You’ve heard the phrase “captive audience.” How about captive artists? That’s the premise of the Cayamo experience: Take the cream of the crop of Americana talent, both established and bright up-and-comers, put them on a luxury cruise ship and mix in a couple thousand energetic and knowledgeable music enthusiasts, and what do you get? Nirvana.
No, I have never gone, but I have been adopted by the hundred or so Cayamo folks who also attend AmericanaFest each year, and I know that not only do the artists have to be on top of their game, but I cannot be a slouch either, as I have never come into contact with so many folks who live and breathe the music. It’s folks like this — it’s hard to call them mere “fans” — that the artists reach out for. Because they get it.
On its 10th anniversary, the Cayamo cruise, presented by Sixthman, outdid itself with Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, Luther Dickinson, the Wainright family, Patty Griffin, and Lee Ann Womack while seeding the pasture with newer talents like Parker Millsap, Sarah Jarosz, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Angaleena Presley, and Ruby Amanfu. And let’s not forget distinguished sidemen Fats Kaplan, Gurf Morlix, Stuart Duncan, and Joel Guzman. I’m only naming a few to whet your appetite.
We are fortunate to have two folks who are no strangers to ND readers sharing their experiences and photographs of that week at sea: Boom Baker and Brenda Rosser. We also have additional photographs by first-timers Larry John Fowler and Lisa Costantino, and Michelle Carroll Stancil, a professional photographer from Alabama.
It is impossible to find the words to describe the Cayamo experience, but once you have had the experience you keep coming back time and again. Being able to be with 2,000 like-minded music lovers and especially musicians that seldom get to hang out with other artists and sit in with other bands like they do on Cayamo, well, it is the experience of pure music bliss.
Cayamo is a roller coaster of euphoric emotions one gets from the singer-songwriter performances. There are songs of happiness, sadness, optimism, elation, and joy, songs of protest, love songs, break-up songs, songs of hope, songs of encouragement to climb the mountain that lies ahead, and songs of days gone by. Imagine the opportunity to get front row seats to see your favorite artist —more than possible on Cayamo. How about 143 performances by over 50 artists and groups in seven days. You can eat anytime, day or night, with unlimited bacon and soft-serve ice cream.
How about standing next to Emmylou Harris in the Garden Cafe at breakfast and both saying at the same time how good the fresh fruit selection is?Or standing next to Buddy Miller and Richard Thompson in the Spinnaker enjoying a late-night show. It is where you can see 15 different collaboration shows with an unlikely group of songwriters or even a likely group like Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Lee Ann Womack, Jedd Hughes, and Rodney Crowell swapping songs in the round. Seeing artists like Buddy Miller who do not tour much. Experiencing “Guitar 101” with Richard Thompson, Luther Dickinson, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Tom Bukovac in the round discussing their influences. Host Buddy Miller played excerpts from the songs mentioned that demonstrated what example was being referenced. You also had the opportunity to see Rodney Crowell, The Secret Sisters, or Brian Dunne at other venues performing at the same time. Luckily, you have opportunities to see as many shows as you want because each artist has three time slots staggered throughout the week.
There are special moments when an artist tells about a broken heart from a relationship that has ended or when, after being out on the road, coming home to the family they have missed so much. One such story told by Will Hoge was about his 5-year-old son telling about a girl in his kindergarten class who has a crush on him. When Will asked how his son knew about the crush, the son replied: “I farted in school and she patted me on my back and said it was okay.” That’s not a crush, Hoge said, that’s true love.
No one can never fully convey the “it” factor of the Cayamo experience. What is the “it” factor? It is the intrinsic emotional feeling one gets from physically spending a week in the best music experience on the high seas or anyplace else you can imagine.
Cayamo 2017 set sail from Tampa on February 19 for its 10th sailing adventure. The annual singer/songwriter and roots music cruise was heavy on alumni, with 92% of its passengers having sailed before, with the 8% of new passengers including many of the artists. The cruise had over 40 artists, and over the week there were more than 150 scheduled shows. Some people say Cayamo is a cult, but really is has become a musical family reunion for both paying passengers and artists. Excitement builds in the weeks before the cruise and the community of passengers really look forward to seeing each other. They celebrate each other’s triumphs and tragedies. This year I watched a passenger dash off the ship at the first port to get fabric, needles, and thread to make a Tibetan prayer flag for a fellow passenger who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She repeated the act at the next stop for a couple whose son had passed away a few months ago. The flags flew from the deck, absorbing the joy and prayers of many before she bestowed them. In this idyllic atmosphere, there was an abundance of music this week.
There were surprise stowaways booked by Sixthman, revealed to be John Paul White and Chuck Cannon on boarding day. As usual there were artist stowaways who came aboard at their own expense just to be part of the experience. This year Kimber Ludiker and Trisha Gene Brady were two of these, and they got plenty of guest spots. Brady even did a cabin concert.
Stellar sidemen were in abundance — Rodney Crowell brought along Jedd Hughes and Eamon McLoughlin, Buddy Miller had Fats Kaplan, Dominic Davis, Stuart Duncan, Joel Guzman, and Cayamo favorite Brady Blade along with him. There was a partial Sea Level reunion, with Davis Causey and Randall Bramblett both aboard.
Here is a synopsis of some of my favorite shows, both of artists new to the cruise and of special collaborative shows.
The first act to perform on the cruise was new to Cayamo, and possibly the youngest artist this year, West Virginia’s Christian Lopez. Christian was a big hit with his clear, beautiful vocals and upbeat set list of both original and covers that surprised. His ace rock n’ roll drummer Ricky Wise was a plus, especially on their cover of The Beatles’ “I Want You.” Christian also participated in a “cabin concert” held in a cruiser’s balcony cabin, with as many people as could fit in the room and hallway. He had so much fun he played for 90 minutes! He also appeared in several of Amy Helm’s sets and in Luke Bulla’s Last Man Standing set.
Parker Millsap was another new-to-Cayamo act that gained many appreciative fans. The Oklahoman played to a packed pool deck on Day 1. A fun moment was him giving the audience a heads up that we were about to pass under the Tampa Bay bridge and then immediately launching into his song, “Put Your Hands Up.”
Three acts were voted on the boat by passengers in the Soundcheck competition: Trout Steak Revival, Nashville legend Sarah Potenza, and The Mulligan Brothers. All were well appreciated, with Trout Steak and The Mulligan Brothers both also appearing in the collaborative Guy Clark Tribute Show. Potenza was a huge hit with her powerhouse vocals and entertaining stories. She brought huge applause in Gretchen Peters’ Songs of Protest show with her renditions of “Serve Somebody” and “Mercy Now” (with Gurf Morlix), and at the Gospel Show singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — a brave move on a boat with Rufus Wainwright aboard. The Mulligan Brothers also appeared in Shawn Mullins’ Variety Show set, which drew new fans to their scheduled shows later in the week.
Amy Helm was new to the boat and took it by storm! Her tight band and bluesy, gospel tinged songs were a great contrast to the lower key singer songwriter acts and had the crowds up and dancing. She also invited many artists on stage to perform with her in true Cayamo spirit. I hope this means an invite back for her. Also a welcome new addition were the North Mississippi Allstars. Their 10 a.m. show was a real eye-opener, and their pool deck show in the Caribbean sun was the perfect antidote to winter. Luther Dickinson was all over the boat, appearing in Ruby Amanfu’s backing band and in collaborative shows with Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin.
Aaron Lee Tasjan was a delight, and brought along Brian Wright (who is so talented he could have used his own set), and the two of them put on a great show with Tasjan’s interesting and truly original songs and stellar guitar work from both. Patty Griffin aptly described Tasjan as: “If Elton John could have had Tom Petty’s baby … ”
Other new artists who were well-received were Bonnie Bishop, Sarah Jarosz, Gretchen Peters, The Love Junkies, i.e., Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose & Lori McKenna, and Aoife O’Donovan. This ship sailed with some amazing female vocal and songwriting talent.
Some shows are special collaborations around a theme and others are a surprise, as when an artist invites special guests or does something different. This year Paul Thorn performed his first album in one show with an introductory film from the time of its release, with clips of him working in a chair factory, being interviewed on the porch of the starter home he bought with the proceeds from that CD, and clips of a boxing match with Roberto Duran. It was a bang up show — no pun intended — ending with his usual closing song of “Get You a Healin'” as he sang and danced in the audience.
Gretchen Peters’ Songs of Protest show featured Peters and her guests Sarah Potenza, Gurf Morlix, and Amy Helm in the round. Helm got things off to a great start with Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can,” and there were excellent song selections from Morlix, Potenza, and Peters.
Guitar 101 with Buddy Miller was a fascinating show with Miller’s guests: Aaron Lee Tasjan, Tom Bukovac, Luther Dickinson, and Richard Thompson. Miller played short audio clips of guitarists or guitar solos that inspired them and then they each played a song. Bukovac invented his song on the spot. This was a guitar geek’s dream for sure and one I very much enjoyed, despite it being long on talk and short on musical performance.
For Patty Griffin & Friends, the curtain opened to a stage full of performers in the round. Patty invited Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Luther Dickinson, Lee Ann Womack, Jedd Hughes, and Rodney Crowell. I took no notes of the song selections, but can tell you they were fantastic. Hughes sang two original songs, the second of which was particularly well received. Who knew this fantastic guitarist is such a lovely songwriter?
The Buddy & Jim Radio Show was live performance of their Sirius XM show, which is always a ton of fun. Of course it kicked off with a plate of cookies passed to the passengers in the front row – but watch out for Jim Lauderdale’s special cookies! Guests were: Kristi Rose, Sara Fox & Joel Guzman, Stuart Duncan and wife Dita, Gurf Morlix, and Steve Earle.
The Guy Clark Tribute, hosted by Rodney and Emmylou, was filled with personal stories of Clark and performances of his great songs. Standouts were: Angaleena Presley – “My Favorite Picture of You,” Sarah Jarosz – “Baton Rouge,” Aaron Lee Tasjan – “Cold Dog Soup,” Trout Steak Revival – “Magnolia Wind,” Brian Wright – “El Coyote,” and Steve Earle – “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”
A returnee worth mention was Ruby Amanfu. Her solo sets with backing band The Handsomes (Dominic Davis on bass, Jerry Pentecost on drums, Daniel Tashian on keys, and Luther Dickinson on guitar) were emotional, exciting, and brilliant. She did a duet on “When My Man Comes Home” with Bonnie Bishop and a moving cover of Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.” In the Last Man Standing show on the cruise’s final night, she also performed her original song “Heaven’s My Home.”
Now, scroll through their photos that feature the folks above, as well as many others. You may also want to check the Cayamo website. It is now taking registrations for the 2018 cruise, which sets sail out of New Orleans.
Note: The final photo in the slideshow, Cayamo 2017, is from Sixthman.