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Tales and Takeaways from the 2023 Outlaw Country Cruise
(by Lee Zimmerman)
Like most music cruises, the Outlaw Country Cruise is akin to a floating festival at sea. It incorporates any number of essential populist elements — mainly the opportunity to meet and mingle the musicians involved and witness any number of impromptu jams that made possible by the bonds hastened by being on the same boat.
The 6-day cruise, which took place from February 21 - 27, made for an exceptional excursion, due in no small way to the communal feelings of those who took part, be it both the artist and the audience. While the banner might have implied an irreverent attitude — indeed, the language was rife with ‘shits’, ‘fucks’, and all other manner of expletives, a natural inclination according to one of the headliners, Kathleen Edwards — the music soared on the strength of a combined enthusiasm and common cause.
For the most part, it drew a middle-aged crowd, a mix of diehard devotees and those with firm devotion to a certain Rock’n’Roll regimen. However, that’s not to deny the verve and variety of those involved. At the outset, there would seem to be little commonality between a band like The Mavericks, the rockabilly regimen of Linda Gail Lewis (Jerry Lee’s sister, BTW), and an inspired insurgent like Steve Earle. Nevertheless, taken in tandem, the list of participants could easily rival any outdoor festival, be it Bonnaroo, Stagecoach, AmericanaFest, or for that matter, any other large gathering that takes place on an annual basis. It rocks around the clock, challenging the endurance and dexterity of those who base their involvement on certain party principles, namely that afforded by not having to drive home and the ability to sleep it off in the convenience of one’s cabin.
Sixthman, the cruise producers, have it all down pat, having honed their expertise on the ever-popular Cayamo Cruise, which features a similar Alt Country, Roots Rock line-up minus a few obvious excesses. The onboard team is not only polite and respectful, but fully aware of the mechanics needed to make such a massive operation run smoothly and efficiently. There were, of course, a few last-minute tweaks in the schedule and, sadly, a couple of cancellations, but that didn’t deter the proceedings in any way or form. Sets were kept to an hour and fifteen minutes, avoiding any need to alter the schedules. In addition, the artists played with enough frequency to ensure that no-one needed to miss a show, especially given the fact that the musicians frequently sat in with others via “guitar pulls” ( a songwriters in the round type event) and all-star assemblages such as The Mavericks and Friends extravaganza held on the final night of the cruise. So too, with a variety of venues to choose from — the Stardust Theater main stage, the outdoor pool stage, various bar type settings, and the Spinnaker Lounge — there was ample opportunity to catch the artists in the setting of one’s choosing.
In that regard, there wasn’t single performance that failed to rally the crowd. The Mavericks were stunning as always, with singer Raul Malo getting multiple kudos from his colleagues for possessing one of the most expressive vocals of any artist today. Last minute addition Robbie Fulks could easily find a second career as a stand-up comedian, courtesy of his pointedly pithy remarks. Rhett Miller of the Old 97s also shined in his solo show — bequeathing the audience with a new expression (‘replicate individually’) which roughly translates as a common insult and toss-off.
However, it was the mix of old and new that also made the cruise so special. Joe King Carrasco, Augie Meyers, Linda Gail Lewis, Bill Kirchen, Joshua Ray Walker, Sarah Borges, Jesse Dayton, Slim Jim Phantom (formerly of the Stray Cats), and Country music icon John Anderson all offered impressive solo showcases as well as sharing in salutes to Jerry Lee Lewis, Doug Sahm, and, notably, Anderson himself. Past to the present.
Of course, it was all about modern music as well, with the Supersuckers (and lead guitarist Metal Marty), the Old 97s, the Vandoliers, Warren Hodges (late of Jason and the Scorchers), Andrew Leahey (who did double duty as Elizabeth Cook’s music director along with helming his band The Homestead, and the two overlapping outfits that hail from the U.K. by way of Chicago — the Waco Brothers and the Mini-Mekons (both captained by the absolute insurgency of Jon Langford) — that ensured a certain unflagging energy permeated the proceedings. Given the term “outlaw country” as a banner, these bands provided the rousing, rallying, robust energy that kept the crowd upbeat and invigorated at every opportunity.
That doesn’t even include such obvious marquee names as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, of course, the aforementioned Elizabeth Cook, Rosie Flores, and Carlene Carter, not to mention such workmanlike regulars as Bobby Bare Jr., The Mastersons/Whitmore Sisters, Tommy McLain, Eric ‘Roscoe’ Ambel and Mary Lee’s Corvette all performing with due diligence.
Of course, there were the obligatory stops along the way — in this case Cozumel and the private island of Great Stirrup Cay. However, as one would expect, it was the music that mattered most, and while there was a lull in the festivities for shore leave, the ship, the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pearl, offered plenty of rest and respite without the need to go ashore. Kudos to the crew for putting such special emphasis on service and making the guests feel like rock stars themselves.
The Outlaw Country Cruise will set sail next year as well, for what will be the eighth outing undertaken thus far. If this year’s extravaganza is any indication, the Sixthman team have a lot to live up to. But based on their ability to produce and present, there’s little doubt they’ll outshine themselves.
For more information head on over to the Sixthman website for information on Outlaw Country Cruise, Cayamo, and other seaborne musical excursions
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