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Cruisin’ For A Bluesin’ - The String Goes To Sea

Just before Christmas 2023, I got an email from Star Vista Live, a company that produces music cruises. They needed somebody to come aboard to interview artists during daytime sessions on what seems to be the longest-running of them all - Delbert McClinton’s Sandy Beaches Cruise, set for its 28th edition in January.

I'd never given much thought to taking a cruise. I’d never spent a night on a ship or been out of sight of land. And in truth I have a morbid curiosity about maritime disasters. On the other hand, here was an opportunity to not only experience one of the coolest lineups in the music cruise pantheon, but to investigate one of the hottest sectors of the live music business - the festival at sea. My WMOT boss gave me a thumbs up. Star Vista said I could report on the boat for my own show, so I gave them an enthusiastic yes.

So with the disclaimer/disclosure that I got paid to attend this event, Episode 273 of The String presents voices and moments from Sandy Beaches No. 28. This is an enhanced transcript of the broadcast, which I encourage you to stream or download here.

We open on the promenade deck of the Holland America ship Nieuw Amsterdam, named after the 17th century settlement that became Manhattan. It’s 936 feet long and 105 feet wide, and on this level, you can walk around the entire ship from stern to almost the bow, outside and just a few feet above the rushing water. Each lap is about a third of a mile. And as we steamed from Fort Lauderdale FL to ports of call in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Philipsburg, St. Maarten, I could walk laps all day and never see anything in any direction but the cerulean blue expanse of the Caribbean Sea. For a new seafarer like myself, it was strange and magnificent.

More often though, I was tuned into live music - about 30 artists and bands playing three or so sets across four stages and seven full days in mid January, when by coincidence, it just happened to be the coldest, snowiest week of the year back in Nashville. I tried to tamp down my guilt about not being back home to help my family get through single digit temps and enjoyed the company of 1600 music fans on an elegant ship. The pace was slow and easy. So I had time to visit with a number of artists and cruisers.

The lineup, featuring Jimmy Hall, Lee Roy Parnell, Jon Cleary, Carolyn Wonderland, Anson Funderburgh and more, embodies Delbert’s particular and hugely influential strain of roots music that blends his primal blues influences with classic rock and roll and country soul. He received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance in 2019, a tribute to his years of burning up road houses, reviving the country music scene in New York in the 80s, inspiring the Blues Brothers, winning Grammy Awards and so much more. Lone star state music writer Joe Nick Patoski called him “the greatest voice ever to come out of Texas.” We can also add to those accolades, music business pioneer. Music cruises weren’t even a thing in the early 1990s, but Delbert McClinton found himself on one and it gave him ideas about how to do it better. I caught up with the founder of Sandy Beaches late in the voyage.

Delbert McClinton
Star Vista Live
Delbert McClinton

“Well that first cruise we did, there weren’t very many people at all. And we had to eat it. And that was a mouthful to swallow. But we just had so much belief that what we were doing was the right thing. And I've never doubted it. I've had at least three people this week tell me this is first cruise they've been on, and it’s the most wonderful thing in the world! You know what? You put a bunch of good music and sunshine on the deck of the ship...”

Next I catch up with the great R&B piano player and songwriter Marcia Ball in the Nieuw Amsterdam’s largest venue - the World Theater. She was hosting an event called Pianorama, in which about a dozen of the keyboard players aboard the boat for the week mixed and matched on five keyboards, jamming on the blues. Then we sat down for a longer talk that will air in full in a future episode. In this week’s show she told me about attending the very first blues cruise and being involved ever since. Raised in Louisiana, based out of Austin since the early 70s, Ball has played the White House and is in the Austin City Limits Hall of Fame. At 74 yrs old, she’s still rockin. In fact she played the opening night party on the aft pool deck as the ship pulled out of Ft. Lauderdale and headed into the ocean. On the penultimate day of the cruise, Marcia told me about the musical terrain that’s guided her career and in many ways the musical ethos of Sandy Beaches.

Star Vista Live
Marcia Ball

“I call what I do Gulf Coast music. I grew up (in Vinton, LA) going back and forth to New Orleans. I saw Irma Thomas when I was 13 years old in New Orleans at the Municipal Auditorium. I went to school in Baton Rouge. I met the guys there who played all that stuff. Slim Harpo was living in Port Allen across the river from Baton Rouge. Kenny Neal's dad Raful Neal was there and Tabby Thomas who was Chris Thomas King’s, dad. They had a joint there and they played together all the time. It was a cradle of American music of all kinds - Blind Lemon Jefferson from Texas and Johnny Gimble and Bob Wills. And I did everything.”

Not every artist on Sandy Beaches comes directly from the blues tradition, including a band with some of the highest profile sets of the week, The Mavericks. Their Monday midnight performance in the World Theater - a well designed 1500 seat venue with comfortable seats, great sight lines and immaculate sound - was an unmistakable highlight of the week. When I got together with lead singer Raul Malo, he gave Delbert McClinton some mighty props.

Star Vista Live
Raul Malo

“He was one of the first if not the first artist to put the idea forward that this could work, you know? And I'm sure that he had plenty of detractors and plenty of people going, oh man, you can't do this, you're gonna lose your shirt, blah, blah, blah. And they pushed through. And now it's a pretty successful business model that a lot of companies have copied.”

Raul is correct that in these 28 years, music cruises have become big business. You’ve probably heard of Cayamo, which will set sail from Miami for its 16th edition on March 1 with a typical all-Americana lineup - Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Lake Street Dive, the War and Treaty and a score of others. That cruise - always sold out and always popular with artists - is run by the industry leader Sixthman, a company that began when musician and concert promoter Andy Levine launched the Rock Boat cruise in 2002. In the twenty years since, the company diversified, launching new cruises from Broadway tunes to heavy metal. The business became so attractive that their cruise contractor Norwegian Cruise Line bought Sixthman outright in 2012 and has run it ever since. Today, they produce more than 20 cruises annually.

Sandy Beaches is produced by Star Vista Live, which appears to be the second biggest player, with ten cruises. They offer Soul Train with the likes of Earth Wind and Fire and Chaka Khan, or the Southern Rock Cruise, with 38 Special and Marshall Tucker Band, or more in my lane, the Big Easy Cruise, which in 2025 will feature Trombone Shorty, Bonerama, the Soul Rebels and more. As that implies, Star Vista starts planning cruises 20 months out and books the talent more than a year before sailing. To find out more about that, I got together with Sandy Beaches co-producer Mike Robertson. He emphasized how love for emerging artists spreads on the boat like wildfire, much faster than back on land.

“The thing that's really amazing to me is (music cruises) each have their own community. And they each have their own feel…and they have their own favorites. And I think a lot of that is based on the smaller acts that have come up on these cruises. There are acts on most of these cruises that are bigger stars on the cruises than they are anywhere else. Because people discovered them early and they got to be part of that.”

I met music superfan and music cruise veteran Carole Mumford of Atlanta, GA, who has experience on Cayamo, Sandy Beaches and Sixthman’s Outlaw Country, sometimes all three in one year. She has mobility issues and experienced the festival from her motorized scooter. The boat’s corridors and elevators made it easy to get around, possibly an advantage over land-based festivals. Anyway, her enthusiasm was infectious, especially for Sandy Beaches.

“I'm retired now. So I had to pick one. And I love Cayamo. I love Outlaw Country. I would still do them if I had the money. But when I had to pick one, it was this one. When people ask me what's it like, I say, If you love Texas and Louisiana music, you're gonna love the Delbert cruise. Because it is just the poster child for an incredible genre, and the musicianship on this boat is off the chain.”

That includes Etta Britt, lead and harmony singer who’s been on the boat for 11 years with her husband Bob, star Nashville guitar player. She and I spkeak about her history in the jam-friendly environment where singers mix and match and support each other on stage. It also includes Yates McKendree, who grew up on Sandy Beaches from toddler-hood as son of keyboard ace Kevin McKendree. Yates was making his cruise debut as a featured artist, in the wake of releasing his debut album Buchanan Lane in late 2022. With a headliner lineup of artists over 65, many cruisers are looking to him - and other bands like the California Honeydrops - as a sign that this version of the blues has a future. Yates says he’s seeing streaming and social media wake his generation up to the music’s power.

Yates McKendree

“It's a timeless craft, and you can relate it to just about anything, and especially the music behind it. It's moving, you know? And I just want younger people to learn that and get attached to it. You know, it's an important part of our history. American music is the greatest export we have.”

My final visit in the hour is with Nashville’s rocking gospel star and magnificent singer Anne McCrary of the McCrary Sisters. They’ve been part of Sandy Beaches for more than a decade now, and Anne says she loves both the musical role they play and the setting, with nothing but ocean in every direction.

“I love this cruise. The people are wonderful. But the thing is, when I'm out here, I really feel close to the Lord. I was thinking today. He made the water first. You know the water was here, so the water knows a lot we don't know.”

On Saturday morning, a full week after our departure, we returned to port in Ft Lauderdale and said our goodbyes. I’ve been to music festivals where bonds were formed, but there is something especially intense about being confined to the same floating hotel for seven days and spending more than twice as long as I’ve ever spent at a single music festival. It takes on its own sense of time and place. And like Anne says, it can feel a bit holy.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>