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You could look at it as a simple party cruise, and it is, but when we put writers Robert Burke Warren and Holly George-Warren on the Outlaw Country Cruise, they discovered that if you combine 2,500 people on a boat with little access to the internet, maybe music actually can be the Great Equalizer.


Story by Robert Burke Warren & Holly George-Warren
Photos by Will Byington


 
 

So you wanna be an outlaw, better take it from me
Living on the highway ain't everything it's supposed to be
Everybody reckons that they wanna be free
Ain't nobody wants to be alone.      


“So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” Steve Earle

 
 
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The Norweigian Pearl
 
 
 

Statistically, it’s safe, but stepping on a cruise ship feels like a risk. The lore is rife with peril: Titanic, The Poseidon Adventure, and, of course, “Gilligan’s Island,” with that theme song you can’t get out of your head: “The weather started getting rough / The tiny ship was tossed / If not for the courage of the fearless crew / The Minnow would be lost!” Excluding “The Love Boat,” if there’s a TV show or movie about a non-traumatic cruise ship experience, it is not popular. Bookish types, when you say you’re going on a cruise, may cite David Foster Wallace’s lauded essay in Harper’s, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (first published under the title “Shipping Out”; they’ll take sadistic joy in referring you to the withering (and funny) account of Wallace’s misadventures on a cruise.

Of course, cruise lines work hard to allay any trepidation by emphasizing continuous fun in their marketing campaigns. (And their reach far, far exceeds David Foster Wallace’s.) If the success of the cruise ship industry — particularly the music cruise variety — is any indication, they’re very good at it. Repeat customers offer legit, and extremely valuable, promo; a quick glance at the Facebook page for any particular cruise offers glowing passenger testimonials aplenty, and lots of iPhone snaps and video.

Compared to most cruises, the Outlaw Country Cruise, presented by “Little Steven” Van Zandt’s Renegade Circus live-event group and operated by Atlanta’s SixthMan music-cruise company, differs from the pack. They allow a whiff of danger into the mix, with SiriusXM Outlaw Country channel’s “Loon in the Afternoon” host, Mojo Nixon, carousing the ship as ringleader. That whiff was in the air as the fourth annual OCC set sail this past winter, departing Tampa on January 29, traveling to the Bahamas and returning on February 1.

Two years into the Trump presidency — a time of historic and ever-increasing polarization — OCC4 featured among its 40 artists unabashedly outspoken anti-Trump headliners Steve Earle & the Dukes, Drive-By Truckers, and Lucinda Williams. Margo Price co-headlined, as well, and she’s no shrinking violet with the political commentary, either.

The potential for drama definitely felt higher than in the past. Because while Outlaw Country fans are generally more politically progressive than contemporary country fans, the genre is not without its Confederate flag wavers, ardent Second Amendment-strong Constitutionalists, fuck-’em-all Libertarians, retired members of the military, and contrarian bikers. Word on the street was these various manifestations of “the Right” would show up on the boat, cheek-by-jowl with the tree huggers, the bleeding heart liberals, and the Bernie Sanders fans, in very close quarters indeed. All would likely be sunburned, riled up, and almost certainly inebriated.

 
 
 
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Picture this: 2,500 fans of edgy, largely defiant music born of rural America, in international waters, on a massive, 12-decked ship — the Norwegian Pearl — roaming far from law enforcement, with multiple bars, a casino, and rowdy bands. No jobs to go to in the morning. Restricted access to the outside world. Musicians singing about hardcore shit to audiences known to act out songs about getting drunk, cheating, and otherwise misbehaving. Some of these audience members will, in fact, be dressed as lawless pirates. Perhaps the worst place for a political discussion of any kind.

And consider: The OCC began as a re-branding of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s long-running Simple Man Cruise, so although it’s evolved away from its Southern Rock roots, it still sports anti-establishment, redneck DNA. Re-christened the Outlaw Country Cruise in 2016, the voyage now caters to the growing and passionate audience of SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station (on which Skynyrd gets occasional airplay) and fans of Americana music.

An impressively broad genre, Outlaw Country hews to the movement sparked by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, and others who spurned Nashville’s studio system in the early ’70s and developed a defiantly independent approach to making a rock-influenced, raw, and contemporary form of country music. It’s a big tent, sonically and politically, today enfolding longtime singer-songwriters like Joe Ely, the late Townes Van Zandt, and Kris Kristofferson and such roots-rockin’ bands as the Mavericks and Old 97's, while also occupying Venn diagram space with Skynyrd, Hank Williams Jr., and Charlie Daniels, et al. Helmed by distinctive, personable hosts (most of them musicians who join the OCC), the station introduces plenty of exciting new acts, too; SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station mixes it all in. It is emphatically not an oldies station. Fans of all the above make OCC a consistent sellout within weeks of going on sale.(Reservations for the 2020 cruise from Miami to Jamaica opened in mid-April, and sold out within days.)

To the surprise of some, the first three Outlaw Country Cruises went off without major incident, save the occasional Confederate flag, both actual banner and T-shirt. Steve Earle, an OCC mainstay, recently told Rolling Stone he refused to sign one at an autograph session on an early OCC, suggesting his “being a dick” had helped run off any other fans of white supremacist imagery. And while the Mavericks’ Raul Malo was similarly vocal in his anti-Trump stance, and Mojo Nixon has sung “Donald Trump Can Suck My Dick” with abandon on every OCC, the 4th annual iteration threw down the gauntlet by booking Drive-By Truckers.

 
 
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If you say it wasn’t racial
When they shot him in his tracks
Well, I guess that means that you ain’t black …
I mean Barack Obama won and you can choose where to eat
But you don’t see too many white kids
Lying bleeding on the street.


“What It Means,” Drive-By Truckers


 
 
 

DBT’s angry, intensely political 2016 album, American Band, is, essentially, an anti-Trumpism protest record. The American Band songs that deal bluntly and poetically with gun violence, the Confederate flag, white privilege, and the killing by police of unarmed men of color, would be played several times over the course of the cruise, by both DBT, and in standing-room-only acoustic sets by front men Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Maybe the band would also hang a Black Lives Matter banner onstage, as they had been doing on tour. This was a new brand of badass aboard, and a significant contingent of OCC attendees would be there mainly for them.

Acts like Folk Uke (Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson), Bobby Bare Jr., Nikki Lane, Old 97's, Reckless Kelly, Jesse Dayton, Jim Lauderdale, and Elizabeth Cook (the latter two popular SiriusXM hosts) would also be in tow, as would the creators and voice actors of the satiric Adult Swim hit “Squidbillies.” All of which may have accounted for the increased numbers of fledgling attendees (meaning folks in their 30s and 40s)— more under-50s than on any past OCC. Thus, the silver-haired retirees and vacationing truckers, carpenters, and contractors would be joining a whole passel of relative young’uns on a lark, all one big music-loving family coming together in the venues, at the bars, by the slot machines, on the decks, in the elevators, and at the smorgasbord.

Also of note: Punk-rock godfather John Doe from X (and country spinoff the Knitters) would be aboard and ready to rumble in his hand-painted version of a Nudie suit. As would octogenarians Bobby (“Detroit City”) Bare and Ragin’ Cajun Doug (“Louisiana Man”) Kershaw.

Would Trump haters confront Trump supporters about the president’s recent remarks calling climate change “a hoax” (again), or rage about the government shutdown, kids in cages, collusion, tax breaks for the rich, rising white nationalism, etc., etc., etc.? Would Trump supporters rail back, bemoaning fake news, the biased liberal media, elitism, witch hunts, etc., etc., etc.?

In short, would it be like a big, belligerent Thanksgiving, blighted by hurt feelings, indignation, hostility, or worse?

Spoiler alert: No.

 
 
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Nikki Lane posing for a selfie with a fan.
 
 
 
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“The first time we did it, in 2016,” says Mojo Nixon, “I was afraid there’d be fistfights, too many assholes, and the captain would be yelling at me. I even had a security guard, but we let him go. On vacation the rules are different. And if it’s 50 degrees warmer, you’re gonna put up with a lot more shit. Plus, if they’re conservative, they’re not able to watch Hannity on the boat.”

Chris Masterson, longtime guitarist in Steve Earle’s band the Dukes, and another four-time OCC performer, concurs: “Nobody’s watching Fox or MSNBC,” he says. “And most people are cut off from the Internet. That makes a huge difference.”

Could it be partisan cable outlets stoke folks’ ire to the point where civility is nigh impossible? And could lack of connection to both television and social media (unless you paid $400 for an upgrade) encourage actual — as opposed to virtual — community? Could it be?

Tennessee-born Laura Cantrell, a singer-songwriter who first attended as a passenger, but played OCCs 2, 3, and 4, notes how, in the early days, holdover dudes from the Simple Man Cruise “… were dancing up to women, in a kind of fading-rock-fan-free-for-all thing, but that vibe has really calmed down. And yeah, people are worn down by the news cycle, regardless of their politics. It’s liberating, a relief to be free of it.

“And it’s humbling to be at sea,” she continues. “It makes you feel small, changes your perspective.”

Like Cantrell, Texan Rhett Miller, who performed several times, both solo and with his band Old 97’s, also played at OCC 2. He recognized an ongoing change in the atmosphere, too.

“The Outlaw Country Cruise is a living metaphor for Americana music,” he says. “It’s transitioning from being rooted in redneck, South-shall-rise-again stuff, to a more liberal, stand-up-for-the-little-guy mindset, for which Steve Earle is really the standard-bearer. Before, there was some push-pull between holdovers from the Skynyrd cruise, but this year, it felt like we took over the boat.”

 
 
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Old 97’s
 

Miller’s solo sets in the Spinnaker Lounge — like Mike Cooley’s and Patterson Hood’s — were attended by rapt, engaged audiences, deep listeners packing the place, a remarkably different setting than, say, former Georgia Satellite Dan Baird & Homemade Sin blasting off on the pool deck, and piano madman Jason D. Williams’ acrobatics on the ivories in the Atrium, literally tearing shit up as people screamed in glee.

“I give a lot of credit to the Outlaw Country station, and how well curated it is,” says Miller, acknowledging SiriusXM program director Jeremy Tepper, who oversees the Outlaw Country and Willie’s Roadhouse channels. The range of artistry in rotation on the Outlaw Country channel influences the broad spectrum of audience attitude on the OCC.

“They’ve really educated listeners about good songs,” says Miller. “It’s become a more song-oriented format, and a little less about hell-raising.”

A little less, yes. But not a lot less.

Tepper, who also produces the singular “Sessions at Sea” discussion panels and guitar pulls on-board (recorded for broadcast), says, “The cruise has become an extension of our radio format where we attempt to represent all our favorite food groups of American music: honky-tonk, alt-country, rockabilly, singer-songwriters, country rock, and authentic country legends like Bobby Bare. The population on the boat is a microcosm of our listenership, and the cruise gives our hosts an opportunity to rub elbows with their audience and fellow artists. Our interpretation of outlaw country occupies an alternate universe where Steve Earle and Old 97’s have No. 1 hits and Jesse Dayton is superstar.”

 
 
 
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There’s a time for cryin’ and mournin’
Talkin’ and scornin’
Son, this ain’t the time
Well, my granddaddy
He fought them sons-of-bitches
Them Nazis and them snitches
And talkin’ ain’t what got it done
We better rise up to the power
This ain’t no time for cowards…


“Charlottesville,” Jesse Dayton


 
 
 

Introducing the barnburner “Charlottesville,” Texas guitar slinger Jesse Dayton — who has toured with X and recorded with Waylon — straddles the hell-raising/troubadour axis with ease: “I married up, y’all,” he said. “I married a tall, hot Jewish broad from L.A. Wasn’t no way I was gonna get away with not writing a protest song about that bullshit that went down in Charlottesville.”

Among the enthusiastically hollering crowd, nowhere to be seen were the man with the “Legends of the Confederacy” T-shirt or the guy with the Hank Jr. “Original Badass” tee with the rebel flag (who turned out to be Canadian). The Norwegian Pearl is a humongous ship with five venues, so disgruntled fans had plenty of other places to be, but they were not among the white folks (and the Outlaw Country Cruise is — news flash — mostly white folks) still in a rage about the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that was a turning point for many. Maybe just enough to matter.

 
 
 
 
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“I hope I’m not having a flashback,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore laughed as he stumbled at the microphone. The boat had hit rough seas during his legendary band the Flatlanders’ set in the packed 1,000-seat Stardust Theater. One would not be faulted for thinking he was drunk, but he wasn’t. (Gilmore, who played Smokey in The Big Lebowski, was feted another night at the ship’s bowling alley tribute to the infamous “World of Pain” scene in the Coen Brothers’ cult movie.) Anybody standing or walking down the theater’s aisles was also reeling, grasping at the air, mostly laughing. Turns out, when the seas get choppy and everyone aboard, regardless of blood alcohol level, staggers like toddlers just learning to walk, strangers reach out to help steady them.

Another aspect clarifies: We really are in the same boat — literally and figuratively — and our reflexive human inclination, pre-filter, is to help each other, to come together, not to segregate. Although the Norwegian Pearl is a state-of-the-art vessel, with mind-blowing tech keeping everything moving, everyone comfortable, and the elements at bay, we are actually quite vulnerable, certainly more so than on land. Few actually speak of this. Most probably process it at a subconscious level, but the truth remains: All must place trust not only in the captain and crew, but also the strangers we pass in the halls, and with whom we stand shoulder-to-shoulder at shows. We must live with these folks for a finite amount of time. You can get away, sure. But you can’t get far. And sooner than later, you’re going to be compelled to come back, especially if great music is luring you. Anyone who makes it to middle age knows this, regardless of politics.

“It’s an audience of grown-ups,” says Laura Cantrell. “An experienced audience. They know what they want to drink, or if they’re going to want to join Jim Lauderdale for daily t’ai chi on the pool deck in the morning.” (Quite a few did, even though 10 a.m. came mighty early on the heels of late-night jam sessions and with most stages rocking till after 12.)

“Older folks just want to have a good time,” says Mojo Nixon. “It’s Bonnaroo for older folks. Except there’s no shitty bands. Even the worst band on the Outlaw Country Cruise is really good.” It’s true — a festival-like atmosphere prevails, but it’s much easier racing to the top-deck pool stage from the mid-ship Magnum’s lounge than slogging through a muddy field at a rainy outdoor festival, or fighting the downtown Austin crowds at South by Southwest. Even so, you can clock six or seven miles a day as you make the rounds to venues, eateries, and bars, from morning to way past the midnight hour.

 
 
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Jim Lauderdale teaches a daily t’ai chi class on the pool deck.
 
 
 
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While Mojo’s assertion that it’s a “grown-up audience” is true, one of the hallmarks of OCC 4 was the presence of adults on the “pre-middle age” end of the spectrum, i.e. 30- and 40-somethings, both onstage and spectating. Quite a few performers were the progeny of icons: Amy and Paula Nelson (daughters of Willie), Cathy Guthrie (daughter of Arlo, granddaughter of Woody), Shooter Jennings (son of Waylon), and Bobby Bare Jr. All performed and engaged in a round-table discussion, “The Kids’ Table,” with “Cocaine & Rhinestones” podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe (son of David Allan Coe) for a “Sessions at Sea,” later broadcast on Shooter Jennings’ “Electric Rodeo” show on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country. The often-hilarious talk (the stories!) wasn’t only about growing up in the business, but about carrying the music into the future, getting it to new audiences, honoring the roots while distributing the fruits.

After delving into the phenomenon of women chasing after their dads, Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie — aka Folk Uke — performed their bawdy, angel-voiced instant classic, “Starfucker” (“They call her All-Beef Patty, she’s got her eye on my daddy / She’s coming at him like a trucker, she’s a star fucker”), while their contemporaries nodded and laughed in simpatico. In a Folk Uke set the next day, they alluded to the subject of their song “You Must Have a Small One to Act Like Such a Big One” to thunderous applause.  It’s a long way from the Grand Ole Opry.

At various places throughout the Norwegian Pearl — the elevator landings, the halls — lit signs with the heading WHAT’S GOING ON helped keep folks informed as to the day’s events. One needed only to stand by such a sign for a few minutes before that heading would inspire random passengers to break into lyrics from Marvin’s Gaye’s 1971 song of the same name: “War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate / You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today.” Indeed, new friendships are forged as fans converse about Mojo’s latest antics or how much they love Rosie Flores and enjoyed her onboard record-release party (for the prodigious guitarist-singer’s soul-stirring Simple Case of the Blues).

 
 
 
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Borderless love, the land of the free
Borderless love, how far can you see?
Borderless love, there's no border at all
In a borderless love there's no need for a wall.


“Borderless Love,” The Flatlanders


 
 

During the Flatlanders’ set at the Stardust Theater, when the Lubbock, Texas-born band — Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock — sang the above chorus, the place went nuts with cheering. Although written in 2009, and about a wall as much metaphorical as real, the song resonates more than ever, for obvious reasons. As Texans, the Flatlanders freely weighed in on the issue. Hancock, who now lives some 170 miles from Juarez, Mexico, says, “Nobody, but nobody who actually lives on the border wants a wall,” followed by a round of applause. “It has zero practicality. We’ve got to learn to live together.”

There were a handful of walkouts during the Flatlanders’ “Borderless Love,” and during Steve Earle’s “Hardcore Troubadour Radio” panel (his own SiriusXM show’s Sessions at Sea) when the band and fellow Lubbock native Terry Allen played acoustically and chatted. (“Texans are fast thinkers,” Hancock said. “But slow learners.”) Yet about 98 percent of the audience remained after “Borderless Wall.” Options for dissenters were limited, but of great quality, and most certainly festive, as everyone was stuck in what Margo Price dubbed “Party Prison.”

 
 
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And I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night
And if the folks on welfare are making it all right.


“All-American Made,” Margo Price


 
 
 

During Margo Price’s flame-throwing, unforgettable sets, the title track from her Grammy-nominated album, All-American Made, also brought mostly cheers and a smattering of walkouts, to which she said, “Folks sometimes get pissed off about the lyrics in that song. Little do they know I wrote it during the Obama administration. So they can kiss my ass.” Price recently changed the lyric to: “I wonder how the president gets any sleep at night/And if the folks down on the border are making it all right.”

 
 
 
 
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First stop of the cruise was Norwegian Cruise Lines’ private island, the 268-acre Great Stirrup Cay, a 19th century pirate hideout (among other things) now expertly refashioned into pristine beaches with crystal waters, cocktail huts, cabanas, barbecue grills, and other modern conveniences tucked into an actual wildlife preserve. Although one man sported a T-shirt that read “Party Like W, Dress Like JFK, Think Like Reagan” and another wore an anti-Trump/Big Lebowski mash-up that proclaimed, “Shut the Fuck Up Donny,” no incidents took place. A red cap, which, from a distance, looked exactly like a MAGA hat, actually read Make America Drunk Again. Always pays to get a closer look, clearly.

Retired airline pilot Dooley and his wife Deb, a former university administrator, from Denton, Texas, were fine with the somewhat heightened political fare on the boat, their first time on the OCC. Veteran cruisers, the couple say the Outlaw Country Cruise is now their favorite.

“We like the edge,” Deb says. “Especially the Drive-By Truckers.”

Perhaps surprisingly, a significant contingent of cruisers were not actually retired, but working folks using their annual vacation time to drop between $1,250-2,000 per person to spend five days seeing beloved artists on a cruise ship in warmer climes, spend time in a foreign port, and have someone else make up their beds, cook for them, and do the dishes before heading back to their working lives. About the same cost as spending a few days at a Disney or Universal theme park, or, say, Vegas.  

Like 30-something truck mechanic Jack, from Carlisle, Kentucky, who was one of the few cruisers who’d brought his whole family, i.e. a wife and an 11-year-old son, Ash, who was grinning ear-to-ear. They were all particularly fond of Austin’s Reckless Kelly, who played their own sets and backed up Joe Ely in a combo they called JERK. Like many of their fellow performers, Reckless Kelly brought working class protest songs, and folks sang along with gusto, like their “American Blood”:

Now Johnny can drink all day 'cause he's 23
He donated his legs to the worldwide land of the free
He cries God bless America but God damn Uncle Sam
While he stares through the tears with American blood on his hands.

To get his school’s blessing for missing class, Ash will be writing a report about his family’s trip. While it’s impossible to say what will be in it, what’s certain is what won’t be in it: fighting.

 
 
 
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Joe Ely
 
 
 
 
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Although a small group of disgruntled cruisers complained specifically about Drive-By Truckers’ politics (nothing about their playing) on social media post-cruise, Patterson Hood noticed no bad vibes onboard. Perhaps this is because social media is the exact opposite of Party Prison; i.e., certain folks are more inclined to air grievances from a distance, in an echo chamber, instead of doing so in the close confines of a group bound by guardrails and ocean.

Even if he had picked up bad vibes on board, though, Hood and his cohorts would not have been thwarted. It wasn’t their first rodeo.

“We pretty much say what we’re going to say regardless,” he reflects. “If there was any blowback, it was far back enough from the stage that I didn’t see it or feel it. I didn’t see groups of people heading for the aisles, which I have seen before. I know what that looks like.” Hood is referring to a San Luis Obispo show, right after the release of American Band, when half the crowd  — not being in Party Prison — left during “What It Means.”  The following show, however, in Arizona — not exactly a liberal stronghold — was a sold-out, rapturous success.

“The record took on a new life after the inauguration happened, which has lasted onward,” he says. “The band’s had a really great couple of years.” He counts OCC 4 (the first time DBT has played a cruise, having turned down offers in the past) as part of that continuum.  

“We embraced it and we all had a blast,” Hood says, and mentions the “camaraderie” they enjoyed. “We totally would do it again. There was a lot of music I liked and artists I really respect and admire — new discoveries like Margo Price, and I’ve been a Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams fan forever.”

Williams, a four-time OCC vet, is another artist who doesn’t mince words. Her loyal audiences know how she feels about the current administration’s policies, which she’s addressed in such songs as “Foolishness.” She’s added new lyrics to the lines written by her late father, the poet Miller Williams, for a track on her 2014 album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone: “I don’t need racism, I don’t need walls,” which fit perfectly with her father’s original lines like “all you fear-mongers / I don’t need your lies.” Onstage on the ship’s pool deck, backed by her rocking band Buick 6, she’s leading a charge against hatred. As she ends “Foolishness,” intoning “I need love in my life,” an emotional audience cheers her on.

 
 
 
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Lucinda Williams
 

Williams, along with Steve Earle and Nikki Lane, among other OCC regulars, are characters in a brand-new “Squidbillies” episode, inspired by creators and Conyers, Georgia, natives Jim Fortier and Dave Willis, who sailed with their posse on last year’s cruise and did a table reading on-board of their just-drafted script. They’ve returned to screen the episode, which will air on Adult Swim’s 12th season this fall. In it, twisted redneck-patriarch squid Early Cuyler (voiced by Unknown Hinson) forms a duo with his former daughter-in-law and aspiring singer Tammi (voiced by Elizabeth Cook). When the pair attempt to perform on the OCC, they learn a lesson about the nature of Outlaw Country conveyed by veteran performers: “It’s swimming upstream, breaking away from the pack,” says Williams. “It’s artistic freedom,” says Lane. “Doing your own thing,” according to Earle. All exist in spades on the cruise — for both the artists, and at least for five days — the passengers.

Reg, an engineer from the Mississippi Delta, was sneaking a cigarette on an upper deck (cigarettes are banned except in the casino). The Gulf of Mexico extended endlessly into an unfathomable night, waves slapping the hull of the Pearl, music wafting from fore and aft, mixing in with the omnipresence of the surrounding ocean. When asked if he’d noticed any feathers ruffled over any performers’ politics, he grumbled that Steve Earle’s pre-song rant before “The Firebreak Line” pissed off him and a friend. (The song pays tribute to “Hot Shots” — firefighters who battle increasingly common California wildfires.)

“Steve’s on his soapbox saying the fires happened because the rich people bought the land and never should’ve been there, and my friend is one of those people! He was saying, ‘I donated money and toothbrushes and all kinds of stuff to the Hot Shots and I’m not a bad guy!’”

Did his friend leave the show?

“Oh, hell no. He loves Steve Earle.”

 
 
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Steve Earl signing posters in his dressing room.
 

Similarly, at a Stardust Theater guitar pull with Lucinda Williams, Terry Allen, and 83-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer Bobby Bare, Earle was delivering his customary, no-holds-barred, pro-immigration intro to “City of Immigrants.” It brought the usual shouts of approval, save for one older gentleman, a die-hard Bobby Bare fan with no time for liberal talk. “Aw, c’mon man,” he grumbled impatiently (and not too loudly) to fellow audience members. “Just shut up and sing the damn song!”

Did he leave in a huff? He did not. He stayed for a mildly controversial episode of OCC 4: a Bobby Bare joke, with Hillary and Bill Clinton as the punchline, delivered in classic “elder at the Thanksgiving table” style.

Bare, who’s been married to his wife, Jeannie, for 55 years, is known for his dirty jokes. Patterson Hood was at his Spinnaker Lounge gig when the Country Music Hall of Famer told a particularly tone-deaf one in today’s climate.

“That was the most polarizing thing I saw,” Hood says. “There were groans and boos. The joke was: Farmer takes his daughter to the OB-GYN, doc says, ‘Is she sexually active?’ Farmer says, ‘No, she just lays there like her mama.’ My wife was in the ladies room after that, and there was a lotta pissed-off women in there.”

Despite this unapologetically politically incorrect moment, Bare’s presence was universally hailed, and the subsequent star-studded Bare tribute — featuring Margo Price, Shooter Jennings, Mike Cooley, John Doe, and Jesse Dayton with 83-year-old Ragin’ Cajun Doug Kershaw fiddlin’ like crazy — would go down as an OCC 4 highlight. In short, he was quickly forgiven.

“It’s the power of the music,” Mojo says, further explaining how folks from across the political spectrum get along once the songs cast their spells. “Donald Trump is just a pimple on Hank Williams’ ass. We all know that. Well, most of us do. Charlie Daniels and Hank Jr. have got their politics, but everybody knows the music’s still great!”

The music, call it roots rock, outlaw country, Americana, what have you, is, at its core, rule-breaking. Born of rural America, where, long before desegregation was law, then as now, songs and musical genres crossed borders and boundaries, black and white mingling, cross-pollinating. This threatened the status quo, and was often banned, but of course none of that worked. Musicians made their music.

Fans tend to say they like this rebelliousness, how progenitors gave the finger to the border patrols and did what they felt, consequences be damned. Who doesn’t want to do that in life? And the music on the Outlaw Country Cruise evokes and inspires that sense of independence. That’s not really news.

What surprises is how the music, combined with being in an enclosed community for a few days, taps into a deeper sense of shared humanity rendered all the more precious in this time of particularly intense division. The laws being flouted on the Outlaw Country Cruise aren’t just laws of propriety, but unwritten, yet fiercely savage laws of the internet, cable TV, social media, politics. Where the twain cannot meet, lest advertisers be lost, lest ground be forsaken, lest the silo fall. In the rarefied atmosphere of the OCC — the music, the community, the sense of shared experience — these laws lose their grip.

Yes, the idea of “outlaw” means drinking and partying and carrying on without fear of reprisal, and making or listening to whatever damn music you like, but for a few days, it can also mean a deeper well of forgiveness, a release of vindictiveness, and a realization that we really are all in the same boat.


Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His music appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. He's written for Salon, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, Woodstock Times, Vulture, Paste, the Rumpus, the Weeklings, The Bitter Southerner, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, was published in 2016. In the mid ’90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical “Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story.” Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.

Holly George-Warren is a two-time Grammy nominee and the award-winning author of 16 books, including the forthcoming Janis: Her Life and Music (Simon & Schuster, October), biographies of Alex Chilton and Gene Autry, and The New York Times bestseller The Road to Woodstock (with Michael Lang). She has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Entertainment Weekly, and has been a producer on such documentary films as Muscle Shoals, Nashville 2.0, and Hitmakers.

 
 
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