An Alternate Universe On The Sea: The Giddy, Relentless Outlaw Country Cruise

Mt. Rushmore Set Sail:
– Mt. Rushmore Set Sail:
Elizabeth Cook, Kris Kristofferson, Mojo Nixon and Steve Earle on the main pool deck shove off from Miami for five days of music, mayhem and margaritas with stops at Key West and Kingston, Jamaica.
Dan Baird, the gap-toothed co-founder and swagger monkey behind the Georgia Satellites’ “Keep Your Hands To Yourself,” is bouncing on the balls of his feet, crazy grin slapped across his face. 
The giddiness is everywhere, as the Southern punk answer to Tigger exchanges high-five looks with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a tour manager named Bullethead and random Mavericks as NRBQ delivers a churning end of the night Atrium set on this, the first night of the fifth annual Outlaw Country Cruise. 

Sheer delight is too light a term looking at the faces in front of the stage, as Terry Adams’ current lineup of the legendary cult faves blaze through covers, classic and obscurities with equal zeal. 
As the foment picks up momentum, Baird – who announced his retirement from live performing after these shows – leans over. 
“I don’t know how he did it, but Terry really figured out how to capture what makes NRBQ swing.”
The Outlaw Country Cruise has a way of raising the dead and capturing magic. From the moment the Norwegian Pearl cast off from the Port of Miami – and no less a Mount Rushmore of the ragtag oeuvre than SiriusXM hosts and full-tilt roots people Mojo Nixon, Elizabeth Cook and Steve Earle, plus Kris Kristofferson, this year’s legend being honored, led the assembled Cruisers on the packed main pool deck into raising a small plastic glass and pounding a shot – the music, crazy mash-ups, outlandish activities and conviviality was relentless. Relentless.
A Frisky Proposition:
– A Frisky Proposition:
The Mavericks’ multi-rhythmic trips had the boat churning more from the dancing than the Atlantic’s chop.
Forty-seven artists, more than 100 scheduled sets, spontaneous outbursts of random music, Tai Chi with Jim “That’s Americana” Lauderdale, an art experience with Lee “Scratch” Perry, unlimited beverage packages, movie screenings, funky reggae parties, an incredible tribute to Kristofferson featuring most of the artists onboard, collaborations that merged the worlds and emerging artists people may not know combined into a cocktail of louder, more, wow!
You have to figure there are a lot of Outlaws out there. With a capacity of 2200 people, all paying somewhere between $1100 t0 $4400 per person for the five day adventure, it’s sold out every year since its inception.
“The fact it’s almost a week on a boat opened up all sorts of opportunities to do some cool things you can’t really do at a traditional music festival,” says Steven Van Zandt, the Renegade Circus kingpin and visionary behind SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. “We had no idea if it would (work). But our partner Sixthman is the best at doing these music festival cruises – and they’d reached out to us.
“We didn’t want to rely on one main headliner, the idea was to have fans of different bands across multiple genres all come together on the boat and hopefully get turned on to something new. The format of the channel is playing three groups of artists: country legends, alternative country artists and rock artists with country influence.”
It’s why the buzz was strong for the Long Ryders, whose Psychedelic Country Soul marked the return of the cowpunk pioneers after more than three decades, and the idea of Lee “Scratch” Perry rocking the Waco Brothers’ maindeck pool show turned what seemed like the entire boat out for the Bloodshot Records’ punk/rockabillies’ jackhammered set.
Which is why electric guitarist showman Warner E. Hodges checks so many boxes. An original Scorcher, he played with Jason Ringenberg’s crew on the boat, as well as headlining his own sets, sitting in with Nixon and popping up wherever a relentless player was needed. 
In the spirit of Outlaw, he was everywhere, looking like a Southern rock rejectionist hero, engaging fellow musicians, and fans, celebrating the moment and keeping a sober flame for the ones who didn’t come to drink the Pearl dry.
The Mavericks’ multi-rhythmic trips through classic and progressive country, norteño, salsa, tango, old school cocktail crooning and combustive songs had the boat churning more from the dancing than the Atlantic’s chop. 
With brass blasts, Eddie Perez’s hair streamed in the wind as he melted guitar solo after guitar solo. Keyboard player Jerry Dale McFadden’s puckish demeanor and a sartorial swagger said “bring the brio.” Raul Malo’s tenor set the bar for music and elegant bon vivantry on a boat determined to lean into good times. An Outlaw core band, they’re a very frisky proposition.
From The Swamp To Sea:
– From The Swamp To Sea:
The Legendary Lucinda Williams flexes her rock ’n’ roll bona fides as well as acoustic in-the-round intimacy.
The next generation came, flying the colors for Outlaw progeny. Carlene Carter threw down stories, played autoharp and sang in her rich tenor, looking more and more like her mother June, while Shooter Jennings’ punk rock fix bled through a 21st Century modern vamp on his father’s hard-hitting country. Even the less known Waylon Payne, son of Sammi Smith, brought wicked wit, gorgeous songcraft and a genuine mark of legacy.
Don’t let the raving euphoria suggest the Outlaw Cruise was one ginormous free-for-all, although Mojo Nixon leading the overstuffed Magnum Lounge through a shriek-along “Tie My Pecker To My Leg” does pack a certain prurient zeal. At the end of the day, the music is taken seriously in extremis. 
Where else would you find a panel dedicated to unpacking Rolling Thunder with Gram Parsons historian/Long Ryder Sid Griffin, Dylan vet/Woodstock stalwart Larry Campbell, journalist/Rolling Thunder alum Larry “Ratso” Sloman and Kinky Friedman?
Lucinda Williams – another Outlaw core artist – flexed her rock ’n’ roll bona fides, and delivered an acoustic in-the-round intimacy. If country swamp blues is her starting point, she has found the lean blade of Tom Petty’s no- frills, electric, song-driven rock.
Laura Cantrell, a Brooklyn-based songwriter who’s huge in England, brought detail -driven songcraft that merged a delicacy with strength.
It played well against Robbie Fulks’ Okie reality roots songs, or Rosie Flores’ rockabilly pluck that was long on emotions sliced into a brisk, almost guitar-pop.
“It’s an alternate universe,” Van Zandt explains. “Jesse Dayton, Rosie Flores and the Bottle Rockets are rock stars on the same level as bands that are headlining theaters across the country.”
“It’s once in a lifetime moments,” continues Renegade Circus’ Louis Arzonico. “Whether it’s Steve Earle, Lucinda and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar trading stories at ‘a guitar pull,’ going to the casino and playing slots with Kinky Friedman, getting an Ameripolitan fix with Dale Watson followed by a dose of Jesse Malin’s Brooklyn-meets-roots songs, or just all the stars in the autograph sessions and having a picture made with Elizabeth Cook, it’s like fantasy camp.”
Fantasy camp with Lauderdale’s rhinestone suits, Nixon’s Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, Ray Wylie Hubbard’s high drifter regalia or Ratso’s rainbow tie-dyed pants. Anything seems to go, and everyone throws down together. 
More than tolerance, the convergence of how those who live outside the mainstream fuels curiosities about what else there might be. For both Kristofferson’s set and the all-acts-on-deck homage two nights later in the Stardust Theater, there were lines at all four doors – and a rapt audience silently inhaling the reverence more than merely listening.
As fiddler Scott Joss, part of Merle Haggard’s final Strangers lineup, leaned into the former Oxford scholar with a tender smile, the two men worked their way through two of the most iconic American catalogues of songs ever written. Like John Steinbeck, Kristofferson’s highly masculine presence gave a broken dignity to Haggard’s “Place To Fall Apart,” “Sing Me Back Home” and his own “Feeling Mortal,” the title track meditation on aging and physical erosion from his last studio recording.
For all the hell-raisin’ and crazy howling at the moon, the Outlaw Country Cruise was ultimately a testament to strength that underscores both the wild-eyed rowdy side and the battered by life realm of this music.
“It’s a rebel spirit,” believes Van Zandt of the appeal. “It’s freedom. It started with artists who wanted the freedom to play the kind of music they wanted to. The freaks, misfits, outcasts and renegades of country music are what we consider Outlaw Country.”
Dan Baird, with a greying samurai ponytail, understands. Having played his final set with the Yayhoos, where he was presented a gold watch by Yaymates Ambel, Terry Anderson and Keith Christopher, he geeked out backstage to NRBQ about how thrilling it was to see them play.
Baird, who toured extensively with Petty and The Heartbreakers, co-headlined with the Replacements and played “Letterman” as a solo artist, was ready to retire, but – like everyone on the Outlaw Cruise – not willing let go of how rock ’n’  roll done right can thrill you. With the ‘Q being the only way to shut down five days at sea, Adams’ voice was approaching its limit.
There was only one last, perfect thing to do.
The Next Generation:
– The Next Generation:
Carlene Carter brought stories, autoharp and her rich tenor as part of a new wave flying the colors for Outlaw progeny.
As Baird would post on his Facebook page the next day, “If any of you know me at all, you’ll know that NRBQ is the last band in my life that rearranged the way I even thought and felt about the purpose of music. Seeing them the first time in 1979 was that seismic aesthetically … Last night, after I played with Warner and the Yayhoos, I couldn’t wait to see them again, and was just hanging out in the backstage area. 
“Terry had lost his voice, they wanted to do ‘When Things Was Cheap,’ one of my absolute favorites of theirs, and Terry (probably goaded by John, his new drummer) asked me to sing for him. 
“I may as well have been a sixteen year old girl being asked by Elvis in 1957 to go on a date. Oh hell yes I took up the offer! 
“So, my last ‘official performance’ was ticking off maybe the biggest possible entry on my ultimate bucket list. I’m still stoked as shit about it.”
Not everybody got to throw down with their hero, but in many ways, no matter where you were, that same immediacy hit you in the solar plexus. Dancing, whirling, shouting along, there was a college bar freedom to much of it, with just enough art and beauty to balance the crazy with something slightly more than divine.