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 pleasant surprise, he was a very nice guy and extremely engaging. It wasn’t phone 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. _DSC0617We 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 incredible 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.


Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

The talent is undeniable on Passport. There is good and then there is clearly great. This falls in the latter category. It is evident that the playing, writing, and singing is a cut above the rest of the pack. Not just that, but the production and mixing are as close to perfect as it gets. These are things that are easy to overlook, but on Passport everything is mixed and produced so superbly, it turns all of the individual parts into a single entity. (more…)

Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

This is the tenth studio album from those countrified fellas from north of the border in Canada. This is loosely classified as country music since The Sadies do some serious genre jumping on Northern Passages. At times, I hear The Byrds, The Smithereens, Husker Du, and Flying Burritos. But through it all, it is The Sadies that jumps in front and center. If you like your California style country, don’t get nervous. God Bless The Infidels (Track 7) has got you covered. A perfect melding of old time country with beautiful harmonies and some acid tinged guitars. (more…)

Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

High Impedance starts off with The Dark Don’t Hide It, which is a song written by the late Jason Molina and performed by Magnolia Electric Co. Well, they immediately piqued my curiosity. That is a tough song to do as a cover since it is highly stylized and Molina’s voice was so unique. Having said all that, they nailed it. The Wayward Hearts captured the essence of the song but amended it enough to play to their own sound. The fiddles and vocals are pristine and I can listen to this song as a stand alone and not compare it to the original. They get huge props for that.  (more…)

Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

There are pretty voices and there are gorgeous, heavenly voices. Valerie June falls into the latter category. Her voice makes me emotional. A combination of happy feelings, yet she taps into something that also makes me want to cry. Of course, I would never let myself cry. At least I won’t admit to it here in Twangri-La. OK, maybe it happened. I can neither confirm nor deny such actions. What I can confirm is that June’s voice is so powerful, that ts will evoke emotions inside that have laid dormant for a long time. Maybe emotions you didn’t even know existed. Listening to The Order of Time is a cathartic experience. (more…)

Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

OK, right off the bat this album gets ten stars for the fact that there is a cover of War Pigs by Black Sabbath on this album. Ruthie foster covers the heavy metal classic and transforms that song into a bluesy gospel number that is jaw droppingly good. Like Johnny Cash used to do, Foster takes this song and makes it her own. She makes this a stand alone song and not a cover tune any more. (more…)

Reviewed by Harry Kaplan

This is perfect music. A bit of nostalgia, but also current. This type of country music never went out of style, contrary to popular belief. It may have retracted some, but honky tonk has never stopped being made. To call this revival music is inaccurate because it has never ceased to be created. So in that fine tradition, here is Dale & Ray, from two country music icons, Dale Watson and Ray Benson. When I listen to this album, one thing comes to mind, chemistry. It is like these guys are brothers. They are so musically in tune with each other, it is uncanny. I get the feeling that they could finish each other’s guitar riffs. (more…)