The 10 best lines on the Cayamo music cruise 2015

By Paul T. Mueller

The 10 best lines from artists on the 2015 Cayamo cruise:

Amy Speace

Amy Speace

  • It was sad knowing everyone I knew or loved was going to hell. – Elizabeth Cook on her fundamentalist upbringing (Saturday)
  • This has been a very palpable evening. – Jim Lauderdale, during John Fullbright’s “Unlikely Sit-In” show (Saturday)
  • I starred in “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” – Amy Speace on her days as a Shakespearean actress in New York (Monday)
  • Thanks, Mom. – John Prine, in response to a female audience member’s shout of “You’re sexy, John Prine!” (Monday)
  • The difference between a freeloader and a free spirit is about three chords. – Todd Snider (Wednesday)
  • This was No. 1 for about two weeks on the radio in Serbia. Take that, Lyle Lovett! – Amy Speace on the title track of her new CD, “That Kind of Girl” (Thursday)
  • Morning, everyone! – Lucinda Williams, at a 1:30 p.m. show (Thursday)
  • He doesn’t consider himself an Eagle, but I do. No, I consider you an egret. – Shawn Colvin to guitarist Steuart Smith, who tours with The Eagles (Thursday)
  • What we do on Cayamo stays on Cayamo. – Shawn Colvin (Thursday)
  • Since you probably played on the original record, play a little guitar right here, good brother. – Rodney Crowell to David Bromberg, during “Like a Rolling Stone” (Friday)



Review: Cayamo 2015 may have been best yet

By Paul T. Mueller

You’re never going to get more than 2,000 music lovers to agree on everything, but there seems to be something of a consensus that this year’s Cayamo cruise was one of the strongest, if not the strongest, editions in the eight-voyage history of the festival-at-sea.

Cayamo, a production of Atlanta-based Sixthman, sailed from Miami on Jan. 17 aboard the Norwegian Pearl, its home since 2010. The event featured calls at the Caribbean islands of St. Barts and St. Croix, but the real draw, as always, was the music, which began before the ship left Miami and continued nearly nonstop, almost to the minute the Pearl returned to its home port a week later.

This year’s headliners, all veterans of previous Cayamos, were Lyle Lovett (with his Acoustic Group), John Prine, Brandi Carlile, and Richard Thompson (as part of his Electric Trio). The next level consisted of a large group of talented musicians and bands, including Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, Shawn Mullins (the only artist to have participated in every Cayamo), Jim Lauderdale, Kacey Musgraves, David Bromberg, Rodney Crowell, Shawn Colvin, John Fullbright, The Lone Bellow, Elizabeth Cook and many more.

New this year were five “Soundcheck Artists,” chosen by passenger vote before sailing from a group of 25 nominees. This group comprised Birds of Chicago, the Black Lillies, the Dusty 45s, the Michelle Malone Band and Amy Speace, who was backed by two of her East Nashville neighbors, Tim Easton and Megan Palmer.

The lineup also included one notable “stowaway” – the eccentric but brilliant Todd Snider, who caused a furor by backing out of last year’s Cayamo at the last minute. Finally aboard, he made his first appearance at a midnight show halfway through the week.

In addition, many passengers, not content with merely watching and listening to professionals make music, brought their own instruments aboard. Individuals and groups could be found picking and jamming at all hours in various corners of the vessel, but particularly in an area known as Bar City.

Buddy Miller, Dave Jacques and Fats Kaplin

Buddy Miller, Dave Jacques and Fats Kaplin

All of this added up to far too much music for any one person to take in, even given the abbreviated sleep schedule that’s an integral part of the Cayamo experience for many. Schedule conflicts also got in the way, despite Sixthman’s commendable efforts to program shows and stages so as to distribute the crowds as evenly as possible around the ship’s several performance venues. As great a show as one might be witnessing at any given moment, something equally excellent was more than likely happening somewhere else at the same time.

As the Pearl left the dock a couple of hours behind schedule, Birmingham, Ala.-based St. Paul & the Broken Bones kicked the party on the pool deck into high gear with their high-energy blend of rock and soul. “I know it’s early,” said lead singer Paul Janeway, “but we gotta let it loose!” Nearly a week and dozens of shows later, Cayamo drew to a close with a “No Sleep ‘til Land Jam” that lasted into the small hours just before docking. It was hosted by the Austin-based Band of Heathens and featured guest performances by a great many of the artists aboard.

This kind of collaboration is a longtime hallmark of the Cayamo experience, and it was much in evidence all week. Almost anyone was liable to show up at almost any gig, to lend a hand on an instrument, sing a verse or provide backing vocals.

There were a few glitches – the presence of some much larger vessels at Norwegian’s main terminal left the Pearl with a smaller and less efficient temporary terminal (actually a large tent), which led to long and frustrating lines at both ends of the cruise. Still, it was hard to find anyone with anything really negative to say about Cayamo. A week at sea in the sunny Caribbean, dozens of world-class musicians performing almost nonstop, thousands of kindred spirits in the audience (including, for many repeat cruisers, old friends from previous Cayamos), and all the comfort and convenience of a major-label cruise ship – all of that adds up to what many call the Best Vacation Ever – until next year’s edition.

Still to come: More detail on the week’s shows, big, small and in between.

Cayamo finale: Elizabeth Cook, David Bromberg

By Paul T. Mueller

Friday, Jan. 23 found the Norwegian Pearl in the home stretch of its return to Miami. The end of the Cayamo music cruise 2015 was just around the corner, but the day’s full schedule of music was an effective antidote to any possibility of negative thoughts. Who has time to mope when there are shows to get to?

Elizabeth Cook’s 12:30 set on the pool deck was a lively mix of the spiritual and the secular. The former was represented by several songs from her 2012 EP Gospel Plow, including the title track, “Hear Jerusalem Calling” and “Jesus.” The latter included “It Takes Balls to Be a Woman,” “El Camino,” “Goin’ Down” (with a vocal assist from Todd Snider) and “Methadone Blues.” Cook cut a fashionable figure in her hipster/hippie garb, while Snider went casual as always in cut-off jeans and a white undershirt, topped off with a jaunty nautical cap.

Amy Speace’s final show in the Spinnaker Lounge featured several songs from her new CD That Kind of Girl – the spiritually themed “Three Days,” the lonely love song “In Chicago,” the sad breakup song “Raincoat” (“You were my raincoat/Now you’re the rain”), a post-breakup song (“Epilogue (I Don’t Know How To Stop Loving You),” and the title track, a rueful reflection on the stories we tell ourselves. Backed by Tim Easton on guitar and Megan Palmer on fiddle, Speace also played a few older favorites, including “The Killer in Me” (with a guest appearance by guitarist Stuart Mathis), “Hunter Moon,” “In Salida,” “The Sea and the Shore” and “Vertigo.” There was also a nice rendition of “The Fortunate Ones,” which Speace dedicated to the audience.

David Bromberg

David Bromberg

David Bromberg’s final set, in the Stardust Theater at 3:00, was a varied show that included some solo work, some full-band efforts, and a couple of tunes by band members. From the opener – blues standard “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” – Bromberg moved on to a long rendition of his comic breakup songs “I’ll Take You Back.” Things got a little more serious with “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and a twangy rendition of “Last Date,” but slid back into comedy with “The Holdup,” a crime-caper tale co-written with George Harrison. Bromberg accompanied “Kaatskill Serenade,” on the surface a retelling of the Rip Van Winkle story, with an explanation of how the song is also about alienation, both personal and in a wider sense. Guitarist Mark Cosgrove took the spotlight with a skillfully flat-picked “Alabama Jubilee,” followed by some fiddle tunes featuring himself and Bromberg on guitar, accompanying fiddler Nate Grower. Bromberg closed the set with “Bring It On Home,” including a long discourse on the nature of true love and how he lost it and found it again, and returned for a full-band acoustic encore of “Roll On, John,” featuring Cosgrove’s fine mandolin playing.

Other Friday performers included Lisa Mills, winner of the open mic competition for songwriters, playing in the Pearl’s open-air Great Outdoors venue (backed by Richard Thompson’s rhythm section, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome); Kristy Lee and Dirt Road Revival, bringing the rock and soul to the pool deck with help from Shawn Mullins, and The Lone Bellow, getting assists from John Fullbright and Brandi Carlile in the Stardust.

Shawn Colvin’s 8:00 Stardust show consisted largely of songs by her large cast of guests, to whom she lent her fine voice and acoustic guitar, as well as Steuart Smith’s electric guitar. The set included Rodney Crowell performing his “The Rock of My Soul”; Jim Lauderdale’s rendition of Gram Parsons’ “Sin City”; Brandi Carlile helping out on “Calling All Angels” and the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle with Care”; Buddy Miller doing “Let It Be Me” (made popular by the Everly Brothers) and “Poison Love”; Lucinda Williams singing Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”; Richard Thompson with his “A Heart Needs a Home” and a cover of the Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place”; the Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone,” featuring Luke Bulla, and Colvin with her “Diamond in the Rough,” getting assistance from Keith Sewell.

Michelle Malone kept the energy level high on the pool deck with a mostly electric set at 10:30. Highlights included “Weed & Wine,” a lament for lost youth; “Chicken Lickin’ Boogie,” featuring Jimmy Galloway on guitar; a vigorous rendition of “Preacher’s Daughter” that included an extended acoustic guitar workout by Malone, and “Feather in a Hurricane,” with help from Kristy Lee and the Black Lillies’ Cruz Contreras.

Rodney Crowell’s 11:30 Spinnaker set was a loose and joyous affair featuring a crowd on the stage and a bigger one in front of it. It was standing room only as Crowell and a plethora of guests – Joanne Gardner, Luke Bulla, Shawn Colvin, Steuart Smith, Keith Sewell, Dave Jacques and David Bromberg, among others – ripped through a rich and varied set list. Highlights included Gram Parsons’ “Return of the Grievous Angel”; a lively rendition of the Staple Singers’ soul hit “Respect Yourself”; a happy sing-along version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” featuring nice solos from several guests and enthusiastic audience participation, and Crowell’s own “Ain’t Living Long Like This.” After a crack about “long solos and sloppy endings,” Crowell summed up the show as “11 fast songs and one ballad” – the latter being his closer, a moving rendition of his “ ’Til I Gain Control Again.”

At that point, with disembarkation only hours away, many Cayamoans had had about all the musical fun they could stand. But others who weren’t done partying headed for the Atrium and the “No Sleep ’Til Land Jam,” led by the Band of Heathens, which continued well into the small hours of Saturday morning.

Cayamo Day 6: Shawn Colvin, Tim Easton, Black Lillies

By Paul T. Mueller

On Thursday, Jan. 22, the Norwegian Pearl, having left St. Croix the previous evening, was heading north and west through the blue Caribbean, on the homeward leg of the Cayamo music cruise 2015.

Days at sea mean days with more music, and one of the first shows scheduled was Amy Speace’s 11:00 a.m. set in the Spinnaker Lounge. And an excellent set it was, beginning with the title song from 2013’s How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat.

Amy Speace

Amy Speace

“I come from a long line of sailors and priests,” Speace said by way of explaining the prevalence of nautical imagery in her songs. More of her sharply observed and carefully written songs followed, backed by Tim Easton’s guitar and Megan Palmer’s fiddle – “Ghost,” which she said was written for her grandparents; “The Killer in Me,” a song of dysfunctional love; “The Sea and the Shore,” a sad and beautiful ballad that Speace said was “No. 1 for about two weeks on the radio in Serbia – take that, Lyle Lovett!”, and the uplifting funeral song “Hymn for the Crossing,” which Speace said she wrote with Irish singer Ben Glover the day after Pete Seeger died. She closed with a heartfelt rendition of “The Fortunate Ones,” featuring Easton’s fine acoustic guitar.


Lucinda Williams played another fine set in the Stardust Theater beginning at 1:30. After opening with a solo acoustic rendition of “Passionate Kisses,” Williams brought out her band for a string of old and new tunes. These included “Metal Firecracker,” “Right in Time” and “Drunken Angel,” all from her breakout Car Wheels on a Gravel Road collection; “Cold Day in Hell,” a bluesy kiss-off song from the new album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone; “I Lost It,” featuring an excellent solo by guitarist Stuart Mathis; and “Are You Down,” featuring a jazzy intro and an instrumental break that drew applause from Willliams herself. Other highlights were a duet with Jim Lauderdale on “Jailhouse Tears,” a stark, almost harsh reading of “Unsuffer Me,” and rocking treatments of “Essence,” “Joy” and “Get Right with God.” “This goes out to all of you,” Williams told the crowd before launching into a vigorous romp through Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Shawn Colvin’s 3:00 p.m. show in the Spinnaker consisted of well-chosen and beautifully executed covers. With stellar assistance from guitarist and part-time Eagle Steuart Smith, Colvin more than did justice to songs including Steve Earle’s “Someday,” Graham Nash’s “I Used to Be a King,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher than the Rest” and the Eagles’ “The Best of My Love.” Reportedly also performed, but not witnessed by this reviewer, were renditions of The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood,” Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl,” Tom Waits’ “Hold On” and several others.


Tim Easton and Megan Palmer played a third “guerrilla set” in Bar City at 5:00 p.m. This time, Palmer divided her time between fiddle and piano, another instrument on which she is quite proficient. Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and Easton’s “Don’t Lie” found Palmer at the keyboard and Bruce Lebovitz, a passenger and an accomplished player, taking over the fiddle duties. Palmer and Lebovitz brought a twin-fiddle approach to a couple of songs, including “Factory Girl.” Easton took over the piano for a rendition of his “Festival Song,” featuring a snippet of “Come Together” and some lyrics customized for Cayamo, and singer-songwriter Nellie Clay joined the group for her “Wichita Was a Bust.” The set closed with a rousing take on Big Bill Broonzy’s “How You Want Your Rollin’ Done,” again featuring Palmer on the piano.

Todd Snider drew a big crowd to his 6:30 show on the pool deck, backed by Elizabeth Cook’s band plus guitarist Jason Wilber from John Prine’s band. Seemingly as much at ease in the daylight as at midnight, Snider put on a loose and funny show, with more music and fewer stories than at his show the night before.                   The set included originals such as “The Last Laugh,” “Is This Thing Working?,” “Easy Money” and “Good News Blues.” There were also some fine covers, including the blues classic “I’m Ready,” “Enjoy Yourself,” Texas singer-songwriter Rusty Wier’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia” and “Sea Cruise.” Snider dedicated his last song, “Come from the Heart,” to Texas songwriter Guy Clark and Clark’s late wife, Susanna, who wrote the song with Richard Leigh.

The Black Lillies came to their 8:30 set in the Atrium ready to rock and ready to bring the crowd with them. They brought plenty of energy and excellent musicianship to their own songs, including “Smokestack Lady” and “40 Days and 40 Nights” (an account of the band’s first national tour), and to covers including the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie” and the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” (with Michelle Malone plus two band members, Trish Land on tambourine and Ben Holst on guitar).

Seattle-based band The Dusty 45s kept the Atrium rocking during their 10:30 set, with charismatic front man Billy Joe Huels pushing the pace with almost unbelievable energy. With Huels alternating between guitar and trumpet, the band ripped through some older material – “Devil Takes His Turn,” “Why Darlin’ Why” – and newer songs such as “Chase Your Dream,” “Two Beers in Texas,” “32 Quarters” and “Walking in the Rain.” There were also some nicely done covers, including Herb Alpert’s “A Taste of Honey,” John Prine’s “Glory of True Love,” the 1930 tune “Bye Bye Blues” (dedicated to guitarist Jerry Battista’s father) and “Misirlou,” made famous by surf-rock king Dick Dale.

The Throwdown

The Throwdown

As Thursday turned into Friday, the “Throwback Throwdown” got cranked up on the Pearl’s pool deck. A large cast of musicians, loosely led by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, spent the next 90 minutes or so doing honor to songs from the past. Highlights included Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” getting the soul treatment from St. Paul and the Broken Bones; Fats Domino’s “I Lived My Life,” featuring Miller and Lucinda Williams; Jim Stafford’s “Swamp Witch,” performed with appropriate drama by Shawn Mullins; a convincing rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country” by Kacey Musgraves; Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away,” sweetly done by The Lone Bellow; Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” featuring the powerful vocals of Humming House’s Leslie Rodriguez and nice guitar by Davis Causey, and the Zombies’ “Time of the Season” by the Black Lillies. John Fullbright showed his range with a powerful take on Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” and a quieter rendition of Jimmy Webb’s “If You See Me Getting Smaller,” which left the often raucous pool deck in dead silence. The big finale was an all-hands-on-deck jam of the traditional blues “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”

Cayamo day 5: Brandi Carlile, Todd Snider, Kacey Musgraves

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.”

Cayamo day 4: John Prine, Edwin McCain, Tim Easton

After two days and three nights at sea, the Norwegian Pearl arrived early Tuesday, January 20, at the island of St. Barts in the French West Indies. Many Cayamoans boarded the Pearl’s lifeboats to go ashore and spend a few hours mingling with the well-to-do; others chose to stay aboard and relax. As always on port days, organized music got started later to accommodate the daytrippers, with the first shows beginning at 6:00 p.m.

Guitarist Tim Easton and fiddler Megan Palmer, despite being talented singer-songwriters as well as fine backing musicians for Amy Speace, weren’t given official performing slots of their own. No matter. Tuesday evening found the duo, neighbors in East Nashville, playing the first of three “guerrilla shows” in the Bar City area of the Pearl. Their nine-song set, played acoustically, was heavy on Easton’s songs. These included “Don’t Lie” from his current album, Not Cool, and older material (some by request) such as “Don’t Walk Alone” and “Dear Old Song and Dance.”

John Prine and Dave Jacques

John Prine and Dave Jacques

Palmer sang her dark tale “Knife Twister,” while Speace joined the two on her own “Strange Boat.” The relatively small audience at the beginning mostly comprised those who were already fans, but as often happens on Cayamo, a fair number of passers-by ended up in the crowd as well, contributing sing-along vocals and improvised percussion on covers of Lucinda Williams’ “People Talking” and the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl.”

John Prine’s 8:00 show in the Stardust Theater was an exercise in musical excellence. Highlights included the rousing antiwar anthem “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”; “Souvenirs,” which Prine dedicated to his brother Doug; the gentle “Hello in There,” performed with heartbreaking beauty, and Prine’s duets with the seemingly omnipresent Brandi Carlile on “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Angel from Montgomery.” Prine took a solo turn on “Lydia” and “Sam Stone” before his band – guitarist Jason Wilber and bassist Dave Jacques – returned for a rousing but slightly muddy rendition of the Carter Family’s “Bear Creek Blues.” The band followed with a nice take on the enigmatic “Lake Marie” before closing, with assistance from singer-songwriter Joe Purdy, with “Paradise.”


South Carolina singer-songwriter Edwin McCain’s Tuesday night set in the Spinnaker Lounge turned into a 45th birthday party, complete with a clown, balloons and a cake. That didn’t keep McCain from showcasing his powerful voice and fine guitar playing with a set of intelligent adult pop – dealing, as befits a man in the early stages of middle age, with subjects such as a daughter’s wedding and lasting love. He also threw in some good stories, including one about discovering that Elgie Stover, the purveyor of his favorite barbecue, was in fact a songwriter and producer who co-wrote songs for Marvin Gaye, among others. McCain closed with Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” featuring a nice solo by saxophonist Craig Shields.

The second half of McCain’s show overlapped the first half of The Lone Bellow’s Atrium set, but judging from the last few songs it was a raucous affair. Late selections included a couple of songs from the band’s very successful 2013 album, The Lone Bellow – “You Never Need Nobody” and “The One You Should’ve Let Go.” No sophomore slump here – the band was every bit as good all week as it was last year in its Cayamo debut, and by some accounts even better.

A late-night jam in Bar City featured an all-star cast of artists, along with some talented amateurs. The event was anchored, as it were, by John Fullbright at the piano, along with Tim Easton on mandolin and Birds of Chicago’s Allison Russell on clarinet. Song selections included the Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women,” among others.


Cayamo Day 3: Richard Thompson, John Prine, Rodney Crowell

By Paul T. Mueller

Legendary British folkie and guitar monster Richard Thompson played the first of his three sets at 1:00 p.m. Monday, Jan. 19, in the Norwegian Pearl’s Stardust Theater. Backing him in his Electric Trio were bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, and the result was for the most part a thunderous affair – too loud for at least a few attendees, in fact. But the musicianship was excellent as expected and the sound was clean, as the trio ripped through such Thompson favorites as “Sally B” (with a little Pete Townshend jump at the end), “You Can’t Win” (featuring an extended solo), the jazzy “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” and “Wall of Death,” another long jam. There were also some new songs – “Josephine” and “Amsterdam,” both acoustic tunes, and “Guitar Heroes,” a tribute to Thompson’s role models. Called back for an encore, Thompson showed his country side on “Tear Stained Letter.”

Rodney Crowell, a second-timer on the cruise, followed with an excellent set featuring guitarist Steuart Smith. Crowell opened with a new song, “East Houston Blues,” before moving on to more familiar territory, including “Sex and Gasoline,” “Moving Work of Art” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” He described the inspiration for a couple of songs dealing with HIV, both from his fine 2001 album The Houston Kid, and then played both – “I Wish It Would Rain,” mostly as a solo effort, and “Wandering Boy,” accompanied brilliantly by Smith. The anthemic “Still Learning How to Fly” and the sing-along favorite “Pancho and Lefty” followed, and Crowell finished with the moving “Til I Can Gain Control Again.”

Lyle Lovett’s Q & A show Monday at 5:00 was a mix of music and dry comedy. The questions, from audience members, covered such diverse topics as Lovett’s recovery from injuries suffered during a run-in with a bull some years ago (he had high praise for his doctors); his experiences as a young artist playing in New York; what it’s like to have legendary drummer Russ Kunkel in his band, and even a question about how he stays so fit, from guest vocalist Shawn Colvin. The music included a fine rendition of “Friend of the Devil,” which Lovett recorded with Kunkel for a 1991 Grateful Dead tribute album; “Sleepwalking,” in response to a question about its enigmatic writer, Willis Alan Ramsey, and the inevitable “If I Had a Boat.”

Monday evening’s “Blind Faith” show was one of the week’s highlights. Admission was restricted to Cayamo 2014 passengers who put down deposits on this year’s cruise before the lineup was announced. Monday’s performers, whose identity was kept secret right up until showtime, turned out to be veteran singer-songwriter John Prine and rising country star Kacey Musgraves. It was an inspired pairing – each brought an impressive list of songs and the chemistry between them was (to borrow a word from the loquacious Jim Lauderdale) palpable. Prine’s selections included “Spanish Pipedream,” “Fish and Whistle,” “One Red Rose” and “That’s the Way the World Goes Round” (complete with a funny story about a fan who misheard a lyric as “happy enchilada”). Musgraves’ offerings included “The Trailer Song,” “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” and a couple of new songs, “Biscuits” and “Pageant Material.” Most were funny and all carried a serious message along with the wordplay. Prine and Musgraves teamed up on the Prine classics “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Angel from Montgomery,” but the best moment might have come when Musgraves sang her own “John Prine,” in which she confesses a desire to “burn one with John Prine,” and Prine followed with his pot paean “Illegal Smile,” with help from the audience on the choruses. It was a classic Cayamo moment. Prine closed the show with a nice rendition of his environmental anthem “Paradise.”

A quick visit to the pool deck found Lucinda Williams and her band finishing up their show with a soulful reading of Gregg Allman’s “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” followed by the rocking “Joy” and “Get Right with God.”

Soundcheck winner Amy Speace played the first of her three sets in the Spinnaker Lounge. She wisely brought along two of her East Nashville neighbors and friends, guitarist Tim Easton and fiddler Megan Palmer, and they did a fine job on such excellent tunes as “The Fortunate Ones,” “The Killer in Me” and “Hunter Moon.” Many of Speace’s lyrics deal with relationships, often troubled ones, and her sharp writing and world-class voice make for an emotionally moving performance. The seemingly omnipresent John Fullbright put in a guest appearance for the lovely “The Sea and the Shore.” Speace ended her set with “Hymn for the Crossing,” a funeral song, but one with a joyous message. “Don’t need a golden box for my bones/Don’t need your weeping and wailing,” Speace sang. “Don’t need my name carved into stone/Just sing me a hymn for the crossing.”

Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Michelle Malone has a reputation for being a fiery rocker, but she’s equally at home with quieter material. Toward the end of her Monday night Atrium show she performed a cool, jazzy take on the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” taken from the introspective Acoustic Winter album from last year. Things got livelier with the new song “When I Grow Up,” a fun and hopeful anthem; the Stratocaster-fueled “Teen Lament,” on which she got help from Black Lillies frontman Cruz Contreras and Alabama singer-songwriter Kristy Lee, and “Feather in a Hurricane.”

Cayamo day two: Lucinda Williams, Band of Heathens

By Paul T. Mueller

Sunday, Jan. 18, the first full day of Cayamo 2015, kicked off fittingly with a “Gospel Show” in the Atrium of the Norwegian Pearl (it was originally scheduled for the pool deck, but rain forced its relocation inside). Despite the early (by Cayamo standards) hour, the event drew a big crowd, which was rewarded with excellent performances by three bands.

Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors started things off. Your reviewer arrived late, but was able to catch part of the set’s last song and was impressed by lead singer Holcomb’s expressive vocals. Alabama-based Kristy Lee & Dirt Road Revival followed, with a rocking but spiritual set that included such standards as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “This Little Light of Mine,” as well as a fine take on Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” All of it featured Lee’s powerful voice and the capable backing of her band, featuring guitarist Julz Parker and singer Leesa Gentz, two Australians who also perform as the folk duo Hussy Hicks. The show concluded with an excellent set by second-time Cayamo artists The Lone Bellow. The Brooklyn-based band, which features the tight harmonies of Brian Elmquist, Zach Williams and Kanene Pipkin, performed a slow, sweet rendition of “Watch Over Us” and followed with “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (beautifully sung by Pipkin) and, in what was said to be its first public performance, a new song that might have been titled “Let’s Go to Heaven Together.”

Skyline Motel

Skyline Motel

Noon brought a Spinnaker Lounge set by Birds of Chicago, featuring the husband-and-wife duo of J.T. Nero and Allison Russell. The group was one of five “Soundcheck Artists” chosen for Cayamo by passenger vote from among 25 acts. The Birds’ sound features the harmonized vocals of Nero and Russell, backed by Nero’s guitar and Russell’s banjo and clarinet, all in support of a sound that mixes folk, country, gospel and jazz. The set list included several current songs, such as “Nobody Wants to Be Alone Nobody Wants to Die,” “Flying Dreams” and “Barley,” as well as a new song, the country-tinged “Remember Wild Horses.” And there was some entertaining stage banter, to the effect that the usual talk about the hard life of the road might ring a little hollow on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

Again this year, Cayamo featured a taping of The Buddy and Jim Radio Show for Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country channel, featuring Nashville’s Mr. Everything, Buddy Miller, and the legendary Jim Lauderdale. Backed by a stellar band – bassist Dave Jacques, drummer Marco Giovino, fiddler Fats Kaplin and accordionist Ian Fitchuk – Miller and Lauderdale tore through a fine rendition of “Down South in New Orleans.” A series of guests then took the Stardust stage, including Elizabeth Cook (“Methadone Blues”), Doug Seegers with fiddler Barbara Lamb (“Angie’s Song”), Nikki Lane with Shelly Colvin (“You Can’t Talk to Me Like That”) and Skyline Motel, a young “supergroup” featuring Nashvillians Sarah Buxton, Tom Bukovac, Kate York and Daniel Tashian (“Skyline Motel”). The performances were interspersed with interviews between Miller and Lauderdale and the artists.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based The Black Lillies played the pool deck Sunday afternoon, closing an energetic set with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” assisted by Atlanta-based singer-songwriter Michelle Malone (another Soundcheck artist) on harmonica, and guitarist Davis Causey from Shawn Mullins’ band.

Nashville’s Nikki Lane, accompanied by Shelly Colvin, entertained a Sunday evening Atrium crowd with her distinctive brand of offbeat country, featuring titles such as “Sleep With a Stranger” and “700,000 Rednecks,” a tribute of sorts to her hometown of Greenville, SC. Lane has attitude to burn and the musical chops to back it up.

Austin-based Band of Heathens got the pool deck crowd dancing on Sunday evening with a loud but melodious set that at times recalled The Band and the Eagles. A little later in the Atrium, second-timers Humming House drew a crowd with their high-energy blend of folk, rock and bluegrass. As often happens in that space, the vocals were a bit muddy, but the band’s enthusiasm and impressive range made the set enjoyable just the same.

Lucinda Williams played her first show of Cayamo 2015 on Sunday night, seemingly more at ease than during her Cayamo debut in 2012. This time out her band included the excellent Stuart Mathis (formerly of The Wallflowers) on lead guitar, plus her longtime rhythm section, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton. Leading off with “Blessed,” Williams moved on to a string of other favorites, including “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” “Crescent City,” “Drunken Angel” and “Changed the Locks.” She also performed several songs from her current album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, including “Compassion” (based on a poem by her recently deceased father, poet Miller Williams), “When I Look at the World” (solo, with acoustic guitar), and the hard-rocking “Protection.” Buddy Miller joined her onstage for the week’s second rendition of J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia,” followed by an extended version of “Joy” and the joyous “Get Right with God,” featuring vocal assistance from Brandi Carlile.

The “Last Man Standing” jam, hosted by fiddler Luke Bulla, cranked up at midnight and featured a large cast of guests, including, among others, Lyle Lovett and most of his band – bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Russ Kunkel and multi-instrumentalist Keith Sewell – plus Shawn Colvin, Elizabeth Cook, cellist Nathaniel Smith and members of The Black Lillies.

Cayamo sets sail with Lyle Lovett, John Fullbright

By Paul T. Mueller

Cayamo 2015, the eighth edition of the singer-songwriter-focused festival-at-sea, got off to a bit of a bumpy start on Jan. 17. The presence of some larger ships at Norwegian Cruise Lines’ terminal in Miami meant that the Norwegian Pearl, home to the past several Cayamos, had to use a temporary terminal – a large tent – for embarkation and debarkation. There’s really no way to get more than 2,000 people onto a cruise ship quickly, and this year the process seemed to drag out a little longer than usual. As a result, the week’s first set, by Nashville-based folk/soul/bluegrass band Humming House, was over by the time many passengers got aboard.

Most hands were on deck for the sailaway show by Birmingham, Ala. soul-rock outfit St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who debuted on Cayamo in 2014. Lead singer Paul Janeway brought his familiar blend of sartorial excellence, flashy showmanship and gospel-flavored soul vocals, with the other six members providing tight instrumental backing. The band’s loud, high-energy performance earned an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Things were a little quieter in the ship’s Spinnaker Lounge for a late-afternoon set by Drew Copeland and Ken Block, of Sister Hazel. In this format the Cayamo veterans are a classic two-guys-with-acoustic-guitars-and-great-harmonies act, with songs these days focusing on “mature” topics such as relationships, family and aging. These subjects were also fodder for their funny between-songs banter. These guys have a lot of dedicated fans and the feeling is clearly mutual.

That evening in the Stardust Theater, the Pearl’s largest indoor venue, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group brought their usual impeccable musicianship to such familiar favorites as “The Truck Song,” “Give Back My Heart” and “This Old Porch.” There were also excellent renditions of the sad but powerful “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” and the playful “Girls from Texas” (co-written with Pat Green). Most songs featured solos by band members, each of whom is a world-class musician in his own right. Lovett also yielded the spotlight to fiddler Luke Bulla and guitarist/mandolinist Keith Sewell to play a couple of their own tunes.


Sixthman tried to schedule some of the louder and/or rowdier acts for the ship’s Atrium stage, which is usually noisier than most other venues. The setting seemed well suited for a 10 p.m. set by East Nashville country bad girl Elizabeth Cook. Cook is a talented songwriter and an engaging performer, and she and her band brought an appealing blend of rock, hard-core country and hipster attitude to the stage, belting out songs like “Methadone Blues” and “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” There were some nice covers as well, including Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1 (I’m Your Toy),” J.J. Cale’s “Magnolia” and the Blind Willie McTell classic “Statesboro Blues.”

Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Fullbright, a sensation in his first Cayamo appearance last year, took the Stardust stage at midnight for an “Unlikely Sit-In” show featuring Chuck Cannon, Holly Williams and Jim Lauderdale. The four took turns performing songs loosely based on a theme of “Lost and Found.” Fullbright is an excellent guitarist, but he stuck to the piano for this show, providing subtle accompaniment to the others but going full tilt when his turn came around. His prodigious playing earned him, as always, reactions ranging from admiration to near disbelief from his fellow musicians.

Standout performances included Cannon’s quietly powerful “Messes,” Williams’ tearjerker “Waiting on June,” and Lauderdale’s reverent “Like Him,” dedicated to Ralph Stanley and sung almost a capella. On the dramatic closer, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Fullbright did most of the singing, along with impressive work on the keys, but he got some able assistance with vocals from his fellow musicians.

Review: Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise 2015

By Ken Paulson

We’ve just stepped off Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, a floating music festival in its 21st year. Though the ship stopped in Antigua and St. Croix, that really didn’t matter. On Sandy Beaches, you come for the music.

The cruise features an amazing array of artists, with blues, rhythm and blues and New Orleans influences among the most common denominators. Headliners included McClinton, Paul Thorn, the Mavericks, Lyle Lovett, Marcia Ball, Wayne Toups, Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Teresa James, Elizabeth Cook, Lari White and Mingo Fishtrap. Rough seas moved some of the deck shows inside, but the performances didn’t suffer. It was one rich performance after another.

McClinton’s partner on the 2015  cruise was Sixthman, the industry leaders in music cruises. Their cruises (they call them festivals) include ventures with Kiss, Florida Georgia Line, Train and Kid Rock, as well as the popular Americana-folk-rock Cayamo cruise.

We’ve written extensively about the always amazing Cayamo cruise over the years and we’ll have a report on the 2015 cruise shortly. It’s the cruise that most closely matches the vibe and music of Sandy Beaches. While both are impressive festivals, Cayamo tends to have bigger names and a wide range of singer-songwriters (John Prine, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson and Lovett are headliners this year), while Sandy Beaches books bands and artists whose primary mission is to get you dancing in the aisles.

Among the week’s highlights on Sandy Beaches:

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Red Young and Delbert McClinton

Collaborations – some planned, many impromptu – were a big part of the cruise, and Delbert McClinton was everywhere. In addition to three sets with his band, he sat in on a songwriters session featuring Gary Nicholson, Spooner Oldham, Danny Flowers, Glen Clark (of Delbert and Glen) and Bruce Channel. It was Delbert who played harmonica on Channel’s big hit “Hey! Baby,” a #1 record in 1962, and the duo revisited that classic.

The most striking team-up came when Delbert sat down on the piano bench with

veteran keyboardist Red Young for a stirring version of “Georgia,” while members of the audience attempted to slow dance despite high waves and a rocking boat. Young was a revelation throughout the cruise.

He’s played piano for Clyde McCoy, Lloyd Price, Eric Burdon, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and even Sonny and Cher, and he showed up as a sideman on stages throughout the cruise, while also leading a band that played Frank Sinatra and jazzy pop in the Spinnaker Lounge.

Delbert also joined Lari White for a song from her Green Eyed Soul album, to her obvious delight. She had opened her set by telling the audience that she would understand if they filtered out to see the Mavericks, whose set overlapped with hers. She then went on to make

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

Lari White and Delbert McClinton

sure they didn’t, Opening with “Amazing Grace” (her usual encore, she explained), a sizzling take on Steve Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and guest spots with Young and others.

White’s concern about competition from the Mavericks was understandable. They played two robust sets, including songs from their upcoming album Mono, set for release on Valory Music on Feb. 17.

Bass player and longtime Maverick Robert Reynolds is no longer in the band, and the Mavericks used Sandy Beaches to introduce his successor James Intveld. Raul Malo claimed they were throwing Intveld into the mix without much rehearsal time, but it didn’t show. He’s an accomplished solo artist and a great addition to the band.

As hard as Delbert worked, Marcia Ball matched him, headlining her own three sets, hosting an all-star “Pianorama” that featured the most talented keyboardists on the cruise complementing and competing with each other, and doing guest spots in other shows, including a memorable turn with Teresa James.

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Marcia Ball and Teresa James

Lyle Lovett was probably the biggest draw on the cruise, and packed the largest theater on the boat with acoustic sets that had fans raving.

Paul Thorn’s fans were also out in force, though he surprised many by announcing that after more than a decade on this cruise, this would be his last. He told fans to watch his website for developments, and then delivered an outstanding set that included a guest spot by his daughter on tambourine.

It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Thorn perform, and it’s clear that as his fan base has grown, so has his sound. He’s playing much bigger rooms now and his band is more powerful  and his songs more anthemic. He played a number of songs from his latest album Too Blessed to Be Stressed, including “Everybody Needs Somebody” and a wonderful version of the title song with guest vocals from the McCrary Sisters.

Another highlight from the new album was “Mediocrity is King,” the best protest song we’ve heard in years, taking to task everything and everyone who waters down our culture, and expressing special disdain for both Republicans and Democrats.

A bonus was the Paul Thorn Band’s take on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” from the recent tribute album Looking Into You.

Thorn also showed up on Jason Wilber’s “In Search of A Song” radio show taping and as a flamboyantly dressed guest on Fred Eaglesmith’s mock talk show. The Sandy Beaches audience will miss him.

Elizabeth Cook battled an illness early in the week, and only made it through four songs before her voice gave out.

To our surprise, she battled back on Friday to deliver a solid set that drew heavily from her recent Gospel Plow album and her 201o release Welder, including “El Camino” and “Heroin Addict Sister” from the latter.

Whether it was the bug or the mix, her vocals were sometimes overwhelmed by her new band, but she played for almost 90 minutes.

Jill Sobule’s time on the boat was limited, but she delivered one of the most entertaining sets of the week, backed by members of Paul Thorn’s band. she opened with “If I Had a Jetpack,” followed by the defiant “I’ve Got Nothing to Prove,” immediately winning over the audience.

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

Jill Sobule and her instant chorus

“Where is Bobbie Gentry?,” from her California Years album, was next, and Sobule said she had been told that Gentry thought the song was very funny. It was a  sweet tribute to Gentry and the sound of “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Sobule explained that she had been hired to write a song about the history of immigration in America, and enlisted more than a dozen audience members to serve as a chorus on a powerful and profane song that makes the point that virtually all of us are in the U.S. because of immigration.

Sobule closed with a sampling of fan favorites, including “Supermodel” from the Clueless soundtrack, “Bitter,” “When My Ship Comes In, “Underdog Victorious”  and “Lucy in the Gym,” with an atrium-wide sing-along on the encore of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes.”

Of course, all of this just scratches the surface. There were more than 60 shows, with outstanding sets by Wayne Toups, the Band of Heathens, the McCrary Sisters, Jimmy Hall, Teresa James and many more.

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

Spooner Oldham and Glen Clark

As musically memorable as the week was, some of the smaller moments were the most memorable. When Muscle Shoals great Spooner Oldham performed his “I’m Your Puppet,” a hit for James and Bobby Purify in 1966, Glen Clark couldn’t contain himself, rushing all the way across the stage to harmonize with Oldham. We know the feeling.

(The 2016 Sandy Beaches Cruise is scheduled for January 9 through 16 on the Holland America Line. More information is available on Delbert McClinton’s site.)





















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