“That’s what I like to hear—those whoops and hollers,” a beaming Lucinda Williams told rambunctious fans as she and they swayed in time to her music. Aboard an ocean liner named the Norwegian Jade, Williams was one of many highlights in the Outlaw Country Cruise’s second outing. The four-day excursion from Tampa to Cozumel was masterfully curated by SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel and Sixthman, an Atlanta-based company that organizes music-fueled cruises. Approximately 2,100 fans flocked to five floating venues from 11 in the morning to one in the very early morning to hear performances from 30 acts, ranging from Americana to rockabilly to honky-tonk to singer-songwriters to Southern rock to alt-country to country rock to those uncategorizable outlaw country acts. Mojo Nixon, Elizabeth Cook, Shooter Jennings, Steve Earle, Dallas Wayne, Jim Lauderdale and Roger Alan Wade served as the venture’s DJs, as well as ringleaders and performers. Pervasive was the love of that crazy smorgasbord called “outlaw country,” the genre encapsulated by the SiriusXM channel originally created by Little Steven Van Zandt, whose Renegade Nation partnered with Sixthman to co-produce the event. No one went home a stranger.
From the time the Jade set sail, a music party exploded on the massive open-air pool deck, with Nashville’s eight-piece Mavericks demonstrating their encyclopedic knowledge of tunes from all over the map: from Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” and the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “She’s About a Mover” (with Steve Earle guesting) to their two-plus decades of hits, and tracks from their delightful 2017 LP Brand New Day. The Mavs would turn out some of the journey’s best, most eclectic shows, providing the soundtrack to Mardi Gras revelry and filling in one night for the MIA Billy Joe Shaver (the cruise’s only no-show), backing fellow artists like Texans Joe Ely and Jesse Dayton, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, guitarslinger Warner Hodges and even an Elvis impersonator.
The King impersonator Keith Coleman also did a mean Man in Black during the first night’s Johnny Cash birthday celebration. Dale Watson and His Lone Stars hosted a tribute to Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison, which featured Watson’s singing pardner in “Dale & Ray,” the Watson-Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel) duo with a self-titled, new honky-tonk-meets-Western Swing release. In the cabaret-sized space, the Spinnaker Lounge, guests stopped by to sing, including June Carter Cash’s daughter, Carlene Carter, who delightfully reprised “Jackson” with Watson. On keyboards and vocals was former Cash sideman, Earl Poole Ball, whose long-running Texas combo, Heybale, later performed several twang-filled sets, featuring Dallas Wayne on vocals and former Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert. One night, for a “South Congress at Sea” spectacular, the combo converted the Medusa Lounge into Austin’s venerable Continental Club.
Dale & Ray also made several rib-tickling appearances. The pair’s hysterical banter and rip-roarin’ repertoire (“The Ballad of Dale and Ray,” “A Hangover Ago,” “Bus’ Breakdown”) were featured at an 11 a.m. sit-down radio session onstage with Mojo Nixon, decked out in an Hawaiian-shirt-print ensemble that nodded to Rufus Thomas’ fashion sense.
Steve Earle hosted a special episode of his “Hardcore Troubadour” radio show, featuring Jessi Colter, Shooter Jennings and Waylon Jennings drummer Richie Albright in a spirited discussion of the Waylon/Billy Joe Shaver collaboration that became the Honky Tonk Heroes 1973 breakthrough album. Both were sorely missed.
A tribute also brought together numerous female artists on board in an homage to the great rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson. Masterminded by SiriusXM’s Jeremy Tepper and the trail-blazing Rosie Flores, the show filled the spacious Stardust Theater with numbers from Jackson’s six-decade oeuvre, performed by Flores (who brought Jackson back to the spotlight in 1995 on her Rockabilly Filly album and tour), honky-tonker Elizabeth Cook, exquisite singer-songwriter Laura Cantrell, Alabama’s harmonizing, wise-cracking Secret Sisters, guitarist extraordinaire Sophia Johnson and talented newcomer Celine Lee (whose debut album was just produced by Dale Watson). With backing by Jackson’s band, and the queen in attendance, the show ended with a crown placed on Wanda’s bouffant, while everyone sang her signature, “Let’s Have a Party.” Afterwards, the 79-year-old Jackson and her husband/manager Wendell Goodman shared a delicious congratulatory cake.
Guitar pulls offered sessions with Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Joe Ely and Carlene Carter, as well as surprise appearances by artists popping by their pals’ gigs. Fans sometimes bumped into their favorite artists having lunch, rehearsing a tune on acoustic guitar, playing poker in the casino or hanging at the bar. A pair of organized autograph sessions took place as well, with most artists attending and signing memorabilia and chatting with attendees. The vibe was like old-school Nashville’s much-missed annual Fan Fair, where performers mingled and schmoozed with their longtime supporters.
High energy rock & roll was pervasive on the high seas as well, with bands like the Old 97’s tearing up the stage. The Texas-born combo performed songs from their gripping new album Graveyard Whistling (including the infectiously wry “Good with God”), as well as favorites from the band’s lengthy career. Festus, Missouri’s own Bottle Rockets also gave high-decibel performances, as did Atlanta’s Drivin’ n’ Cryin’. The latter was also the subject of a documentary included in the Renegade Cinema film screenings, as were excellent docs on Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons by filmmaker Gandulf Hennig.
Throughout the cruise, Steve Earle seemed ubiquitous, fronting the rocking Dukes and sitting in with various aggregations, including his bandmates The Mastersons—the married singer-songwriter duo who performed songs from their forthcoming third album, Transient Lullaby. Shooter Jennings and Waymore’s Outlaws veered from raucous country rock to ethereal beauty, when Shooter’s mom Jessi Colter joined them on piano to preview songs from her new Lenny Kaye-produced release, The Psalms. Lucinda Williams, who harmonized with Earle during a Dukes set, could be seen in the audience bopping to the blazing guitars of Drivin’ n Cryin’, while her crackerjack backup band Buick 6 played their own kick-ass instrumental solo sets. Fans could see Atlanta five-piece Blackberry Smoke do both acoustic and electric shows, or take early morning t’ai chi with Jim Lauderdale.
Part fan fair, part SXSW and part family reunion: the Outlaw Country Cruise proves the power of music to bring people together. Hailing from Australia, England, Sweden, Canada and all over America, the music lovers on board exhibited a spirit of comradeship and communal merry-making. Singalongs broke out in elevators, beads were shared during Mardi Gras festivities, new friendships were forged, thousands of dollars were donated to the Soldiers’ Angels charity, providing aid to veterans. During an era of divisiveness on dry land, all onboard became one big gang, reveling in the sounds of their favorite artists. They boogied to party bands like The Supersuckers and The Mavericks . And they gave their rapt attention to acoustic sets by artists like Cantrell, Carter, Lauderdale, the Secret Sisters, Scott H. Biram, Roger Alan Wade, and Chris Knight.
The third Outlaw Country Cruise takes place next year from January 22 to January 26.