Review: Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson

By Paul T. Mueller

The tour is billed as “Three Women and the Truth,” and that’s, well, the truth. There is a whole lot of truth in the songs of Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters and Eliza Gilkyson, and the trio presented it straight up to a capacity audience at the first of two April 23 shows at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston. The format couldn’t have been much simpler – three women, each with an acoustic guitar. But the writing and performing skill on display were anything but simple.

The trio took turns, each performing five songs, with occasional vocal and/or instrumental support from the others. The subject matter included such themes as death (Peters’ “Hello Cruel World”), romantic difficulty (Gilkyson’s “Think About You”) and social inequity (Gauthier’s “Sugar Cane”).

But while the tone was a bit dark, the performances were dazzling. Particularly affecting were Peters’ “The Matador,” an ambivalent love story full of rich imagery; Gilkyson’s “Easy Rider,” a touching tribute to her father, folksinger and songwriter Terry Gilkyson, one of whose groups was The Easy Riders; and Gauthier’s classic “Mercy Now,” which earned one of the set’s most enthusiastic responses.

Accompanying the music was a generous sprinkling of between-songs banter covering such topics as the sometimes alarming honesty of Dutch audiences, Gilkyson’s skills with onstage electronics (when something went wrong, she was able to make a quick repair), and

Gauthier’s prowess at parallel-parking large vehicles (she got a big laugh when she referred to that skill as “kind of a lesbian pride thing”).

After what seemed like a much-too-short set, the trio took a bow, conferred briefly and sat down again to alternate verses on a beautiful rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

Review: Caleb Caudle’s “Carolina Ghost”

 By Paul T. Mueller

caudle2_160Caleb Caudle is a fine singer and a better-than-average songwriter, but his latest album, Carolina Ghost, doesn’t quite do justice to his gifts.

The pieces are there – tasteful guitar picking, twangy steel guitar, a solid rhythm section, some keyboards for flavor. But what it adds up to is a pleasant and not-very-challenging sound that’s reminiscent of the country pop of the Seventies.

Technically, it’s hard to fault the precise playing and the clean production by Caudle and Jon Ashley. But the album doesn’t capture the full sound and spirit Caudle and his musicians are capable of when performing live. Carolina Ghost is a good effort that would have benefited from a little more grit.


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New releases: Charlie Faye, Hartford and Forrester

New and upcoming releases:

FAYETTESCharlie Faye and the Fayettes –  Charlie Faye teams up with Betty Soo and Akina Adderley to form a girl group on her new album “Charlie Faye and the Fayettes.” It melds a ’60 sound with 2016 attitude, exemplifed by the sexual invitations on “Green Light.” The Chiffons would have been appalled. Classic influences abound, from the Ronettes intro to “Coming Around the Bend” to “Breakaway”-era Jackie DeShannon on “Delayed Reaction.” It’s all fresh and fun.

Cornflower BluesInvincible – Reflective third  album from Ontario band, due June 1.

homemadesugarJohn Hartford  and Howdy ForresterHome Made Sugar and a Puncheon Floor – Spring Fed Records( The Center for Popular Music at Middle Tenessee State University) – Historic home recordings from John Hartford and fiddler Howdy Forrester. The album offers an informal performance and conversation focusing on  songs Forrester learned as a boy from his Great Uncle Bob Cates.

Town MountainSouthern Crescent – Spirited  new bluegrass album, due April 1.

Bobcat-cover-for-webstore-280x251[1]Kyle TuttleBobcat – Debut album of Nashville-based banjo player Kyle Tuttle features his own compositions.

Steve DawsonSolid States and Loose Ends – Canadian artist Steve Dawson, now based in Nashville, releases his seventh solo album.

Mary Ann CasaleRestless Heart – Blues, folk and jazz from Northern New York artist.

speed of the plowMatt Brown and Greg ReishSpeed of the Plow –Fiddler Matt Brown and guitarist Greg Reish play old-time American instrumentals.

Lizanne Knott Excellent Day – Bluesy, intimate new album due April 8.

Tin Toy Cars – Debut album from Las Vegas-based Tin Toy Cars.

Celebration of songwriting at Tin Pan South

By Ken Paulson

Wayland Holyfield and Dickey Lee

Wayland Holyfield and Dickey Lee

The Tin Pan South songwriters festival in Nashville this week offered up five nights of remarkable performances by some of the country’s best songwriters, but an early show on Thursday at the Station Inn featuring three veteran performers and writers was among the most memorable.

I’ve just finished reading The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, a book by John Seabrook that documents how today’s songs are engineered rather than created. There’s a new hook every few seconds because the formula demands it. Every generation complains that “all these new songs sound the same.” This time they’re right.

That’s why the performance at the Station Inn was so special. Buzz Cason, Dickey Lee and Wayland Holyfield have had hits spanning five decades, fueled by inspiration, happenstance and creativity.

Buzz Cason

Buzz Cason

Cason’s “Soldier of love” was covered by the Beatles during the BBC sessions and his “Everlasting Love” has become a pop standard. But he explained that his professional breakthrough came just by mimicking the goofy doo-wop vocals of Jan and Dean, and then submitting the songs to the duo. The result: “Tennessee” and the Top 25 single “Popsicle.”

 Dickey Lee had a successful career as a recording artist and performed “I Saw Linda Yesterday,” his hit from 1963.  But the emotional stakes of that song were trumped by his biggest hit, “She Thinks I Still Care,” a classic in the hands of George Jones. Lee said the song was inspired by a girl who broke his heart.

Holyfield played “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” his first hit as a songwriter and a big record for Johnny Russell. But the highlight of  his performance was “You’re My Best Friend,” a Don Williams hit that Holyfield dedicated to his wife.

And so it goes. The hits of the past were inspired by lost love. Found love. And an impulse to get Jan and Dean to record your songs.

No algorithms. No product. Just art, creativity and fun.

CTM writers at Tin Pan South

Review: Parker Millsap’s “The Very Last Day”

 By Paul T. Mueller

MillsapIs April too early to start talking about contenders for best album of the year? Probably, but chances are Parker Millsap’s The Very Last Day is going to be on a lot of people’s Top 10 lists come December. It’s no stretch to call the Oklahoma singer-songwriter’s third album one of the best of the year so far. Millsap starts with conventional musical forms, including blues, folk, bluegrass and a bit of jazz, and puts an unconventional spin on them. He ends up with a sound that’s all his own, and a collection of slightly offbeat songs marked by excellent writing, exuberant singing and accomplished playing.

A lot of the buzz around The Very Last Day is going to center on “Heaven Sent,” in which a gay son seeks acceptance from his minister father. It is a brilliant piece of songwriting, heart-wrenching and affirming at the same time. “You say that it’s a sin/ but it’s how I’ve always been,” Millsap sings, his tormented voice dramatically underscored by guitar and violin. “Did you love me when/he was just my friend?” It’s a powerful message, combining anguish and defiance, and Millsap has the emotional range to get it across convincingly.

The title track deals with an unusual subject – nuclear apocalypse – in an unexpected way. Instead of dread, there’s a kind of gleeful resignation. “You know there ain’t no reason being so afraid/Yeah, you can try to hide, but it’s gonna get you anyway,” Millsap sings. “When I see that cloud, gonna sing out loud/Lift my head and say/Praise the Lord, it’s the very, very, very last day.”

There’s plenty more – “Pining,” a sweet love song; “Hades Pleads,” in which the lord of the underworld seeks companionship; “Morning Sun,” a gentle, bluesy song about love and loneliness; “Hands Up,” a rocking first-person narrative by a reluctant gas-station robber. The album closes with “Tribulation Hymn,” a beautiful and cryptic meditation on spirituality and sin.

Of the 11 tracks, all are Millsap compositions except for the classic blues-gospel song “You Gotta Move,” which here gets an excellent acoustic treatment. A staple of Millsap’s live shows, it’s fueled by his almost unearthly vocals and the powerful, yet somehow playful, violin of Daniel Foulks.

Other players include the third member of Millsap’s touring band, bassist Michael Rose, playing both acoustically and electrically; Patrick Ryan on drums and percussion, and Tim Laver on accordion and keyboards. Backing vocals are courtesy of Erika Attwater, Sara Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Caitlyn O’Doyle and Sara Watkins.


Song Suffragettes at Tin Pan South


Opening night at Tin Pan South

Tin Pan South 2016 preview

By Ken Paulson

Mac Davis and Bobby Braddock at Tin Pain South 2011

Mac Davis and Bobby Braddock at Tin Pan South 2011

Tin Pan South, one of Nashville’s best -and most economical – music festivals begins Tuesday, April 9, the first of  five nights of songwriter showcases.

This annual event brings together songwriting legends (Bobby Bare, Mac Davis, Bill Anderson) and songwriters dominating the charts today (Luke Laird, Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, Jessi Alexander.) It features legacy artists (Dickie Lee, Buzz Cason) and current stars (Will Hoge, Kacey Musgraves.)

The songwriters rounds encompass a wide range of themes – “A Little Chick on Pick Action” anyone? – but the overall quality is always high. Some shows that we found particularly intriguing:

Tuesday, April 5, 6pm | $20 Bluebird Cafe
Bill Anderson, Bobby Bare, Buddy Cannon, special guests

Tuesday, April 5, 6pm | $20 The Country

Jessi Alexander, Cary Barlowe, Jonathan Singleton, Josh Thompson

Tuesday, April 5, 9pm | $15 Whiskey Rhythm Saloon
Keith Burns, Jim Peterik, Collin Raye, Joie Scott, special guest

Wednesday, April 6, 9pm | $15 Station Inn
Chuck CannonLari WhiteLee Roy Parnell

Wednesday, April 6, 9pm | $20 Bluebird Cafe
Mac Davis, Scotty Emerick, Leslie Satcher, Special Guest

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $20 Listening Room
Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Lori McKenna, Special Guest

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $10 Station Inn
Buzz Cason, Wayland Holyfield, Dickey Lee

Thursday, April 7, 9pm | $15 Douglas Corner
Bekka Bramlett, Billy Burnette, Bruce Gaitsch, Dennis Morgan

Thursday, April 7, 6pm | $15 Bluebird Cafe

Pat Alger, Don Henry, Livingston Taylor, Jon Vezner

Friday, April 8, 6:30pm | $20 3rd and Lindsley
Granville Automatic (Elizabeth Elkins & Vanessa Olivarez),
Travis Meadows, Angaleena Presley

Friday, April 8, 6:30pm | $15 Listening Room
Jeff Cohen, James T. Slater, Kim Richey

Saturday, April 9, 6:30pm | $15 Station Inn
Marti Dodson, Will Hoge, Tony Lane, Jason Mizelle, Special Guest

Saturday, April 9, 6:30pm | $20 3rd and Lindsley
A Benefit for Bonaparte’s Retreat
Clare Bowen, Chris Carmack, Colin Linden, Brandon Young, special guest, hosted by Emmylou Harris

Saturday, April 9, 9:30pm | $25 3rd and Lindsley
Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne

The full schedule can be found on the Nashville Songwriters Association website.

Review: Jason Wilber’s “Echoes”

By Paul T. Mueller
wilberJason Wilber is best known to many as the nattily dressed guy who stands to the right of the great John Prine on stage, playing guitar and mandolin and singing harmony. Wilber also happens to be a singer-songwriter in his own right, with nine solo albums to his credit.

The newest, Echoes, finds him performing songs by other writers. He’s covering a lot of ground here – Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” Joni Mitchell’s “Edith and the Kingpin,” David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” are among the 11 tracks. Of course Wilber’s boss gets his due, with a solemn reading of “Paradise,” Prine’s lament about the despoiled coal country of Kentucky.

Echoes follows several years’ serious effort by Wilber to improve his singing voice, and while he will probably always be more noted as a guitarist than as a singer, his vocals do justice to the essence of these songs. The album benefits from spare but clean production by Paul Mahern, who also handled percussion duties, with help on a couple of tracks from Devon Ashley. The rest of it – guitars, bass and vocals – is all Wilber.



New releases: Paul Burch on the life of Jimmie Rodgers

New and recent releases:

Paul BurchMeridian RisingPaul Burch – Plowboy Records  The new Paul Burch album is an extraordinarily ambitious project, the “imagined autobiography” of the legendary Jimmie Rodgers.  Often cited as the father of country music, Rodgers was a transformative figure whose tragically short career influenced all who followed. Burch, perhaps best known as a member of WPA BallClub, uses Rodgers’ life story as a foundation for his own musical explorations. He’s joined by some great players – from Nashville and elsewhere-  including  Fats Kaplin, Tim O’Brien, Garry Tallent, Jen Gunderman, Jon Langford and William Tyler. Nashville Scene Editor Jim Ridley captured the essence of the album (and Burch’s career) beautifully in a cover story for the Nashville Scene. You’ll find it here.

Dynamite!Tami Neilson – Outside – Raucous honky tonk from an award-winning New Zealand artist who will bring Wanda Jackson to mind.

Good and DirtySarah Borges – Hard-rocking EP from Sarah Borges, produced by Eric Ambel. She’s opening in March for Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin

Crow River RambleJason Paulson – Minneapolis-based songwriter releases his third album on March 25.



Review: Cayamo 2016 a magical musical tour

By Paul T. Mueller

Cayamo 2016 is in the books. The latest edition of the singer-songwriter-focused cruise, aboard the Norwegian Pearl, arrived back in Miami early on Sunday, Feb. 7, after a week’s voyage through the Caribbean and stops at the islands of Tortola and Sint Maarten. More than 2,000 passengers disembarked on a brisk, sunny South Florida morning, most of them tired, happy and prepared to relive the experience on social media and at meet-ups around the country until the 10th Cayamo sets sail in 2017.

Cayamo 2016  provided plenty of highs and a few lows. Let’s dispense quickly with the lows – too-chilly air conditioning in some of the indoor venues; considerably higher prices for adult beverages than in years past; problems (real and/or perceived) with things like food quality and sound mixes at some shows; restrictions on photography during sets by at least one high-profile performer; the occasional plumbing problem in a stateroom. But these matters weren’t enough to harsh the mellow of a weeklong musical festival at sea.

The highs on Cayamo 2016 were much more numerous. As always, there were more great performances than anyone subject to the laws of time and space could hope to see, so missing some magical moments was a given. But here, in more or less chronological order, is a subjective look at some outstanding performances from each day, from among many that could have been included.

Sunday, Jan. 31 – embarkation day

Americana superstar Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, took the pool-deck stage for the sailaway show as the Pearl left Miami. It’s hard to imagine a better choice, as the group ripped through a high-energy, 14-song set. Included were several tracks from Isbell’s most recent album, Something More than Free, along with older material such as “Decoration Day” and “Alabama Pines.” The set was capped by a rocking rendition of the Rolling Stones’ classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” with Isbell and lead guitarist Sadler Vaden trading licks in a more-than-passable echo of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor.

Steve Earle took the stage of the Pearl’s large auditorium, the Stardust Theater, Sunday evening for his only solo show (he also played two sets with Shawn Colvin later in the week). After opening with “Devil’s Right Hand,” Earle noted that it’s been 30 years since the release of his stellar debut album, Guitar Town, and then launched into the title track, still fresh despite the decades. What followed was pretty much a string of greatest hits, as many as could be fitted into a one-hour set. He closed with a quiet, powerful rendition of his death-penalty ballad “Billy Austin” and an excellent reading of the classic “Copperhead Road.”

Also: British guitarist Martin Harley’s high-powered slide guitar on the pool deck during boarding; Jimmy Galloway’s masterful picking in the Atrium; Jim Lauderdale’s endearing mix of goofiness and country chops in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Monday, Feb. 1 – at sea

Angaleena Presley

Angaleena Presley on Cayamo 2016

Monday afternoon featured an excellent “Unlikely Trio” show with three Cayamo rookies – Angaleena Presley, Foy Vance and Paul Thorn – taking turns performing their own songs, sometimes with backup from the others. Irish singer Vance delivered his selections with a powerful, expressive voice and vigorous guitar playing. His words weren’t always easy to follow, but the emotions behind them were. Several of Presley’s songs were taken from her most recent album, the fine American Middle Class. A newer song, “Bless Your Heart,” was a hilarious but biting jab at hypocrisy, and its title was soon to become a buzzword around the boat. Thorn, a veteran of other music cruises but a newcomer to many Cayamoans, wasted no time endearing himself to the crowd by dedicating “I’m Still Here” to a cancer patient he had met. One of the more charming aspects of shows of this kind is watching artists’ reactions to the work of others with whom they might not be all that familiar. It’s often a combination of amusement and admiration, and Monday’s show did not disappoint.

Foy Vance

Foy Vance

Also: Promising pop from young singer Rainey Qualley in the Great Outdoors; harmony-driven country folk from The Novel Ideas; singer-songwriter excellence from John Prine and John Hiatt in the Stardust; Nashville brilliance from the past and the present from Buddy Miller in the Stardust.

Tuesday, Feb. 2 – at sea

Lucinda Williams’ band, Buick 6, has accompanied her on Cayamo previously, but this year was the first time the band got its own sets. The first came Tuesday night, before a Lucinda set, and consisted of about a half-hour of high-energy power trio rock, with a little funk and jazz thrown in. Most of it was instrumental, with occasional nonverbal vocals and whistling. For fans of the power-trio format, or of instrumental rock in general, it was an invigorating warmup for Williams’ show. The band’s members – guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton – are excellent musicians, and the title of their debut album, Plays Well With Others, was well chosen.

Williams also put on a terrific show, mixing older material (“Drunken Angel,” “Lake Charles,” “Can’t Let Go,” “Joy”) with newer songs, including several from her just-released The Ghosts of Highway 20 (the title track and “Dust,” based on a work by her late father, poet Miller Williams). Appearing relaxed and confident, Williams produced some nice work on acoustic and electric guitar to accompany her gritty lyrics of love and loss, spirituality and sensuality. She drew laughs with her description of the time and effort she put into getting her hair ready for the show, only to see her labors literally blown away on the windy pool deck.

Jim Lauderdale on Cayamo 2016

Jim Lauderdale on Cayamo 2016

Also: The history of American roots music, plus stellar guest performances, from David Bromberg in the Stardust; fine bluesy guitar from Martin Harley in the Great Outdoors; high-volume country rock from Chris Stapleton on the pool deck; the midnight Grateful Dead tribute show on the pool deck, backed by American Babies and featuring contributions from Miller, Lauderdale, Bromberg and many others.

Wednesday, Feb. 3 – Sint Maarten/St. Martin Passengers returning Wednesday from excursions on Sint Maarten/St. Martin were treated to a sailaway show by Hurray for the Riff Raff, led by singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra. The Cayamo newcomers showed plenty of rock ‘n’ roll attitude to back up Segarra’s thoughtful and sometimes disturbing lyrics, as in “The Body Electric,” a reimagining of the classic Southern murder ballad from a different angle. “Like an old sad song, you heard it all before,” she sang. “Well, Delia’s gone, but I’m settling the score.”

Newly anointed American superstar Chris Stapleton’s first indoor show packed the Stardust Wednesday night. Stapleton and his band were a little more subdued than in their rocking pool deck show the previous night, but the set was still almost as much rock ‘n’ roll spectacle as Americana, fueled by Stapleton’s guitar heroics and plenty of high-powered backup from his very capable band. Stapleton did seem a bit nonplussed by the quiet and attentive Cayamo crowd – at one point he noted that he could hear a pin drop on stage between songs, and then (apparently) dropped something to prove just that. But the show, consisting mostly of material from the hugely successful Traveller album, was not without its rowdy charms, and the audience certainly seemed to eat it up, even calling the band out for an encore of “Sometimes I Cry.”

Also: Full-band rock and blues with a funny twist from Paul Thorn on the pool deck; purebred Americana from Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams in the Spinnaker; high-energy, late-night jamming with American Babies in the Atrium.

Thursday, Feb. 4 – Tortola

John Fullbright seemed to be embracing a bigger sound than on previous Cayamos, and this was much in evidence at his Thursday sailaway show on the pool deck. Fullbright and his band, with the help of guests including guitarist Davis Causey and keyboardist Daniel Walker, rocked out on signature tunes including “All the Time in the World” and “Fat Man.” But the emotional high point of the show might have been a powerful and dramatic rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee” – with a subtle lyrical twist that sounded a lot like a dig at anti-immigrant comments by a certain front-running Republican presidential candidate. Fullbright closed with a joyous, full-out take on the Box Tops classic “The Letter.”

Robert Ellis on Cayamo 2016

Robert Ellis on Cayamo 2016

Singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, who’d already played a solo set on the Pearl’s Great Outdoors stage and a couple of straight-up country tunes at Shawn Mullins’ Family Jam in Bar City, had a few surprises in store for his midnight Thursday show in the Stardust. A few songs in, backed by his nattily attired band, the Perfect Strangers, Ellis launched into a vigorous rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris,” on which he demonstrated his monster guitar skills. He followed with other selections from his most recent album, The Lights from the Chemical Plant, along with new material. Things took a left turn late in the show with an extended instrumental jam that owed more to free jazz than to Ellis’ more usual genres, country and folk. The chaos finally resolved into “Sing Along,” Ellis’ blistering indictment of organized religion. Despite his veteran status – he also sailed on Cayamo in 2013 – Ellis seemed to be many Cayamoans’ “find” this year.

Also: Guitar-fueled singer-songwriter brilliance from Jason Isbell and band, including wife Amanda Shires, in the Stardust; bouncy pop from Kate York and Joe Pisapia in the Spinnaker; “heavy mellow” from Sugar & the Hi-Lows in the Atrium; well-written singer-songwriter fare from Sam Lewis in the Spinnaker.

Friday, Feb. 5 – at sea

After several years on the cruise as lead guitarist and vocalist in John Prine’s band, Jason Wilber finally got a set of his own on Cayamo 2016 on Friday, and he made the most of it, to the delight of an attentive Atrium crowd. Wilber led off with a lovely, slow rendition of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” following with the unfortunately timely “Oh You Pretty Things” by David Bowie. He brought out drummer Kenneth Blevins, of John Hiatt’s band, The Combo, and elicited laughs with “Quakertown Optimist Club,” inspired by a newspaper story about down times for an upbeat organization. Much of the rest of the show consisted of tracks from his new album, Echoes, on which he covers a range of material by other writers (including an excellent take on Prine’s mournful “Paradise”). Also included was the original “Ghost Light,” a tribute to the old theaters in which he often plays when touring with Prine.

Knoxville-based roots-rock outfit The Black Lillies delighted a large pool deck crowd Friday afternoon with an energetic set drawn largely from its recent album Hard to Please. The band, fronted by Cruz Contreras on guitars, keyboards and vocals and singer-guitarist Trisha Gene Brady, was clearly buoyed by the outpouring of support it received in the aftermath of having its van and a trailer full of instruments and other belongings stolen after a gig just days before Cayamo. Playing with borrowed instruments, the Lillies turned in strong performances on such familiar tunes as “Two Hearts Down” and “Ruby,” and newer material including the quiet ballad “Born to Roam,” the rocking touring tale “40 Days,” and the soulful “Mercy.” The band got a boost on a few songs from the trumpet and saxophone players from Austin-based funk-rock outfit Mingo Fishtrap.

Also: Harmony-driven adult pop from Johnnyswim on the pool deck; slightly quirky, personal tunes from Amanda Shires, accompanied by Jason Isbell, in the Spinnaker; acoustic pop with a New Orleans vibe from the Andrew Duhon Trio in the Great Outdoors; excellent folk and country in a mostly requests show by Slaid Cleaves in the Great Outdoors; pop country with a hip-hop twist from Maren Morris in the Atrium.

Saturday, Feb 6 – at sea

The final 2016 show by Shawn Mullins, the only musician to have performed on all nine Cayamos, was mostly a parade of familiar hits – “Beautiful Wreck,” “Light You Up,” “Twin Rocks, Oregon,” and so on – not new, but delivered as always with passion and style. Mullins also threw in some newer material, including a couple of songs from his recent album My Stupid Heart – the title track and “Ferguson,” a co-write with Chuck Cannon that addresses racial matters. Guitarist Davis Causey earned a cake and a standing ovation in honor of his 67th birthday, and the show resumed with “House of the Rising Sun” and “Lullabye.” A final sweet moment ensued when the hundred or so Cayamoans who had sailed on all nine voyages came down the aisles, attired in white bathrobes, to sing along with Shawn on “Sunshine.”

The performances of Cayamo 2016 drew to a close late Saturday with the Moonlight Revival, a guitar pull featuring three rounds of three or four singer-songwriters each. The event started out on the pool deck, but wind and rain necessitated its being moved to the Atrium after only a few songs. Early-round highlights of the acoustic show included Steve Earle’s heartfelt “Jerusalem,” Angaleena Presley’s snarky “Bless Your Heart” and Foy Vance’s literary epic “Noam Chomsky Is a Soft Revolution.”

Also: A morning gospel show featuring chicken and waffles and contemplative tunes from Birds of Chicago, Sam Lewis, Langhorne Slim, Martin Harley and The Bros. Landreth on the pool deck; more funny songs with serious messages, brilliantly played, from Paul Thorn and his band in the Stardust.

Finally, despite my efforts, I wasn’t able to catch enough of Shawn Colvin, The Alternate Routes or Watkins Family Hour to offer an informed opinion. I can say that all had many fans on Cayamo and all were reported to have turned in fine performances.


A quotable cruise: Cayamo 2016

By Paul Mueller

Best quotes from the stages of Cayamo 2016:

“It’s like playing in a Lava Lamp, but it’s a great feeling.” – Alynda Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff, during a sunny midday set on the pool deck

Lucinda Williams and her "boys"

Lucinda Williams and her “boys”

“This is my band! These are my boys! Three guys with the power of six! “– Lucinda Williams, on her band, Buick 6

“Twenty-three percent of my day – a little more – is spent waiting for Teresa.” – Larry Campbell, while waiting for his wife and musical partner, Teresa Williams, to join him onstage

“I’m sweating up here like Ted Cruz at a Steve Earle concert.” – Jim Lauderdale

“We ain’t on this cruise to do the right thing, are we? We gonna straighten up on Monday”. – Paul Thorn, on questionable dietary choices at the buffet

“When you think of great songs, you think 1980s and you think Echo and the Bunnymen. At least I do.” – Jason Wilber, before performing that band’s “The Game”

“It’s OK to love the Grateful Dead. It’s also OK to hate the Grateful Dead. “– Buddy Miller, before singing “Black Muddy River”

“You guys are unnervingly quiet.” – Chris Stapleton, to the audience at one of his large-theater shows

“Please sing along with congregational gusto.” – J.T. Nero of Birds of Chicago, during the Saturday morning gospel show

“We’re gonna sing some really sad songs, and somehow it’s gonna make us all happy. “– Slaid Cleaves

“That’s the saddest S.O.B. I have to offer.” – Jason Isbell, on his cancer ballad “Elephant”

“Play it again!” – David Bromberg, to several band members and guest artists after each had played a solo.

Award-worthy moments from Cayamo 2016

By Paul T. Mueller

Award-worthy moments from Cayamo 2016:

The Cover Me AwardJason Wilber, who played songs by David Bowie, John Prine, Echo and the Bunnymen and others (plus some originals) in a very entertaining Atrium show.

The Press On Regardless Award – The Black Lillies, who played a series of great sets on Cayamo 2016 with borrowed instruments after having most of their gear stolen less than a week before the cruise.

The “They Must Be Clones” Award – (Tie) Daniel Walker (keyboards and accordion, John Fullbright) and Chojo Jacques (fiddle and mandolin, Slaid Cleaves), one or both of who seemed to be a guest performer at practically every set all week.

The “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” Award – Cruz Contreras (The Black Lillies), who was still playing as the Pearl pulled into the Port of Miami.


The Boogie Shoes AwardMingo Fishtrap, whose late-night funk-rock shows kept the Atrium hopping.

The Dead Will Live Again Award – American Babies, “house band” for the Grateful Dead tribute show.

The Deadpan Delivery Award – J.T. Lindsay (Birds of Chicago), for his confession that he had been inadvertently drinking Jim Lauderdale’s wine and his promise to “make it right.”

The “Where’s the Beef?” AwardPaul Thorn and Shawn Mullins, for their “feud” pitting Mississippi morality against rock ‘n’ roll hedonism.

The Let’s Duet AwardSlaid Cleaves, who sang the Dewey Cox classic to passengers late one night in the Great Outdoors dining area.

Chris Stapleton on Cayamo 2016

Chris Stapleton on Cayamo 2016

The Fish Out of Water Award – Chris Stapleton, who seemed somewhat perplexed at the idea of playing for quiet audiences.

The “How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere At All” Award – every Cayamo passenger who found him- or herself desperately wanting to attend two shows at the same time.

The Bandleader Generosity Award – David Bromberg, who in at least one show insisted that almost every band member and guest take a solo – and then kept saying, “Play it again!.”

The Throwback AwardJason Isbell and the 400 Unit, for their excellent rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” at the sailaway show.

The Bless Your Heart AwardAngaleena Presley, for her very funny song by the same name, which became an oft-repeated catch phrase around the boat.

The Keepin’ It Clean Award – The Washy Washy Duo (Norwegian Cruise Lines employees Redelick on guitar and Komang on vocals and hand sanitizer spray bottle), who daily serenaded passengers entering the buffet with such classics as “Washy Washy, Happy Happy,” “I Wanna Wash Your Hands” and “Spray You, Spray Me.”

The Best Dressed Male AwardRobert Ellis, who apparently brought along steamer trunks filled with fashionable suits and accessories.

The Best Dressed Female Award – Rainey Qualley, for the beguiling black dress she wore at her Atrium show.

Parents of the Year – Paul “Hammy” Hamilton (Foy Vance’s drummer) and his wife, for cruising with a couple of very young kids.

Honorary Uncle of the Year Award – Foy Vance, who was often to be seen playing with his drummer’s young sons on the pool deck.

The Most Valuable Player Award – the crew of Sixthman, the Atlanta-based company that produces Cayamo.

New releases: Buddy Miller on Cayamo, Mark Huff

New and recent releases:

Cayamo Sessions at SeaBuddy Miller and Friends – We’ve been on the Cayamo music cruise a number of times and this new collection conveys what makes that such a rich musical experience. Take a couple of dozen Americana music artists, put them all on a cruise ship, and compelling collaborations result. Highlights include Miller and Nikki Lane on “Just Someone I Used to Know,” Lee Ann Womack’s take on “After the Fire is Gone” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” Kris Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Elizabeth Cook, Shawn Colvin, Jill Andrews, Doug Seegers, Brandi Carlile and the Lone Bellow round out this thoroughly enjoyable collection.

Mark HuffDown RiverMark Huff – This vibrant new EP from Mark Huff moves seamlessly through rock, folk and country, fueled by some of Nashville’s best players. Down River was produced by Huff and Mark Robinson, joined in the studio by Audley Freed, Jen Gunderman, Paul Griffith, Mike Vargo and Lisa Oliver-Gray. Huff writes smart and personal songs with compelling hooks, a next-generation Elliott Murphy.  “Almost True” would be the ideal single if there still was such a thing.

Brown-Eyed Georgia Darlin’Sammy Walker – The legendary Phil Ochs championed Sammy Walker in the ‘70s, but commercial success eluded the Georgia folksinger. Give credit to Ramseur Records for unearthing the set of demos that launched Walker’s career. They’re very much of the era – “Talkin’ Women’s Lib”– but clear evidence that Walker’s songwriting and Arlo Guthrie-like vocals should have taken him further.

ExperiencedLarry Keel – Flatpicking guitarist Larry Keel’s new album features guest spots from Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan and Keller Williams.

Six on the OutThe Westies – Chicago-based duo follows up debut West Side Stories with a new collection of folk-rock narratives.

MultitudesJames Houlahan – Third solo album from former member of The Jody Grind and Dogs on Television.

Broken ManBen Hemming – London-based singer-songwriter’s first album features blues-fueled Americana. A U.S. tour is in the works.


Interview: Shawn Camp, World Famous Headliners

One of the most buzzed-about bands on the recent Sandy Beaches cruise was the World Famous Headliners. We talked onboard with Shawn Camp about the group’s new album and his colorful bandmates Al Anderson, Pat McLaughlin, Michael Rhodes and Greg Morrow.

Don Henry: Good cause, great artist in Murfreesboro

Don HenryAmericana Music News — There’s a scene in an episode of Nashville in which Deacon decides he’s going to perform his new material in Murfreesboro, TN  so he can be sure that no one will see him.
On Feb. 18, Grammy-winning songwriter Don Henry will defy that stereotype with a benefit show at 6:30 p.m. at MTSU’s Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, raising money for scholarships.
Henry, whose “All Kinds of Kinds” was a recent hit for Miranda Lambert, has written for Ray Charles, Blake Shelton, Kathy Mattea, Lonestar, Patti Page, Conway Twitty and many others.
And in a town full of fine singer-songwriters, Henry is one of the best performers, regularly engaging audiences with energetic, warm and funny performances at the Bluebird Cafe. Tickets are available here.

Concert review: Kelly WIllis and Radio Ranch

by Paul T. Mueller

Kelly Willis’ performance at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston on Jan. 22 was a testament to the enduring power of good music. The show, the second of two at the venue that night, was part of a brief tour in honor of the 25th anniversary of her debut album, Well Travelled Love. For the tour, as on the album, she was backed by her old band Radio Ranch, sounding just as good as they did back in the day.

Well Travelled Love, released in 1990, was fueled by Willis’ lively vocals and the rockabilly twang of her band, plus big-time Nashville production (by Tony Brown and John Guess) and promotion. The 11 songs were a mix of originals by drummer Mas Palermo (who also happened to be married to Willis at the time) and such Nashville notables as Steve Earle, Paul Kennerley, Monte Warden and John Hiatt. The band didn’t last very long and neither did Willis’ status as country music’s newest sweetheart (a role she wasn’t all that comfortable with), but none of that changes the fact that WTL was an excellent album and a fine showcase for everyone involved.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” Willis said before launching the show with “My Heart’s In Trouble Tonight,” WTL’s opening track. The band’s full sound and tight playing belied what must have been a pretty brief rehearsal period. “It’s like not a day has passed!” Willis declared after the song ended.

The rest of the show included seven more songs from Well Travelled Love, along with material from Willis’ subsequent albums. An occasional hiccup notwithstanding, all were marked by Willis’ strong, confident singing and excellent backup from the band – lead guitarist David Murray, steel guitarist Mike Hardwick, bassist Brad Fordham and drummer Palermo. On many songs the guitarists alternated fiery solos, while the rhythm section provided a solid foundation and Fordham contributed harmony vocals.

There wasn’t a throwaway in the 17-song set, but particular highlights included the twangy “I Don’t Want to Love You (But I Do)”; the beautifully weepy “World Without You,” from Kelly Willis’ second album, Bang Bang; the rocking “Teddy Boys,” from her most recent solo album, 2006’s Translated from Love; and the sweet, sad ballad “One More Time,” from WTL.

After closing the main set with a spirited rendition of Hiatt’s “Drive South,” Willis thanked the audience for taking part in “this wonderful moment in time.” Returning after a short break, she and the band performed “Take It All Out on You,” a song she said was co-written by Texas singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, to whom she’s now married, and Palermo, during a breakup with Robison before they were married. “A song written by my husband and my ex-husband,” she said with a laugh. “That qualifies me to be a country singer!”

Preview: Cayamo music cruise 2016

By Paul T. Mueller

The ninth annual Cayamo music cruise sails from Miami on Jan. 31, en route to a week of music and fun under the Caribbean sun. Produced by Atlanta-based Sixthman aboard the chartered Norwegian Pearl, Cayamo is a weeklong music festival at sea, featuring dozens of scheduled performances in indoor venues ranging from small lounges to a thousand-seat auditorium, as well as a couple of open-air stages on the pool deck.

Cayamo is also known for passenger participation; a fair number of the 2,000-plus cruisers bring along their instruments and can be found jamming at pretty much any hour of the day or night. These sessions often draw the attention, and participation, of some of the professional musicians as well.

Americana’s best

While it’s not specifically an Americana cruise, this year’s Cayamo features a couple of the biggest names in Americana music at the moment – Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton, both still touring on the strength of excellent 2015 albums (Something More Than Free and Traveller, respectively). Other scheduled performers include two-time Cayamo veteran Lucinda Williams; three-timer John Prine; John Hiatt, back for a sixth tour; Nashville (and Nashville) superstar Buddy Miller, a fixture on every Cayamo except 2009; Shawn Colvin, who’s sailed five times before; John Fullbright, a two-time Cayamoan, and Steve Earle, back after two previous sailings. Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Shawn Mullins, the only performer who’s been on every Cayamo, also returns to keep his streak unbroken.

New to the cruise

Buzzworthy newcomers this year include Alabama-based singer-songwriter Paul Thorn; former Maine resident turned Austin folkie Slaid Cleaves; Hurray for the Riff Raff, featuring neo-New Orleanian Alynda Segarrra; Irish singer Foy Vance; and Angaleena Presley, also known as a member of Nashville’s Pistol Annies.

Returning to the Cayamo music cruise after successful debuts on previous cruises are country songbird Kacey Musgraves, whose duet show with Prine was a big hit last year; Amanda Shires, a fiddler and singer-songwriter who’s married to Isbell and is a member of his band, the 400 Unit; the talented duo Birds of Chicago (2015); Texas singer-songwriter Robert Ellis (2013), and Knoxville, Tenn.-based The Black Lillies (2015).

Stepping out from sideman roles with scheduled sets of their own are Buick 6 (Lucinda Williams’ band, consisting of guitarist Stuart Mathis, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton) and Jason Wilber, Prine’s longtime guitarist.

A wide range of artists

The rest of the announced lineup for the Cayamo music cruise includes Jim Lauderdale, David Bromberg, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Watkins Family Hour (featuring former Nickel Creekers Sean and Sara Watkins and others), Johnnyswim, Angaleena Presley, Langhorne Slim, The Bros. Landreth, Sam Lewis, American Babies, Mingo Fishtrap, The Alternate Routes, Rainey Qualley, Kate York and Joe Pisapia, Sugar & the Hi-Lows, Maren Morris, Martin Harley and Jimmy Galloway. The winners of this year’s Soundcheck

competition for spots on the roster include the Andrew Duhon Trio, from New Orleans; The Novel Ideas, a Massachusetts-based folk quintet, and the aforementioned Slaid Cleaves. And the possibility of a “stowaway” surprise artist can never be ruled out; last year Todd Snider filled that role, coming aboard mid-cruise and performing a couple of excellent sets.

A good many Cayamo passengers don’t much care where the cruise goes and would just as soon sail around in circles for a week. But for those who like a little sightseeing with their music, this year’s ports of call are Tortola, one of the British Virgin Islands, and St. Maarten/St. Martin, which consists of both Dutch and French territory. There will also be four full days at sea, providing time for traditional cruise-ship activities – and for even more music than on port days.

(Cayamo music cruise photos by Paul T. Mueller.)

Sandy Beaches Cruise 2016 in photos

By Ken Paulson

shipDelbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise always offers a rich array of blues, R&B, rock and folk performers  and the 2016 event continued the tradition. On board the Holland America Westerdam were  Keb’ Mo’, the Mavericks, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Hall, Mingo Fishtrap, Alyssa Bonagura, Seth Walker, The Quebe Sisters, Band of Heathens, Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps,  Lee Roy Parnell, Fred Eaglesmith, Shelley King, Mike Zito, Big Joe Maher, Anson Funderburgh, Kevin Welch, Doyle and Debbie, Danny Flowers, Kree Harrison, Brian Dunne, the McCrary Sisters, Bruce Channel, Etta Britt, Clay McClinton, Lari White, Chuck Cannon, Red Young, Gary Nicholson, the Howlin’ Brothers, Spooner Oldham, Bob Dipiero, Tom Hambridge, World Famous Headliners, the Damn Quails, Halley Anna Finlay, Baillie and the Boys and the Bluz House Rockers.

That meant music most days from noon until 2 in the morning. You’ll find our review on our site. Here’s a sampling of photos from one very entertaining week:

Delbert McClinton is the host and ringleader of the Sandy Beaches cruise, opening and closing the week, and playing all over the ship throughout the week.

Delbert McClinton is the host and ringmaster of the Sandy Beaches Cruise, opening and closing the week, and playing all over the ship throughout the trip.











The McCrary Sisters bring high-energy gospel to the pool deck.

The McCrary Sisters bring high-energy gospel to the pool deck.










Lari White had a busy week with two shows of her own, a songwriters session and...

Lari White had a busy week with two shows of her own, a songwriters session and…












a duet with Lee Roy Parnell.

.. a duet with Lee Roy Parnell.









Jimmy Hall, the former lead singer of Wet Willie, was back for the 18th year in a row.

Jimmy Hall, the former lead singer of Wet Willie, was back for the 18th year in a row.










There were newcomers as well. New York singer-songwriter Brian Donne confessed that given the talent on the ship, he half-expected to be turned away when he showed up to board the cruise.

There were newcomers as well. New York singer-songwriter Brian Donne confessed that given the talent on the ship, he half-expected to be turned away when he showed up to board the cruise.











Marcia Ball may have been the most collaborative artists on board. When she wasn't playing her own sets or hosting Pianorama, she was sitting in with others. And when the ship docked in St. John...

Marcia Ball may have been the most collaborative artists on board. When she wasn’t playing her own sets or hosting Pianorama, she was sitting in with others. And when the ship docked in St. John…











... she showed up on stage here.

… she showed up on stage here.









Aylssa Bonagura's first set on the pool deck included guest performances by her parents...

Alyssa Bonagura’s fine first set on the pool deck included guest performances by her parents Michael Bonagura and …












Kathy Baillie of Baillie and the Boys.

… Kathy Baillie of Baillie and the Boys.










Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps piton great shows all week, including a Friday afternoon set moved indoors because of the only inclement weather of the week. The move inspired a very funny recollection of a very dark dive bar frequented by housewives in the middle of the afternoon.

Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps put on great shows all week, including a Friday afternoon set moved indoors because of the only inclement weather of the week. The move inspired a very funny recollection of a very dark dive bar frequented by housewives in the middle of the afternoon.














Spooner Oldham., Danny Flowers and Bruce Channel span decades of great songwriting.

Spooner Oldham., Danny Flowers and Bruce Channel span decades of great songwriting.










Red Young's 5 p.m. dance parties in the ship's lounge were always packed, fueled by Young's deep setlist of Ray Charles songs.

Red Young’s 5 p.m. dance parties in the ship’s lounge were always packed, fueled by Young’s deep setlist of Ray Charles songs.










Etta Britt on the pool deck, delivering her own show and then doubling back to sing with Lee Roy Parnell.

Etta Britt on the pool deck, delivering her own show and then doubling back to sing with Lee Roy Parnell.












Oklahoma band the Damn Quails made their Sandy Beaches Cruise debut this year.

Oklahoma band the Damn Quails made their Sandy Beaches Cruise debut this year.










On a ship where dancing was a near-constant, no one inspired as much movement as Raul Malo and the Mavericks.

On a ship where dancing was a near-constant, no one packed the dance floor like Raul Malo and the Mavericks.





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