All aboooaaaard! All aboard, and bring your…banjos? About 2000 bluegrass fans, artists and press are taking to the high seas of the Atlantic today, February 1, on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky, for the maiden voyage of Mountain Song at Sea, the largest bluegrass festival afloat. Nearly two years in the making, Steep Canyon Rangers will host the weekend, which also boasts an amazing lineup of acts including the Del McCoury Band, the David Grisman Sextet, Punch Brothers, Peter Rowan, Tim O’Brien & Bryan Sutton, The Kruger Brothers, the Travelin’ McCourys, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, Della Mae, Shannon Whitworth and more. Each act will be performing at least once, and most will be performing two shows, so fans can really enjoy a widely diverse offering of great bluegrass.
In addition, Friday night will feature a “Battle for the Boat” competition, where six bands who submitted earlier entries will perform to battle it out for the privilege of presenting their own show on Sunday. Those bands come from around the country, and they are Sanctum Sully, Front Country, The Austin Steamers, Henhouse Prowlers, Betty and the Boy, and The Dustbowl Revival.
As if the music weren’t enough to keep cruisers occupied from dawn to the wee hours, there are plethoras on on-board activities planned, many hosted by the artists themselves. The Steep Canyon Rangers will host a poker tournament in the casino, and there will be lots of other things to do too, such as panel discussions with legends David Grisman and Del McCoury; “Growing Up Bluegrass” conversations with artists from Punch Brothers, Della Mae, Deadly Gentlemen and others; “Banjos and Beers” with Rob McCoury and Graham Sharp from the Steep Canyon Rangers; “Bloody Marys and Bingo” with Shannon Whitworth; the Deering Banjo “Petting Zoo,” where folks can come try out, play and even rent a banjo to play for the duration of the cruise; special “jam rooms,” because we all know how bluegrass fans love to pick with each other; a horseshoe tournament; and lots more.
Saturday, Norwegian Sky will stop at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas, where cruisers may partake of activities like snorkeling, parasailing, jet ski runs or just lounging beachside and getting some sun. The horseshoe tournament, which will pit cruise guests against artists, will also take place on the beach and promises a good time for everyone. It’s meant to be a time of relaxation and the opportunity to do something that maybe you wouldn’t be able to do at home.
There will be theme nights to add to the fun, as well! Friday night, to kick things off and get to know each other, there is the “Rep Your Roots” event, where everyone is encourage to wear something that reflects where they’re from, whether that’s a Wisconsin cheesehead, a Texas cowboy hat or even a San Francisco 49ers or Baltimore Ravens football jersey, because there will also be a big Super Bowl party on Sunday, for those who just can’t miss the Big Game.
Saturday night will be Italian Formal Night, where everyone is encouraged to dress up and enjoy a special Italian feast in the dining room, where they will be serenaded by the Steep Canyon Rangers. Later on the pool deck, the Travelin’ McCourys and Peter Rowan will host the Moonshine Ball, with Della Mae closing the night’s music late into the evening.
Exhausted yet? That’s okay, because all of this is offered in addition to the usual perks of a cruise ship, so cruisers may have a massage in the spa, hit a few balls on the driving range, or find a chair by the pool and not move for a few hours. Or, they might play the slots in the casino, work out in the fitness center, or belly up to one of the many bars. In other words, nobody will be bored. By the time Norwegian Sky glides back into the Port of Miami on Monday morning, there will be a lot of really tired, totally happy people not yet ready to leave, with memories of music still ringing in their minds for years to come.
In fact, that’s exactly what Sixthman Productions, who has put together the cruise in cooperation with the Mountain Song Bluegrass Festival and Steep Canyon Rangers, has in mind. Sixthman, out of Atlanta, does music and theme cruises throughout the year, including the Kiss Kruise, Turner Classic Movies Cruise, a Kid Rock Cruise, the Lynyrd Skynyrd Simple Man cruise, and more. In fact, the company has now hosted over 50 cruises, welcoming more than 100,000 guests, so they know what they’re doing. PR guru Ben Ferguson explains what makes the idea of taking a traditional bluegrass festival to sea so awesome:
“We are always looking at the possibility to do things above and beyond what you would be able to do at a regular festival,” he notes in a recent telephone interview. “You can do events that are artist hosted, you can offer fans and guests access to those artists and the chance to do activities with those artists that you might not be able to do at a regular festival. The neat thing about these events is that the artists are on the ship the entire time. They don’t often get the opportunity to play with other artists and hang out with other artists, and more importantly interact with the fans. So what we do is come together to create this really immersive environment for the guests with their heroes, whether it’s the Punch Brothers or Dave Grisman or Steep Canyon Rangers. And they get an opportunity to have these moments that they’re not going to have anywhere else, to be able to sit at a bar and have the drummer or the guitar player of a band sidle up next to you, without any type of inhibitions. To be able to have those conversations, have those questions answered that you’ve always thought to yourself when you’re actually standing in the audience at a big concert. Then, when you have the Caribbean as a backdrop, that makes it unique right there! So you’re just getting these opportunities to see and experience things that you’re just not going to anywhere else.”
Woody Platt is the guitarist for the Steep Canyon Rangers, and he agrees. “With bluegrass, it’s just always been that way, for the artists to be accessible to the fans that buy the records and just actually meet the people that come to the concerts,” he told us recently. “One of the great things about it is the connectivity between the fans and the artists, the kind of the community that develops around that both in the music that’s being played, and the friendships that are being developed. I like that, I think that’s a cool kind of unique quality that the genre has.”
Platt goes on to point out that it’s not just fun for the guests. “You meet a lot of other artists. I think [we’re all] in a different mindset because it’s kind of a vacation, you know, mixed with work and so it’s just more relaxed. The spirit of the boat is different than on a land festival, because lots of times when a band’s playing a festival, they’re playing it and they pull out and head to another one. They might do two or three in a weekend. On the boat, you move into your room and you’re there to stay. I think it’s a nice mixture of vacation and still doing your job at the same time. The way the schedule’s laid out for the artists, they’re not working too much, so there’s a lot of free time and time to maybe do some cool collaborations with other artists. And the whole time, you’re sitting by the pool watching the bands and meeting the fans. It’s a unique way to interact.”
For those who are going to Mountain Song at Sea, the packing is done and planning is complete. Is there anything especially important that guests need to be sure to remember to bring? It depends on who you ask.
Says Platt, “I’m really, really excited about the cross section of people because I know a lot of families are going, so there’s going to be a lot of reasons for family to come together and be together,” he says. “I know there are a lot of young people kind of going more for the party. So it seems like it’s going to be a really cool cross section of folks. If you’ve been in long sleeves and long pants all winter, bring sunscreen – you don’t want to get burnt on Day One!
Ferguson adds, “I would say leave all of your worries at home, because you’re getting ready to go on a vacation where you’re going to be taken care of. You’re going to have fun, you’re going to be taken care of, you’re going to have a lot of really memorable experiences. I think those are the biggest things right there. Everything else is provided and supplied by the cruise line, so just need to bring your clothes and some sunscreen, and you’ll be good to go.
“Leave any work stress or anything from the real world back at your house, because you’re going to be getting on a ship that’s completely immersed into, you know, the things that you love. If you’re a bluegrass fan, you’re going to be in the right place. Bring some sunscreen, because the weather’s going to be beautiful.”