The fourth annual Outlaw Country Cruise set sail this week from Tampa for the Bahamas, but for the 2,500 or so rabid fans onboard, the Norwegian Pearl could have just circled Tampa Bay — these folks were here for the tunes. Presented by cruise promoter Sixthman in conjunction with SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel, OCC4 boasted one of the journey’s most strong and varied lineups yet, with Lucinda Williams, Drive-By Truckers and Margo Price all headlining. From surprise jam sessions to special screenings of upcoming country-music documentaries and even an episode of cruise favorite Squidbillies, the five-day tour was rich with highlights. Here’s the 10 best things we saw.
Mojo Nixon gets stoned.
With his surprisingly nuanced and well-researched Outlaw Country show, Mojo Nixon proved a while ago that he’s more than just the off-the-rails “Don Henley Must Die” singer. But on the final night of the cruise he went the extra moonlight mile, curating and leading a tribute to the Rolling Stones that was as righteous as it was ramshackle. Which isn’t to say Nixon was subdued — “I had 400 drinks in four days. There’s a good chance I’ll shit my pants,” he warned the front row. Luckily, the only onstage surprises were Nixon’s guests: Dan Baird leading a call-and-response with “Sweet Virginia,” John Doe singing “Gimme Shelter” and Steve Earle recasting “Dead Flowers” as a sing-along finale. It was the Stones’ more twangy material, as seen through the prism of guy who is just as much musician as he is wildman.
Lucinda Williams re-creates Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.
There was something surreal about a theater full of cruisers singing along to Williams’ sad masterpiece: “You took my joy/I want it back” isn’t really yacht rock after all. But the intimate venue actually amplified the personal nature of Car Wheels, as the Americana royal took time in between songs to relay life stories that influenced the album. Regarding the title track, Williams talked about an emotional moment with her father; for “Drunken Angel,” she offered a window into her admiration for late songwriter Blaze Foley and other tormented artists. Car Wheels may have turned 20 last year, but the material — and Williams’ performance — was as vibrant as ever.
Dan Baird closes it down.
“We’re the last chicken in the shop!” Dan Baird hollered as he and his band Homemade Sin took the stage for the final show of the five-day cruise, churning out a set of solo material, covers and classics by his former band the Georgia Satellites. The jukebox staple “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” was predictably a crowd-pleaser and a take on “Shake, Rattle & Roll” let superhero guitarist Warner Hodges pick n’ grin, but it was “Dan Takes Five” — Baird’s drive-all-night mission statement off the Satellites’ In the Land of Salvation and Sin album — that best illustrated the gap-toothed frontman’s enduring lust for life. Singing and shimmying just like he did back in the Eighties, Baird didn’t lose a step, even when he cut open his hand near gig’s end. For this Southern rock warrior, the show always goes on.
Margo Price is the Outlaw MVP.
Despite barely making the medical cut-off to cruise — she’s five months pregnant — Margo Price was seemingly everywhere once onboard. She turned in a pair of headlining sets on the main deck that highlighted not only songs off her second album All American Made, but choice covers as well. For the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones,” Price climbed behind a second drum kit to pound out a rhythm opposite drummer Dillon Napier, and welcomed Shooter Jennings for a duet on “Why You Been Gone So Long.” Elsewhere, she took part in an all-star tribute to Bobby Bare with Steve Earle and Jennings; sat with Elizabeth Cook for a candid SiriusXM conversation about the challenges of her career; and staged an impromptu autograph signing at the merch booth. She and her band also coined the phrase of the voyage — dubbing the cruise “Party Prison.”
Doug Kershaw steals hearts and stages.
Fiddle great Doug Kershaw was a last-minute addition to the Outlaw Country Cruise, but the “Ragin’ Cajun” was received like a conquering hero. Whether he was sitting in with Dale Watson and Deke Dickerson, or joining Jesse Dayton on “Marie Laveau” at the Bobby Bare tribute, the 83-year-old Louisiana singer-musician was impossible to resist. His wide-eyed playing style and limitless energy endeared him to cruisers and artists alike as he sang bayou staples like “Jambalaya” and “Louisiana Man.” Over the five days of the cruise, there was no better cameo.
Shooter Jennings plays piano man.
For his fourth consecutive Outlaw Country Cruise, Shooter Jennings — host of SiriusXM’s Electric Rodeo — touched on all eras of his career over two headlining performances. He promoted his latest album, Shooter, with the boisterous “D.R.U.N.K.” and ass-kicking “I’m Wild and My Woman Is Crazy,” spit out the poseur indictment “Outlaw You” and dug deep into his 2005 debut Put the O Back in Country with the AC/DC thwack of “Steady at the Wheel” and, of course, the must-play “4th of July.” Jennings shredded some mean guitar on those songs, but he was at his most comfortable (and best) when in front of the piano, especially for “Fast Horses and Good Hideouts.” In one of the most moving moments of the voyage, the Grammy nominee (for co-producing Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You) dedicated the ballad to his half brother Terry Jennings, who died just a few days before the cruise.
Rock bands go to 11…and pull the plug.
Heavy hitters the Drive-By Truckers and Old 97’s provided some of the loudest rock of the cruise, but solo acoustic sets by those band’s members delivered power without bombast. Both Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley brought their DBT songs to life in stripped-down shows, with Hood admirably powering through a hoarse voice and Cooley twisting the knife at Confederate flag wavers in “Surrender Under Protest.” The 97’s frontman Rhett Miller also captivated in his solo gig, at one point charming the audience by crooning his “Will you marry me?” ballad “Question” in French. Cruise promoter Sixthman’s motto might be “Live Loud,” but these gigs proved that sometimes a hush can be golden.
Bobby Bare gets the all-star treatment.
Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare jetted down to the Bahamas to meet up with the cruise, and his journey was well-rewarded: the top talent on the ship paid tribute to the country singer at a special concert. Steve Earle, Margo Price, John Doe, Drive-By Truckers’ Mike Cooley and catching-fire troubadour Jesse Dayton sang some of Bare’s most memorable songs. By night’s end, the entire cast, including Bare’s son Bobby Bare Jr., who performed his own show with his dad earlier in the day, had gathered around the guest of honor to re-create “Detroit City.”
Jim Lauderdale helps you find your center.
After Americana statesman Jim Lauderdale sang some of the most heartbreaking country songs of the cruise, he graciously helped fans regain their bliss and, just maybe, find some inner peace too. A longtime practitioner of tai chi, Lauderdale hosted three separate classes for cruisers, including one right on the beach of Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas and another on the boat’s top deck. As a man of tai chi, he was as graceful and deliberate as his lyrics.
Elizabeth Cook is your cruise director.
So ubiquitous was Elizabeth Cook on OCC4 that, on the final night, guitarist Warner Hodges quipped that she’d be in the halls the next morning to serenade cruisers as they disembarked. While her own concerts were big-boat high points, offering a smattering of new songs off an eagerly awaited album, it was the irreverent personality and naughty aw-shucks nature of the Outlaw Country DJ that made fans want to be in her presence. Bonus: Cook rocked the most eye-catching outfits of the trip, from neon fringe to iridescent bodysuits.