Written by Harry Kaplan
When I saw the lineup for the 2017 Outlaw Country Cruise in July of 2016, I was completely dumbfounded. That list contained many artists I have reviewed and followed for a long time. Where could I get to see artists like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, The Bottle Rockets, The Old 97s, Supersuckers, and many others all under one cover? It was like I died and went to honky tonk heaven. I did a good job of convincing my wife to go on this excursion. Without her, the trip wasn’t going to happen. She likes this type of music and had gone to see Lucinda Williams and The Old 97s with me, but I am way more enthusiastic.
So we booked the cruise. I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. Anticipating this excursion, wishing the time would go faster. I kept imagining what it would be like. Who would I meet? What would I say to them? How good would the shows be? So many questions and so much time until the cruise. As if it couldn’t get any better, three months before the cruise date, they sent offer for drink packages! Are you kidding me? Not only would I be enjoying the music I love from sun up to sun down, now there is an all inclusive drink package? Well now there is a chance I could die and go to honky tonk heaven. Well not really, but I was determined to get our money’s worth from this package. I am a finance guy, so I figured that the break even point for drinks on the cruise was 14. That is seven drinks a day each. Easy! That’s two drinks at each meal and one more for good measure. After that, we are playing with house money. Well, that was my rationale. And I did it! It’s the little things.
So it finally comes….travel day. We went to Tampa a day early, just in case something happened with the flight. Well everything went fine and we spent a pretty nondescript day and evening in Tampa. Some people started partying earlier, but we were waiting for the cruise to really let our hair down. I didn’t sleep that well because of my excitement about the cruise. Again, childish exuberance overtook me and I was waiting with bated breath for this big boat to leave.
We got to the port at around 11:30 AM. I thought we were early, but I guess everyone else had the same idea that we did. There were throngs of people everywhere with lots of luggage. As prepared as I thought we were, we didn’t label our bags correctly and had to redo them. Then we queued up and went up a couple of escalators with the NCL people herding us through the roped areas like sheep. Just when it seemed we were about to board the ship, we had another station to go to, and another form to fill out. Finally, we got to the ship, and they corralled us to the only place they could, the buffet. So we ate.
We met some great people from all over the country and the world. There were people on the boat from Australia and Europe. It was nice to talk to everyone. Of course the first question was, where are you from? And then, is this your first Outlaw Country Cruise? Then we found a bar and quickly tried to start getting a return on our drink investment. I may have tried little too hard. That childish exuberance caught up with me again. So we were in the buffet area for about an hour or so and Steve Earle walks right by us. Steve Earle! So I proceed to engage Mr. Earle in conversation. Much to my pleasant surprise, he was a very nice guy and extremely engaging. It wasn’t phony either. He is a genuinely nice fella and very good with his fans. He gets it.
Then, I saw Dale Watson. I had just been at his Ameripolitan Award Show in Austin two weeks prior and had done a write up in Twangri-La. I mentioned that to him and he had read my review and was extremely complimentary of my writing. What a thrill that was. These are people that I revere and they actually are recognizing my small work? This is shaping up to be one hell of a trip and we haven’t even left the port yet.
We finally got the word at around 2 PM that the cabins were ready. We went to the cabin and unpacked our clothes and chilled for a bit. After about a half hour of chilling, we got thirsty and decided to proceed to the bar for more drinks only to find out that they stopped serving drinks because we had to go to a safety drill. This was perplexing. Where is it written that you can’t get drinks during a safety drill? In fact, drinking would make the safety presentation more exciting. I pleaded my case but I was vetoed by every employee on the ship.
Once we got over the perfunctory safety presentation, it was back to hi-jinx. We finally left port around 4 PM. When we made our way outside, we were greeted to the sweet sounds of The Mavericks playing.
It was absolutely sublime. It was one of the best experiences and sensations I ever felt. I hope I can always recall that memory and feel the way I did at that very moment. To be out in the sunshine and feeling the warm breeze as the boat was hauling ass through the Gulf Of Mexico was truly magical. It seemed every passenger on the boat was on that deck listening and watching The Mavericks. Then, to hear the music and see everyone so happy elicited such powerful emotions. We didn’t have a care in the world and it was fantastic. We watched The Mavericks for about an hour and then went back to the cabin to see what was next.
The schedule was very complex and there was so much entertainment, it was impossible to see everything. We had to make some very tough decisions. There was no other choice in the matter. That is better than not having enough choices, I suppose. It reminds me of baseball spring training when the manager has to make cuts. They always state it is better to have too much talent and have to release some good players than to not have enough talent. That was the way the entire cruise was. Too much talent for one baseball diamond.
After some cabin deliberations, it was on to the next event. Scott H. Biram was on deck.
I have some of his albums, but I had never seen him live. I was unprepared for what I was about to see. He is a one man show, but he makes enough music for four people. He seems to channel the spirit of a 70 year old blues man. It is absolutely astounding. You would think one man and a guitar is folk music. Not in this case. Biram’s style is part blues, country, punk, and metal. When he sings though, he sounds like a mix of John Lee Hooker and Mississippi John Hurt. In the audience watching Scott was Shooter Jennings. I said to him, “You look a lot like Shooter Jennings.’ He replied, “Yeah, that’s what my momma tells me.” Very funny, down to earth guy.
After Scott, I needed a little time to decompress, but I didn’t really have much time. It was on to see The Bottle Rockets.
The Bottle Rockets are a band I have followed for quite a long time but never had the chance to see them live. They lived up to and exceeded my expectations. They are an incredibly tight outfit, yet loose enough not to sweat the small stuff. They had great interplay with the audience but really let their music do the talking. I heard all of the songs I wanted to hear. ($1,000 Car, Queen Of The World, Welfare Music, etc.). I left that show a very happy feller. After that, I headed for the rack. That was a lot for the first day, and I think I may have tried to hard to get our money’s worth on the alcohol. We still had four more days left. This was a marathon and not a sprint. Day 1, in the books.