To country fans, the Country Music Cruise has become known as an annual family reunion at sea, a week-long party filled with concerts, wine tastings, games, cooking demonstrations, autograph sessions and other activities with their favorite artists. The Oaks Ridge Boys, Wade Hayes, Randy Owen, Johnny Lee, The Gatlin Brothers, Pam Tillis, Larry the Cable Guy, T. Graham Brown, Moe Bandy, David Frizzell and Tracy Lawrence are among the artists slated to set sail next January 25 through Feb. 1 on Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam. The ship will leave Fort Lauderdale and travel to St. Maarten, San Juan and Half Moon Cay.
“The past few years I’ve asked the stage manager to sit me a chair on the side of the stage so I can watch and listen to the other artists,” says The Oak Ridge Boys’ Duane Allen. “The Country Music Cruise is full of great country, bluegrass and gospel artists. I love great music and sitting on stage over behind the speakers is such a thrill for me.”
Cabins are selling quickly for the 2020 Country Music Cruise with more than 75% already booked. “If you’ve ever wanted to do a cruise, I don’t know of any cruise that we’ve ever done that we’ve enjoyed more than this one,” Shenandoah’s lead vocalist Marty Raybon tells Sounds Like Nashville. “If you want to see everything that is on the boat, you’re going to stay hopping all day long, whether you are at sea or whether you’re not at sea.”
Singer/songwriter Megan Mullins, who is set to perform again on the 2020 cruise, agrees. “There is always great country music going on somewhere,” she says of the multiple venues throughout the ship. “No matter where you go, you’re bound to run into it, so it’s always entertaining. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a bunch of great people always.”
The 2019 cruise was a sold out adventure, and many who sailed jokingly called it “The Love Boat.” After all, not many newlyweds have more than 2,000 people tagging along on their honeymoon, but that was the case when Wade Hayes and his new bride Lea spent the week after their Tennessee nuptials at sea.
“This year’s cruise will always be one of the most special ones for me. This was my working moon,” says Hayes, who has performed all six years of the Country Music Cruise. “We got married the day before and we flew down for the cruise, so it was very nice to have somebody to hang out with this time and do things with.”
This year’s cruise was also a romantic trip for Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, who renewed her vows with her husband Gene Ward. Seely was scheduled to perform on last year’s Country Music Cruise, but had to cancel because her husband was ill. Recovered and ready to celebrate this year, Ward and his bride were among the lovebirds happy to take part in the The Renewal of Vows Ceremony.
“The reason Gene and I wanted to renew our vows is because first of all, we can! So many of the fans, artists and personnel were on the cruise last year and were aware of how ill Gene was, and there were so many prayers said on our behalf. I thought it might be nice for them to see Gene standing up there looking so sharp in his suit,” said Seely. “This opportunity was very special for not only us, but the fifteen other cruise guests that shared the event with us by renewing their vows at the same time.”
The Bellamy Brothers used the cruise as an opportunity to film some upcoming segments for their reality show, Honky Tonk Ranch, which airs on the Cowboy Channel. “We grabbed TG Sheppard and Kelly Lang, Joe Diffie and Shenandoah. We did a scene with TG and Kelly that was pretty funny,” says David Bellamy. “We got Shenandoah singing out on the deck, singing ‘Sunday In The South’ for us, our own private concert. I love that song so much. We also filmed some of the Country Faith seminar with us singing ‘I’ll Fly Away’ with Jimmy Fortune.”
“This cruise really is special,” says Howard Bellamy. “I was talking to Joe Diffie and he said, ‘I’ve seen more good country music on here than I’ve seen in the last five years live.’ You can just wander around the boat and catch great traditional country. Plus we loved seeing old friends. We get to catch up with everybody.”
Even after all their scheduled obligations, the artists just kept on playing. “I love Marty Raybon. I love his spirit and what he stands for,” Jimmy Fortune says of Shenandoah’s lead vocalist. “What a singer and songwriter! We’d play some jams afterwards and he’d stay from beginning to the end. I’d have to go to bed. He wore me completely out. These jams weren’t on the schedule. John Myer, Darin and Brooke Aldridge and a whole bunch of them were just sitting around jamming for hours. I had to get some rest because I had a lot of shows to do so I kind of had to pace myself.”
Raybon says the camaraderie makes the Country Music Cruise a treasured experience. “It’s really been pretty special because a lot of times when you are out on the road, and even though you are on the same bill with somebody else, you get done that night and somebody is heading to one part of the country and you are heading to another part of the country. You don’t get a chance to hang around with one another,” Raybon says. “On this cruise, you get a chance to spend a great deal of time with one another when normally you wouldn’t get that opportunity. The Country Music Cruise makes that available and people love that because the folks get to be a part of it. They see it. Anytime you can be on a ship for seven days with Jimmy Fortune you are always in good company!”
Hit songwriter Erin Enderlin leads songwriter-in-the-round performances on the cruise that are standing room only every night. “The cruise to me is like country music high school,” says Enderlin, who has a new EP, Tonight I Don’t Give a Damn, releasing April 26. “It is just everybody hanging out together and making music and it’s every reason I fell in love with country music.”