There’s nothing like a combination of country music and Caribbean skies to help shake off the winter doldrums, and fans enjoyed plenty of both on Star Vista’s Fifth Annual Country Music Cruise. Alabama, The Gatlin Brothers, Mickey Gilley, Wade Hayes, Lorrie Morgan, Bobby Bare, Jim Stafford, Johnny Lee, T. Graham Brown, Asleep at the Wheel and many more set sail for Antigua and St. Kitts aboard Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam delivering a week of music and fun for nearly 3,000 country music fans.
“The highlight of the whole cruise was getting to see Alabama,” Dailey & Vincent’s Darrin Vincent tells Sounds Like Nashville. “We sat and talked with Jeff Cook for a long time last night and Randy Owen came to our show. It’s great to have an opportunity to mingle with other artists, but to watch them perform was a highlight for me. They are so incredible!”
“We got out and rode around one of the islands and got to learn some history. We really enjoyed that in Antigua,” adds his musical partner Jamie Dailey. “We had some of the best food in Antigua at a restaurant called Hemingways. It was so good at lunch we went back and had dinner there before we left.”
During the seven day cruise, there are concerts happening simultaneously at multiple venues around the ship, and when they aren’t performing themselves, the stars can be found in the audience enjoying each other’s shows or getting up to join a friend on stage for a surprise collaboration. Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson joined Wade Hayes during his Thursday night set at the Grand Ole Opry Guitar Bar to perform Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin” and Bob Wills’ classic “Faded Love.” “That was a really, really big treat for Ray to get up and sing and for Jim Stafford to get up and speak at the guitar clinic that was a lot of fun too,” says Hayes, who held a special guitar seminar during the cruise. “A lot of wonderful things happened this year. I got to see part of the Alabama show and I got to see all of the Asleep at the Wheel show. I’m a huge fan of Asleep at the Wheel. I guess if I had to say one thing, the Asleep at the Wheel show was my favorite.”
Lorrie Morgan has previously performed on the Country Music Cruise and was happy to return this year. “It’s been my favorite cruise so far,” she tells SLN. “This is the first time I’ve been out on the cruise where I haven’t been seasick. Thank God for Dramamine because that’s what I took a couple days before I left and I take a half of one a couple times a day.”
When she wasn’t performing, Morgan enjoyed soaking up the sun, but admits she got a little more than she intended out on her private balcony. “We went out on our balcony and my husband Randy was sitting there getting some sun. He took his shirt off and I took mine off too. We sat there for about 45 minutes and went in. I was so burnt. I’ve never had burnt boobs before,” she grinned.
For the fifth year, television personality Lorianne Crook served as hostess for the cruise and Jason Venner returned as cruise host. In addition to the numerous concerts, there were also lots of fun events. T. Graham Brown and Johnny Lee hosted a special edition of a beloved game show. “The most fun thing I remember is playing Family Feud with Johnny Lee. We had a blast. His team won, but he cheated,” Brown says with a laugh.
Brown, who is an ordained minister, presided over a ceremony where 30 couple renewed their vows at sea. There were also wine tastings, a women’s seminar, a Sunday morning gospel concert, dance lessons, a corn hole contest, autograph sessions, a singing competition, Country Faith seminars, a special photo exhibit by acclaimed Opry photographer Les Leverett and Nashville Songwriters Guitar Pulls featuring Jennifer Hansen and Tony Haselden with special guests such as Hayes and Lacy J. Dalton.
There was a special Q&A with Coach Barry Switzer, performances by comedian Jon Reep and nightly shows by the Elvis Tribute Artists. Tim Atwood and Chrissy Sparks held court every evening on deck 2 singing, playing piano and inviting special guests such as Sara Simmons, Megan Mullins and Moore & Moore to join in. One of the highlights was a tribute to the Bakersfield sound led by Hayes and Chuck Mead that included Emily West delivering a stirring rendition of “Together Again” and Johnny Lee’s performing Haggard’s “Carolyn.”
Brown enjoyed seeing other artists perform. “I liked Asleep at the Wheel. I really like Wade Hayes,” he says. “I thought Daily and Vincent were good. Everybody did a great job, The Gatlins and Bobby Bare, I thought everybody did a good job.”
“I saw Dailey and Vincent and I loved them,” Stafford says. “There’s something infectious. They just pull you in. They are very special. Their harmonies are just wonderful. And we saw Asleep at the Wheel. Oh my! That is a walkin,’ talking,’ singin,’ playin’ party!”
Stafford says he also enjoyed visiting the islands. “I bought a t-shirt. We just walked around out there, had a little bite to it and came back. It was pleasant place,” he says of Antigua. “Everybody was real sweet to us. It was a beautiful day and we even had one of those misty little rains come through that’s so pleasant when you are in this kind of area. What also was really beautiful was how pretty it was when we left and all the lights were on. We were out on the little balcony and it was unreal. There’s so many things about this cruise. If you like country music, every corner you turn you’re going to hear some more.”
Vincent says he enjoys making new friends on the cruise. “I’d never seen Jim Stafford before. We just did an autograph session with all the artists and were sitting next to him. We were trading notes, just having fun,” Vincent says. “We’ve made a new friend now. He loves what we do. We love what he does. He has a great sense of humor. We have laughed for the last hour with him. I think that’s the coolest thing to be able to collaborate and intertwine with each other here. It’s just a big family. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Morgan says she’ll take home so many great memories from this year’s cruise. “I love the breakfast buffet because every morning you walk through there and the Gatlins are sitting at the same table and you can hear them laughing and talking,” says Morgan, who had Nashville designer Johnathan Kayne create a special silver, one-shoulder sparkling jump suit for her main stage performance. “I love the islands and to see Randy go snorkeling. I know he loves to snorkel. Then we went horseback riding on one of the beaches in Antigua and it was wonderful. I told Randy, I’m getting a horse when I get home.”
On the final evening, cruisers were treated to a special performance of the Grand Old Opry at Sea featuring the Gatlins, Morgan, Hayes, West, Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys, Dailey & Vincent and Brown. “I enjoyed playing the Opry show this year. It was a lot of fun. The jam night was probably the best one we’ve had,” Hayes says of the night artists performed until after 1am by the Lido deck pool. “It was all around a really good cruise and one of my favorite ones I’ve been on.”
Stafford agrees. “I’ll always remember these audiences and how sweet they were and how gentle and laid back they were,” he says. “They are people who love country music and love being on this ship. I don’t care if you are doing a show or just walking down the hall, there is a sweet spirit in the air.”
Next year’s Country Music Cruise is slated for Jan. 27-Feb. 3 on the Nieuw Amsterdam and will feature The Oak Ridge Boys, The Bellamy Brothers, Patty Loveless, Ronnie Milsap, Ricky Skaggs, Joe Diffie, Jeff Foxworthy, Shenandoah, Jimmy Fortune, Wade Hayes, David Ball, T. G. Sheppard, Jeannie Seely, Johnny Lee and more. The ship, which will sail to Key West, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay, is already more than 50% sold out.