The shortest of these three themed singer-songwriter cruises may go down as the best one to date. We heard a lot of music and witnessed amazing performances in our five day journey through song.
Of the 29 acts on-board, thanks to much collaboration, between the two of us, we saw all but Rachael Yamagata. You sometimes have to take a nap, shower or eat.
Day One: Glen Phillips (solo), accompanied by Jonathan Kingham, was a great way to begin our journey out to sea. We were supposed to attend our first headliner show, Lyle Lovett, but due to technical difficulties the start of the Lovett show was delayed. So we checked out other artists instead: the married couple Luke & Melissa (Luke Doucet & Melissa McClelland) from Canada, then Darrell Scott, followed by Shawn Mullins (who brought Chuck Cannon up to share the stage for a few songs), then Ben Taylor (joined by Brandi Carlile and the Twins on an Everly Brothers song) and ended the evening with a show by Edwin McCain. Our day began at 3:00 a.m., ending after 12:30 a.m. the following day. Thank goodness we sailed into Central time & gained that hour.
Day Two: A day at sea. In the morning, I attended a Songwriting Workshop hosted by Shawn Mullins and Chuck Cannon. Cannon has written six #1 hits and many top 20 country songs. They talked about the mixed blessing of having a hit song. The hardest part is getting the idea. Mullins praised AAA radio stations. They discussed their pick up systems (both use bags). Cannon tunes down. Using a new song “I Just Want to Light You Up”, Cannon and Mullins talked about writing that song and invited us to all sing along on the chorus. Mullins is old school, melodic; as is Cannon. Cannon noted that even the great songwriter Leonard Cohen re-writes his songs to make them better. Using a computer and GarageBand are modern conveniences to songwriting. Cannon does not write down anything, if it’s good enough, he will remember it. Jimmy Webb uses a rhyming dictionary. Love only rhymes with so many words. Both Cannon & Mullins value hard rhymes (love, above; true, blue) vs. soft rhymes. Even if you’re never heard a song before, with a hard rhyme you know what line is coming next. Jimmy Webb has the top 5 performed songs (e.g. "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", "Galveston", "Wichita Lineman") Theater music is another example of hard rhymes, where they have only one chance to grab you. With hard rhymes, those songs have staying power for 25-30 years. You don’t have to hear them over and over again on the radio. Someone asked about the bridge in a song. Mullins said it was an extra while Cannon said he doesn’t need that approach. Smokey Robinson songs typically are verse, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, etc. thus, getting in to your head. The bridge needs to say something. Mullins talked about starting out on a larger label and moving to a smaller label where he has more creative freedom. When co-writing, Darrell Scott was quoted “gotta be honest”. You need to have chemistry. It was a very interesting hour hearing the two songwriters talk about their craft. Cannon is so modest about his songwriting abilities and a definite find for us on this cruise.
Day two performances: Gregory Alan Isakov, Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, Shawn Mullins, Vienna Teng & Alex Wong (with Jonathan Kingham doing an impromptu rap about the cruise, which he had done the previous year – one of those memorable moments), Hoots and Hellmouth, our headliner that night, Brandi Carlile brought out Shawn Mullins to sing “Beautiful Wreck” and Katie Herzig and her band to do “Wish You Well”, and later Brandi’s younger sister, Tiffany joined her on stage. Another show by Edwin McCain, followed by the first show of Works Progress Administration which performed as a 7-piece band, including Sara Watkins on fiddle and vocals and Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar (Every show, WPA started with “Always Have My Love” and with the addition of the pedal steel guitar it was just amazing), and we ended the night with Robert Earl Keen (solo), who told the funniest stories (at one point I was laughing and crying) and the highlight each show was “Merry Christmas from the Family”. Keen is one of our favorite discoveries from the cruise.
Day Three: Belize City, Belize, Central America: A chance to get off the ship and bask in their one season of 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity. The evenings music began on the pool deck with Works Progress Administration, followed by Darrell Scott and friends, which included two of his former students (Sarah Sample being one) and Luke Bulla from WPA. While we were having dinner an announcement was made that a special concert was being added in the movie theater. The Watkins Family Hour. Sara & Sean Watkins were joined by other members of WPA and Mr. Buddy Miller on a couple of songs (including one by Hank Williams). That’s an example of some of the surprise unexpected collaborations on-board. The Watkins regularly get together to play in Largo and the people they usually play with were on the ship, so why not get together and play for us. And it was wonderful to listen in on such an amazing group of musicians. After a quick visit to the chocolate buffet (including chocolate sushi), we went to see Ben Taylor again who was once again joined by Brandi Carlile who eventually made her way to sing with Katie Herzig and her band, along with Carlile’s drummer and the Twins.
Day Four: Costa Maya, Mexico was the port city. As we sailed away, I went to see Edwin McCain on the pool deck. Despite some rain drops, the show continued. Afterward McCain graciously signed autographs and posed for photos. McCain’s song “I’ll Be” was a #1 hit in the Philippines and some of the wait staff on the cruise from the Philippines were there and they treated McCain like a rock star, each posing with him for a photo. While I was seeing McCain, Mr. Barb checked out Sara Watkins, who of course had members of WPA join her on stage. We had to catch Robert Earl Keen. Then I saw Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers again, while Mr. Barb went to see Brandi Carlile again (she was joined on stage by John Hiatt, Ben Taylor and Gregory Alan Isakov). Followed by Buddy Miller, who filled the room past capacity (Mr. Barb and I had to share a seat) and he brought on stage a few of his friends including Ms. Emmylou Harris (they did “Sea of Heartbreak”), Sara Watkins and a previous headliner on the cruise, who was just on-board as a guest, Ms. Shawn Colvin. We ended the day with Shawn Mullins and friends, which included (among others) Edwin McCain, Alex Wong, Glen Phillips, Chuck Cannon and Jonathan Kingham (who did another cruise rap). Before we turned in we caught the energized band Scythian.
Day Five: Back into the Eastern time zone and a very rocky day at sea until mid-afternoon. David Dye, host of NPR’s World Cafe was on-board for the first time to conduct interviews with John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Ben Taylor & Stephen Kellogg. These interviews and performances from the cruise will be broadcast on the World Cafe in April. I was able to attend the interview session with Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle. Dye focused on both performers’ musical roots in Texas. No spoilers, but Earle impressed me as being very articulate (even if some of his comments will have to be edited for radio). Lovett, as usual, was very professional. While I was at the World Cafe interview, Mr. Barb caught a bit of Lissie performing. We then attended the Session which included Shawn Mullins, Glen Phillips, Rebecca Lovell, Chuck Cannon, and Edie Carey along with Megan Lovell on dobro. These talented singer-songwriters gathered together in the fall to write songs. Six songs were written in three days. They discussed the process with each song and performed them, along with a few other songs in this 90-minute session. All of the songs written during that session would be a wonderful addition to any of their future CD’s (although Cannon added at this rate he didn’t think his next CD would be out until 2018). The songwriters really respect each other and enjoyed co-writing. Mr. Barb got to see Samantha Crain, and then we went to an autograph session with Shawn Mullins in the merch area. I went to the Songwriters In the Round with Katie Herzig, Luke Doucet and his wife Melissa McClelland, Gregory Alan Isakov and Vienna Teng. Each artist talked about the songwriting process for a song and then performed that song. Luke and Melissa performed a song they wrote while on the cruise. Mr. Barb went to see Larkin Poe (formerly The Lovell Sisters) instead, on the pool deck. In the evening we went to the final performance by WPA, then to see our headliner, Mr. Steve Earle (solo). We rounded out the evening with a bit of Vienna Teng, who was joined by The Lovells, Luke Bulla and a member of Hoots & Hellmouth. We just had to catch Robert Earl Keen again and a little of the final act, Darrell Scott, before heading off to sleep.
The amount of collaborations and the chance to interact more with many of the artists, including the headliners, really made this cruise even more amazing than previous years. Next year they are thinking about going back to a 7-day cruise and have confirmed John Prine as a headliner. I wasn't able to bring back any warmth and sunshine, (reality check, as we landed at the airport while it was snowing); instead I came back home with a cold. Amazing is the best word to described the memories and music going around in my head for this very unique and special journey through song.
Barb S.- Sunday Mix Host