Singer-Songwriters Set Sail on Cayamo Cruise

Performers Include Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Patty Griffin, John Hiatt

Editor’s note: CMT writer-producer Craig Shelburne shares his notes from last week’s Cayamo cruise, a Caribbean voyage featuring live performance from several of his favorite singer-songwriters.

Feb. 4: It’s the first night of the Cayamo cruise, which collects a whole bunch of cool songwriters that I happen to love. John Hiatt headlined the late show tonight. Man, that guy is so good, even when he just plays solo. He wrote one of my favorite opening lines ever, in “Icy Blue Heart”: “She came onto him like a slow-moving cold front.” Emmylou Harris, who’s singing later in the week, once recorded that song, too. He started with “Drive South,” which is (poetically speaking) what we are doing tonight. Plus, since he has a new CD coming in May, he added a few new songs to his set. Tomorrow is a full day at sea. Eventually we’ll get to Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Jamaica — with music every night. It’s nearly midnight, and I’m about to find some coffee and catch Josh Rouse.

Feb. 5: Tonight, Shawn Colvin invited Lyle Lovett to harmonize on a few songs, and they brought us to our feet after “Diamond in the Rough.” However, I had to sit back down for a second because this boat was rockin’. Brandi Carlile sang with Colvin, too. The last time I saw Carlile was when she opened for Colvin at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and it’s satisfying to know that they’ve built a friendship. Their perspectives and influences are very similar but just different enough to keep it interesting. Shawn dug up quite a few songs she doesn’t sing much, including “Nothing Like You.” I admire her quick wit and the way her songs continue to touch me, even after I’ve heard them for years.

The real discovery of this Cayamo voyage is sure to be Gaelic Storm, who played for at least two hours last night in the casino, as well as an outdoor show on the Lido deck today. Usually, if I see pennywhistles and bagpipes, I bolt, but I must say this is a band that’s going places. Dancing in the sun — what a perfect way to celebrate Mardi Gras.

Feb. 6: Lyle Lovett made me well up with tears tonight. I guess I got wrapped up in hearing “If I Had a Boat,” since we’re all on a boat, having an amazing trip. Plus I’m a little bit sleep-deprived. I woke up early to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum on Playa del Carmen. Outstanding, but wow, a long trip to get there. No time left for Cozumel. At any rate, I am meeting so many cool folks, which is part of the reason I booked this trip. Hey, if you like Patty Griffin, you’re OK by me. They’re from all over — Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, Alberta, San Diego, Birmingham, etc. Lots of international folks on here, too. I’ve only seen a handful of drunks on board, which I’d assume is exceptionally rare for a cruise. Tonight was formal night, so I wore a suit to dinner. The food is all right, but the culinary highlight so far has been eating Mexican food and drinking Mexican beer in Mexico today. My mouth was burning from the pico de gallo, but I just couldn’t quit scooping it up.

Feb. 7: What is it about Patty Griffin’s music that affects me so much? I discovered her during a tender time in my life, so I guess I allow myself to feel vulnerable when she sings. I have noticed one thing about myself on this cruise: When I recognize the first few chords of a sad song in concert, I clench my fists, look down for a second and brace myself. I have long felt a deep, personal connection with her songs, so it’s emotionally overwhelming to be in a theater of folks who love her just as much as I do. Emmylou Harris, who got on the boat today, sang a few songs with her, too. Griffin often says that “Heavenly Day” is her first love song, but I always think of “When It Don’t Come Easy” as the true reflection of an ideal relationship, and it chokes me up every time.

Today I rented a Jeep and drove recklessly through the island of Grand Cayman. These excursions are awesome. Musically speaking, I heard a few songs by Shawn Mullins, Edwin McCain and David Ryan Harris this afternoon and just returned from a set by Keith Kane, lead singer of Vertical Horizon, with Pat McGee sitting in. Plus, I met Josh Rouse at the casino and got my photo with him. I would never ask to do that in Nashville or anywhere else. There’s a real camaraderie on the boat, and time is flying.

Feb. 8: As songwriters are prone to do, Brandi Carlile put a few words into my head that I can’t shake. After telling the audience that she’s seen every headliner show since the boat started, she declared that her life would never be the same. That might seem like an exaggeration to people who aren’t on the boat, but I feel pretty much the same way. She’s the youngest of the headliners, but you can sense her immense potential, and she sang a new country-influenced song that I would love to get in the hands of the Dixie Chicks.

Following mountain biking and cliff diving in Jamaica, I cleaned up just in time to hear Buddy Miller on the outdoor Lido deck. This is the main gathering place on the boat, and I was pleased to see that people crowded every open spot to hear his only performance of the week. Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin all crashed the party at various intervals, to which he declared, “I’m the luckiest man on this boat.” Yeah, Buddy. Later in the night, I caught the Nashville songwriters Patrick Davis and Brandon Young, as well as another 1 a.m. show by Josh Rouse. With all the waves, I thought the microphone was going to tip over.

Feb. 9: Songwriters are so lucky to have Emmylou Harris, and of course, she’s a mighty good songwriter herself. She stretched from her early career (“Easy From Now On”) to more current music (“The Pearl”), all the while cracking jokes and telling stories. She closed out the cruise with a trio of happy songs that were essentially a love letter to the folks who thoroughly enjoyed their week on the high seas. She also talked about who she’d try to bring on the boat next year. Does that mean she’ll be back? Hard to say, but if the lineup is as good as it was this year, you can count me in.