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L.A. Beat

Outlaw Country Cruise 6 features legends, liquor and lots of Bill Kirchen

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It’s good to be back but it was better to be away for the past week on Outlaw Country Cruise 6 for  a good week of stories, live music and the occasional bouts of weirdness.

Waco Brothers bassist Alan Doughty on the pool deck, March 2. Photo by Richard Amery


It was a shock to return to Alberta where everyone seems to be in more of a hurry, more stressed out and angrier than usual, after a week of a self-imposed news and social media blackout, drunk on a boat in the middle of the Caribbean, where peace, love happiness, camaraderie and communing over great music is the general order of the day.


The Norwegian pearl docked in Belize. Photo by Richard Amery

It was just nice to take a break from Covid, convoys and the Ukraine and people bellyaching about all of that and more on social media. Though the stateroom televisions had three news stations available, I made a point of avoiding them, in between shows, tuning in to repeats of Jack Black’s “Nacho Libre” and a couple documentaries about Mojo Nixon, the Beat Farmers and Asleep at the Wheel and a really cool film Grand Theft Parsons, a highly fictionalized account of  road manager Phil Kaufman stealing and cremating his best friend Gram Parsons body in the desert. Steve Earle interviewed Kaufman himself with the Emmylou Harris hot band a little later in the cruise.


 The Outlaw Country Cruise has become my one big annual escape and treat to myself. And as usual, the music  is what makes everything worthwhile from the Covid tests to the hassles of travelling by plane in the twenty-first century. I’m officially off duty, it is still an adjustment to not have to cover shows, though I end up writing about  them anyway.


 It’s a chance to see bands who barely ever make it to Canada, let alone Alberta, and in some cases the last chance to see them at all.


Since Outlaw Cruise 5, headliner Kris Kristofferson, the Georgia Satellites’ Dan Baird and The Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman all decided to retire from the business. Their shows on the last boat were their last official performances.

 This year, UNBEPA or Unlimited Beverages packages were included in the price of the cruise, so it got pretty drunk out so I made a point of leaving my camera in my stateroom while I gained my sea legs.


Steve Earle kicking off Outlaw Country Cruise 6. Photo by Richard Amery

 After we went though the extensive boarding procedure including Covid tests in Miami, and everybody got settled in, found their sea legs and communed with old cruising buddies, the first night was off the hook. As usual Steve Earle  kicked everything off on the pool deck in the first big bash of the boat. He’s released three  albums in as many years including a tribute to his son Justin Townes Earle, and was wearing a Justin Townes Earle T-shirt, but  he kept his first show  to a greatest  hits show, so we heard all the classics, from “Guitar Town” to Copperhead Road,” after which I had to eat, luckily right around the corner from the pool deck.


 These cruises have always been fanatical about cleanliness. I usually get a kick out of the entrance to the dining room  where a girl with a sanitizer bottle is always stationed, laughing “Washy, washy, happy happy,” but they weren’t doing that this year. The staff seemed to be on edge a little more than usual, still insisting we sanitize before entering the dining room and grabbing a piece of pizza or burger to go or sitting down for a cornucopia of delicious food.


 While there was no “washy, washy, happy happy,” the staff gleefully added coffee themed lyrics as they sang popular hits while pouring slightly hungover outlaws their morning coffee.


 Though we were all required to be vaccinated and take a negative covid test before boarding, masks were supposed to be worn throughout the cruise, but few were, though one of the gifts we all received was a cool luchador style mask to go with this year’s luchador theme.


That aside it was all about the music.

 Almost every band I signed up to see were playing on the same night, usually competing with each other, but I jumped between the upper level of the pool deck where American Aquarium were playing  their laid back mid-tempo country rock music, mostly from their new CD “Lamentations, and the Spinnaker theatre, where Asleep At the Wheel were holding court for their first show of the week.


 Asleep at the Wheel were fantastic as I expected, so the theatre was packed. It was tough to  get a sight line around all the dancers and drinkers. Ray Benson is the consummate frontman. He grinned as he juggled during a few of his band members’ solos on a variety of western swing hits including lots of Bob Wills

A howler monkey on Monkey Island, Belize. Photo by Richard Amery, who Asleep At the Wheel have been happily re-popularizing since forming in the early ’70s.


 They had a relentless rhythm and an unstoppable horns section.

 Shinyribs  had their first show in the Stardust, the main theatre on the first night. That was one show where I really missed having my camera. Frontman Kevin Russell did a fine soft shoe, belting out soulful country and jazz tinged music with a mile  wide smile.

San Diego alt country band Beat Farmers also played their first show of the cruise in the atrium on the first night. They played a tight set, had fantastic multi-part vocal harmonies and even had a few sweet harmonized guitar solos as they played a lot of the songs from  their “Pursuit of Happiness album.”


The next day had a lot of highlights. One I was really looking forward to was a Salute to Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, one of the first cosmic country/ hippy country bands to emerge in the late ’60s, lead by Bill Kirchen who was everywhere, playing his own own shows, or leading a  jam on Bakersfield country music or just popping up on stage to jam with pretty much everybody else on the boat. I lost track of how many times I heard “Seeds and Stems,” but the “outlaws” on board enjoyed it.


The Commander Cody Tribute was many of several shows featuring guest appearances form the other performers on the boat and showcased Kirchen’s prodigious skill on the Telecaster. He played his spectacular jam on  “Hot Rod Lincoln” which  incorporates pretty much every well known guitar hook from  the mid twentieth century from Johnny Cash to the Sex Pistols. I got to hear him play that numerous times and was left with my jaw on the floor every time.

 I was ecstatic that they ended with Commander Cody’s great cover of “Riot In Cell Block Number Nine.”


Will Kimbrough, Carlene Carter, Shannon McNally and Jon Langford in a guitar Pull on outlaw Country Cruise 6. Photo by Richard Amery

There were  a couple  opportunities to get off the ship, reacclimatize ourselves to land and see some sights.

I finally got to climb a pyramid again in Costa Maya , Mexico. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. And in the process learned a little about Mayan culture. A lot of fellow travellers were fascinated by  the tradition of Mayan human sacrifices.


  Elizabeth Cook welcomed us back to the boat for a solid  show on the pool deck focusing on her latest album “Aftemath.” 


The next day, we stopped Harvest Caye, Belize, where the cruise line owns an island.

 I’ve always wanted to go to Belize since I heard Danny Michel singing about howler monkeys in Belize, so I wanted to see some wildlife, particularly howler monkeys.  They don’t really howl, it’s mostly a harsh, gutteral bark, which apparently you can hear from two miles away.

I saw them just in time to catch a downpour on the way back to the boat.


 But it cleared up in time for Emmylou Harris and the hot band to welcome us back to the pool deck, Feb. 28. 

The Neanderthals on the Outlaw Country Cruise 6. Photo by Richard Amery


 In addition to a lot of high energy shows, Sirius XM Outlaw Country, who put on this cruise, take the opportunity to record some interview session which everyone can attend.


I enjoyed Steve Earle’s chat with Bill Kirchen and Ray Benson about cosmic cowboy country and Asleep at the Wheel and Commander Cody’s history though, as usual, Earle spoke over most of their stories. The ever humble Bill Kirchen politely raised his hand to ask a question during one of Earle’s stories.


 I loved Elizabeth Cook’s chat with Boston musician Sarah Borges, who wrote a song called “Got me On the Boat” inspired by a fan campaign to get Borges on the Outlaw country Cruise.


 On the last day Earle was interviewing Emmylou Harris and Phil Kaufman, but I got so frustrated with Earle hijacking one of Kaufman’s stories that I left early  to get a good seat for the Waco Bothers’ last show of the trip. With everything else happening, I missed all of their others, which can happen. I was glad to catch the Beat Farmers first show as they cancelled their last show of the cruise, which upset some people who were saving them for last.


  There were a lot of legends on board. I was privileged to catch Emmylou Harris’s pool deck show, which featured Rodney Crowell and guitarist Albert Lee, who had their own solo shows as well.

Lucinda Williams is a regular on the cruise. She had a stroke a few years ago. So  it was amazing to see her at all let alone killing it on the pool deck. Her original show got cancelled due to wind, but they rescheduled it. She looked a little unsteady on her feet and she wasn’t playing guitar, but her voice was still strong.


Los Straitjackets’ Eddie Angel’s guitar party, Feb. 27. Photo by Richard Amery

Carlene Carter returned to the boat. And we were lucky to see her at all as her plane got hit by lightning and delayed as a result on the way to Miami. They even held  up the boat so she could be part of it as promised. She was on Outlaw Country Cruise 5, but was jammed into the Magnums Deck 6  stage, where most of the stranger acts and more up and coming acts play. I couldn’t

see much of that show so was glad she got a big show in the Stardust theatre on this cruise.


She opened with a couple of her bigger hits then revisited her great third album, 1980’s Musical Shapes, which was produced by Nick Lowe but didn’t make much of an impact on the charts. She told  some Nick Lowe stories, stories about growing up as the daughter of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, where she got into music, because they had a “sing for your supper” protocol for all visitors, and  the stories behind  some of the songs including “Too Bad about Sandy”  a cool song about her sister  getting married to one of Carter‘s ex husbands.


While Covid stopped Sarah Shook from boarding the boat, her band made it, and for some reason only two of Los Straitjackets were on board.

 As usual there are still some weirder acts on board. Mojo Nixon was great as usual for that.

And completely embracing the masks and luchador theme, the two remaining Los Straitjackets including Eddie Angel hosted a big jam featuring a lot of different acts on board, all dressed in their finest and weirdest luchador masks.


For the last act I caught a band called the Neanderthals, which were a band of guys dressed up as cavemen  singing caveman themed ’60s surf and pop music. The frontman, who also did a cool Elvis impression during one of Eric Roscoe Ambel’s shows, song into a  mic that looked like a shin bone, while banging on a drum with another bone.


Bill Kirchen on Outlaw Country Cruise 6. Photo by Richard Amery

There are always new discoveries on the boat. This time I was really impressed by Mexicana tinged bluesman King Joe Carrasco and the flying fingers of pianist Linda Gail Lewis and especially Sarah Borges, who was joined by Bottle Rockets bassist Keith Vogele and the Bottle Rockets/ Del Lords/ Joan Jett producer and guitarist Eric Roscoe Ambel.

 Bostonite Borges played a couple of intense sets of alternative rock influenced country music, and repeated  a few of her favourite jokes from  Roger Allan Wade‘s joke time feature the day before to kill time while waiting for technical difficulties to be resolved during her pool deck show.


 There were a couple of great doses of punk and cowpunk music  with the Supersuckers who were in a more country mood for the sets I caught and Jason and the Scorchers’ Warner Hodges, who was everywhere. He hosted a big last night jam featuring most of the people on the boat including Bill Kirchen, but which I unfortunately missed.


I saved the Waco Brothers for last this time. They were my favourite discovery from Outlaw Country Cruise 5, and  were still on fire for this cruise.

 Frontman Jon Langford said a few words about the Ukraine before leading the band through a strong set of Celtic tinged punk and alt country and a few pro-union songs. Their bassist leaped and bounded over the stage and the fiddle player dug in.

 They closed off the pool deck, March 2  by welcoming pretty much everybody from the boat including the omnipresent Bill Kirchen and a hyperactive King Joe Carrasco, punkifying a variety of classic country covers.


Ray Benson from Asleep at the Wheel. Photo by Richard Amery

 I also saved Texas musician Jesse Dayton for last. I adopted my perch in the Irish Pub to have a bird’s eye view of his hot set in the atrium.


 I can’t wait  to see who they book for Outlaw Cruise 7 which is also leaving from Miami next year, but they have also started a Outlaw West cruise leaving from L.A. in November, featuring most of the Sirius XM headliners from this cruise including Steve Earle plus Los Lobos, Dave and Phil Alvin and punk legends X and Social Distortion.

— By Richard Amery, L.A. Beat Editor

Warner Hodges was everywhere on the outlaw Country Cruise 6. Photo by Richard Amery
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