By Paul T. Mueller
Wednesday, Jan. 21 found the Norwegian Pearl docked at St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Many Cayamoans strolled off the ship to explore the island or just hang out on a nearby beach. One was Doug Seegers, the once-homeless Nashville country singer who’s made an unlikely comeback with the help of Cayamo stalwart Buddy Miller, singer-songwriter-producer Will Kimbrough and others. Seegers spent some time busking in front of one the shops that line the waterfront, reportedly collecting about $150 in his guitar case with a sign reading, “Can’t afford the boat.”
Back on the Pearl, the music started at 4:00 p.m. with a pool deck show by Kacey Musgraves. Rising star Musgraves, a small-town Texan relocated to Nashville, has plenty of attitude and some serious chops to go with it. Her Cayamo sets drew largely on her 2013 CD Same Trailer, Different Park, but on this sunny afternoon she also found space for a bit of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” with its catchy chorus, “Every little thing’s gonna be all right.”
The second “guerrilla set” by Tim Easton and Megan Palmer got going at 6:00 in the Bar City area. This one was heavy on Easton’s older tunes, several played by request, including “Carry Me,” “Broke My Heart,” “Bitters Past” and “Poor, Poor L.A.” There were also nice renditions of “The Young Girls” and a new song, “Elmore James.” The duo closed with Easton’s “Don’t Walk Alone,” featuring guest vocals by Nellie Clay.
Atlanta-based folk-rocker Michelle Malone played another strong set in the Spinnaker Lounge starting at 7:00. Malone led off with an acoustic version of “Shine,” from her 2012 album Day 2. She described it as a song about gratitude, a common theme among several Cayamo artists throughout the week. Alternating between acoustic and electric guitar, and throwing in some harmonica along the way, Malone showcased compositions that included the raucous barroom tale “Tanya Tucker”; the hard-luck ballad “Ramona,” featuring guitarist Davis Causey; the socially conscious “Immigration Game,” with help from Kristy Lee and Shawn Mullins, and the Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby,” in a dramatic arrangement that blended jazz, blues and soul.
Seattle-based singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, a veteran of six previous Cayamos, took the Stardust Theater stage at 8:00 for her first appearance of this year’s cruise. Sometimes solo and sometimes accompanied by her band – guitarist Tim Hanseroth, bassist Phil Hanseroth, cellist Josh Neumann and drummer Brian Griffin – Carlile seemed even more animated than usual, possibly thanks to pent-up energy. Her set included her familiar hits “The Story” and “Caroline.” There was also a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” with a guest appearance by fiddler Luke Bulla, and some newer originals, such as the beautiful and hopeful “The Eye” and “The Things I Regret,” from her upcoming CD The Firewatcher’s Daughter. Kanene Pipkin, Zach Williams and Brian Elmquist of The Lone Bellow joined Carlile for a reprise performance of “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” which they performed at Sunday’s gospel show, but the effort fell just short, with Carlile’s vocals not quite blending with the trio’s. Carlile closed with a dramatic, high-powered rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” Some might have wondered why an artist of Carlile’s ability would choose for her finale a song so strongly associated with another band, but there was no denying the enthusiastic response it received.
Noah Gundersen, another singer-songwriter from Seattle, played the Spinnaker lounge at 9:00, with a set that included at least a couple of covers (Neil Young’s “Down By the River” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”) along with several original songs, including “Dying Now” and “Cigarettes.” Backed by a strong band that included his sister, Abby, on fiddle, Gundersen demonstrated a dramatic vocal style and well-written lyrics.
The Spinnaker took a turn toward hard country with Doug Seegers’ 11:00 p.m. show. Fiddler Barbara Lamb provided expert accompaniment on tunes including “Angie’s Song” and “Baby Lost Her Way Home Again.” Jim Lauderdale lent vocal assistance on “I Met Jesus in a Bar”; David Ball’s “Honky Tonk Healer” got the Texas two-step treatment (Seegers spent some time living in Austin), and Seegers went slow and soulful on Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.” Seegers introduced “Will You Take the Hand of Jesus” as his response to many good changes in his life in the past year. Some of those, no doubt, were thanks to the next song, “Going Down to the River,” which became a hit in Sweden after a Swedish documentary filmmaker discovered the struggling Seegers in Nashville.
One of Cayamo 2015’s high points occurred at midnight in the Stardust Theater, with the appearance of singer-songwriter Todd Snider, barefoot as usual. “I’m a little late,” Snider told the large crowd at the “stowaway” show, announced only earlier in the day. “I’m sorry it took me so long to get out here.”
This was a reference to his very late cancellation of his scheduled Cayamo appearance last year, reportedly for medical reasons. Hard feelings remain in some quarters, but the audience seemed to be in a forgiving mood – not that Snider seemed to care about forgiveness. Snider is a very talented songwriter and a gifted performer, and he brought his “A” game this night. The show featured a mix of stories, personal philosophy and enough songs from Snider’s extensive catalog to satisfy any but the most demanding fan.
The list included “Good Fortune,” “Play a Train Song,” “How Do You Know It’s Too Late,” “Greencastle Blues,” “Too Soon To Tell,” “Stuck on the Corner,” and, after a long story about meeting Jerry Jeff Walker, a nice rendition of Walker’s hit “Mr. Bojangles.” After asking for audience requests, Snider dedicated his next song to everyone who got mad at him for canceling in 2014 (“I was in a card game – I couldn’t get out of it”) and then played “Alright Guy” from 1994’s Songs for the Daily Planet. After closing with the bouncy 1949 tune “Enjoy Yourself” (“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”), he returned for an encore consisting of “Statistician’s Blues,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.”