Mountain Song at Sea, the largest-ever bluegrass festival to ply the oceans, has sailed into the sunset, but not without leaving its mark on the 2000+ bluegrass lovers and artists who came together aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky February 1-4. It was a weekend full of musical thrills and island delights, and despite the occasional brisk wind on the pool deck, the weather cooperated fully by supplying blue skies, balmy days and starry nights.
Produced by Mountain Song Productions and Sixthman, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in creating and producing theme cruises including the KISS Kruise, Camayo and the Alabama Festival at Sea, the event was the culmination of some two years of development and planning. The Steep Canyon Rangers played host to some 20 performing acts that offered guests the full range of bluegrass sounds, from David Grisman’s jazz-infused Sextet to the traditions of the Del McCoury Band to the folky styles of Peter Rowan.
The younger contingent was well-represented, as was evidenced by the inclusion of the Punch Brothers, the Deadly Gentlemen, the John Stickley Trio and Della Mae. Up-and-comers Town Mountain and Battle for the Boat winners Henhouse Prowlers were at home alongside the more familiar names of Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton and the Travelin’ McCourys. It was a veritable feast for the soul in search of bluegrass, whatever the preferred style, and it was clear that Mountain Song at Sea was going to be one big bluegrass party.
The party atmosphere was immediately apparent. As guests boarded the Sky, they were greeted by Sixthman CEO Andy Levine, who met each cruiser with a high-five. Once aboard, guests settled into their staterooms before gravitating to the top of the ship and the pool deck, which became sort of the common gathering place throughout the cruise. The Steep Canyon Rangers and Sixthman welcomed everyone to Mountain Song at Sea and kicked off the weekend with a set of music that set the stage for what was to come. Artists mingled with guests and greeted friends as the Sky pulled away from shore.
From the beginning, guests were overwhelmed with choice. In fact, there were always so many options of music to listen to, special events to be a part of, and activities on the ship to take advantage of, that it was immediately clear that a person would not be able to do everything they wanted to in the short amount of time available. Indeed, the conflicts began presenting themselves right off the bat, on Friday evening – stay by the pool and enjoy Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton, or go down to the Stardust Theater to hear the opening set from the Del McCoury Band? Or get in line at the buffet? Or get an early massage? This wasn’t going to be easy.
Ultimately, the McCoury show won out, as Del and fiddler Jason Carter were both celebrating their birthdays that day. Del, not for a second slowing down at 74, engaged the crowd as he always does. “I’m trying to do this show, but you people keep swimming around!” he exclaimed, as everybody struggled to get their sea legs under them in the first few hours after the Sky pulled out of the Port of Miami. “That guy sitting here used to be sitting way over there!” It may have been the birthday cake, but Del and the boys were in splendid form, playing as fine as they ever can. Carter, newly 40, seemed especially inspired. Even his band mates took notice; bass player Alan Bartram commented, “The fiddle player seems to be feeling good tonight!”
“Absolutely!” answered Carter.
“You don’t look a day over 40,” teased the younger Bartram.
“I’m not,” deadpanned Carter, to the crowd’s amusement.
The choice then became a matter of Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, or to check out the hotly contested Battle for the Boat. And, it wouldn’t be a bluegrass festival if folks didn’t get together and jam into the late hours. People were seen and heard on the pool deck and in the three allotted jam rooms at all hours, trading licks and finding joy in their shared love of bluegrass. It was clear that it was shaping up to be a fine weekend.
Saturday dawned, and cruisers awoke to find themselves docked at Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. A small island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, the cay offers everything a proper Caribbean island should – surf, sand, lots of beach chairs, good food featuring local dishes, water activities, shopping, and several bars within easy reach. There was even a horseshoe tournament between artists and guests. With eight artist teams and eight guest teams, it was a heated battle to the finish, but the Steep Canyon Rangers were able to dig deep and come back from a significant 20 point deficit to win the tournament. There were some good horseshoe pitchers out there among the guests, and the costumes were very inventive!
The day passed lazily before the evening’s event, Italian Formal Night, got underway. Guests were invited to dress up as much as they cared to, and many took it all the way to long gowns and tuxedos. Dashing couples posed for ship’s photographers, sharply-clad families dined on caprese salads and tiramisu and groups of young people strolled the ship’s decks. Members of the Steep Canyon Rangers strolled as serenading minstrels amongst the diners. All of this took place as the evening’s musical offerings began with Shannon Whitworth, the first of a packed lineup that promised much and delivered on all of it.
It really isn’t fair that one would be forced to choose between David Grisman and the Punch Brothers, but so it was, and thus it was to the pool deck where Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, Gabe Witcher, Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelney were thoroughly entertaining the crowd. “Ahoy!” Thile kept yelling, which initially seemed appropriate given the voyage we were all sharing, but then turned out to be the title of the band’s current EP. No matter; the fellow mariners returned the shout with gusto. Whether they knew the origin of the term or not, it was getting to be that time of the evening that for many people, those kinds of details weren’t all that important, anyway.
If you’re not familiar with the Punch Brothers’ music, it can be very traditionally bluegrass in its stylings, but is more often far left of that. Trying to think of a proper and accessible description is difficult, but it seems that perhaps the music of the Punch Brothers stretches bluegrass in the same way that Led Zeppelin stretched the blues, or that the Beatles stretched pop; that is, they use the conventional, traditional instruments of the music to craft sometimes very untraditional, experimental sounds. Has anyone come up with the term “Sgt. Pepper-grass” yet? Certainly, there were times when the music stretched so far beyond the boundaries of what many think of as bluegrass, that some would say that it couldn’t possibly even carry the name. Others would say that it has simply re-drawn the boundaries of what bluegrass can or should be. It’s for the listener to determine which side they fall on.
When it comes to a Bill Monroe tribute show presented by Peter Rowan with the Travelin’ McCourys, however, there can be no doubt as to its traditional authenticity. Ronnie McCoury and Rowan began this show with a very stark and simple arrangement of Long Journey Home before the band – the rest of the Del McCoury Band, without Del – joined them onstage. After it was over, many guests would point to this set as the highlight of their cruise. After a sharp performance filled with Monroe favorites like Uncle Pen, Molly and Tenbrooks, Cheyenne, Can’t You Hear Me Calling and In the Pines, Del McCoury himself electrified when he appeared onstage, but that was just the beginning. Grisman, fresh from his show elsewhere on the ship, arrived with his mandolin. Then, wait! There’s Steep Canyon Rangers’ mando man Mike Guggino! And Tim O’Brien! And Chris Thile! Then fiddle player Gabe Witcher! A proper mandolin ensemble, twin fiddles and Del McCoury?! The crowd was beyond ecstatic.