriter Brian Wright, Tasjan played most of his most recent album, Silver Tears, as well as a few older tunes. His outgoing personality contrasted with Wright’s more stoic approach, but they were two of a kind when they started trading guitar licks. Late in the show, Wright took the spotlight to offer a fine rendition of his murder ballad “Maria Sugarcane.” Tasjan closed with a vigorous workout on his anthemic “Success” that had much of the crowd singing along.

Love Junkies on Cayamo music cruise

Also: The Love Junkies (singer-songwriters Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey) played an engaging show, performing songs made famous by bigger names in Nashville. These included McKenna’s “Humble and Kind” (Tim McGraw), Lindsey’s co-write “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (Keith Urban) and “Girl Crush” (written by all three and recorded by Little Big Town). The trio got support from Cary Barlowe and Ruston Kelly. It’s always fun to hear songs performed by the people who wrote them, without the usual studio trappings. Extra points to Rose for pushing through despite a case of laryngitis.

Tuesday, Feb. 21: The Songs of Protest show, hosted by Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters and featuring several Cayamo newcomers, was one of the emotional high points of the cruise. Performances included a powerful rendition of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” by soul powerhouse Sarah Potenza; Allen Toussaint’s joyful “Yes We Can Can,” by Amy Helm; Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” sung by Peters’ husband, keyboardist Barry Walsh, from the viewpoint of the new U.S. president; and Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” sung with intensity by Gurf Morlix and Potenza. Peters’ selections included a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.”

Also: A pool-deck tribute to Guy Clark tribute featured contributions from longtime Clark associates (Rodney Crowell, “Stuff That Works”; Emmylou Harris, “Immigrant Eyes”) as well as more recent acolytes (Sarah Jarosz, “Boats to Build”; Brian Wright, “Coyote”). Oddly missing from the set was the iconic “L.A. Freeway,” but Crowell and Steve Earle teamed up to close with “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”

Wednesday, Feb. 22: Fans might have expected the basics in a show called Buddy Miller’s Guitar 101; what they got was far more advanced. Singer-songwriter and producer Miller alternated between describing his own journey to guitar mastery and using his laptop to play snippets of six-string artistry by predecessors such as James Burton, Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix. Things got even better when Miller brought out his guests. Tasjan ripped through a terrific acoustic rendition of “Streets of Galilee,” which incorporates his own musical autobiography. Nashville session player Tom Bukovac played a funky/jazzy bit of electric improvisation that had Miller and Tasjan grinning and shaking their heads. North Mississippi Allstars frontman Luther Dickinson talked about his band’s mission in the blues world (“There’s a responsibility to respect the repertoire”) and demonstrated his mastery of both the acoustic six-string and a two-string instrument made from a coffee can. Finally, the legendary Richard Thompson talked a little about having played with Hendrix and executed a beautiful acoustic take on “Turning of the Tide,” along with an instrumental piece he described as “an Irish tune with Scottish variations.”

Also: Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge’s show in a well-packed Spinnaker Lounge, in which he talked about burning out and leaving music a few years ago before rediscovering his craft and returning to the road. The set featured the kind of confessional songs you’d expect, plus some favorites such as the funny but pointed “Jesus Came to Tennessee.” Hoge is a very funny guy, but also an intense performer, and his powerful songs and playing often had the sometimes-rowdy Spinnaker crowd listening in dead silence.

Sarah Jarosz on Cayamo music cruise

Thursday, Feb. 23: Against the backdrop of a nice Caribbean sunset, Kacey Musgraves and her band serenaded the sail-away from Roatan on the pool deck. The set list included a well-chosen mix of originals (“This Town,” “Merry Go ’Round,” “It Is What It Is”) and interesting covers (Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”). There was also a fun and witty reworking of the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo,” with lyrics tailored to the Cayamo experience and a laid-back vibe that suited the occasion perfectly. Musgraves closed with her anthemic “Arrow.”

Also: Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz, another Cayamo music cruise rookie, still looks about 17, but she sings and plays like she’s been onstage forever. Accompanied by bassist Jeff Picker and Australian-turned-Austinite guitar ace Jedd Hughes, Jarosz played a lovely set highlighted by the powerful (and Grammy-winning) “House of Mercy,” co-written with Hughes. Jarosz seems able to play anything with strings; her instruments in this show included acoustic and electric guitars, banjo and her unusual octave mandolin, an eight-stringed instrument the size of a small guitar.

Friday, Feb. 24: If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to play rock ‘n’ roll at 10 a.m. on a cruise ship, the answer is, “It is if you’re the North Mississippi Allstars.” Playing to a nearly capacity crowd in the Jade’s largest indoor venue, the Stardust Theater, the Allstars (Luther and Cody Dickinson, plus bassist Dominic Davis, who played with several artists) featured a mix of acoustic blues and all-out boogie. Cody, usually the Allstars’ drummer, yielded the

skins to Brady Blade, also from Miller’s band, to step out front on guitar and vocals for the traditional “Deep Ellum Blues.” The set closed with a fine rendition of the classic “Sitting on Top of the World,” featuring Luther and his coffee-can guitar.

Also: Singer-songwriter and Cayamo music cruise first-timer Aoife O’Donovan played a mostly original set, by turns quiet and loud, in the Spinnaker. She was assisted by guitarist Anthony da Costa and drummer Steve Nistor, along with guests Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Sarah Jarosz (who has played in the folkie trio I’m With Her with O’Donovan and former Nickel Creeker Sara Watkins). O’Donovan closed with a lovely rendition of Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” that might have drawn a few tears from those old enough to remember Blind Faith’s version.

Saturday, Feb. 24: The gospel show has become a well-loved Cayamo tradition. This year it took the form of a songwriter round rather than a succession of artists as in the past. Featured were country singer turned soul belter Bonnie Bishop, Nashville songwriters and performers (and spouses) Lari White and Chuck Cannon, and Sarah Potenza. Lending support were guitarists Ian Crossman, who’s married to Potenza, and Ford Thurston, who plays with Bishop, and bassist Patrick Blanchard). The show featured some traditional gospel, or at least gospel-ish, songs such as “I Shall Be Released” and “Power in the Blood,” as well as spiritual offerings such as Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and (perhaps inevitably in the wake of Leonard Cohen’s passing) a slow, intense rendition of “Hallelujah” by Potenza.

Bonnie Bishop

Also: The Wainwright Family, featuring patriarch Loudon Wainwright III and various descendants, exes and others, performed an excellent and eclectic set in the Stardust, kicking off with a team-effort “Meet the Wainwrights” to introduce the players. The cast included Wainwright’s son, Rufus Wainwright; his daughters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche; Lucy’s mother, Suzzy Roche, and Wainwright’s sister, Sloan Wainwright. Guests included Emmylou Harris, who performed a song in honor of Wainwright’s former wife, the late folksinger Kate McGarrigle; Brandi Carlile, with the Hanseroth twins; fiddler-mandolinist David Mansfield, and guitarist Stephen Murphy. The show closed with an all-hands-on-deck sing-along on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and a nice solo piano rendition of “Hallelujah” by Rufus Wainwright.

Honorable mentions on the Cayamo Music Cruise: Oklahoma folk-blues prodigy Parker Millsap, Mississippi rocker Paul Thorn, Nashville neo-diva Angaleena Presley, Colorado bluegrass outfit Trout Steak Revival, Nashville country-pop band Skyline Motel, North Carolina rockers American Aquarium, soulful Nashville singer-songwriter Sam Lewis, singer-songwriters Beth Wood and Patty Griffin, Nashville country traditionalist Lee Ann Womack, former Civil Wars member John Paul White, rising country artist Ryan Hurd, Nashville songstress Ruby Amanfu, former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips, young singer-songwriter Brian Dunne, new country star Maren Morris, Cayamo t’ai-chi master and clotheshorse Jim Lauderdale, Alabama folkie-rockers The Mulligan Brothers, and former Sea Level keyboardist and saxophonist Randall Bramblett.

Doyle and Debbie interview: Behind the scenes

By Ken Paulson

Walk by the venerable Station Inn tomorrow night or on many evenings throughout the year and you’ll hear raucous laughter coming from inside the Nashville venue.

Strange. Bluegrass isn’t that funny.

But Doyle and Debbie are. They’re the lead characters in an irreverent musical that parodies traditional country songs in a non-traditional way. “When You’re Screwin’ Other Women (Think of Me)” pretty much says it all.

The show – in residency at the Station Inn – recreates Doyle’s “comeback” tour with his “third Debbie.” It satirizes old school country, but with an affectionate nod.

The show was created and written by Bruce Arnston, and features Arnston and Jenny Littleton in the title roles.  We had the chance to talk with both recently about this truly singular show:

New: Mavericks, Rodney Crowell, Drew Holcomb

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.

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