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Country Music Cruise 2017: A Memoir

Feb 3 | Posted by: Joseph S. Bonsall

The Caribbean Sea as far as you can see. All the food one would ever want to eat. And all the country music a real fan can handle for a solid week… THIS is THE Country Music Cruise. Hosted by Star Vista and Time Life, and held aboard a great Holland Cruise Lines ocean liner (this year it is the Oosterdam), this is the trip of a lifetime for fans and artists alike.

In previous years, because of scheduling, The Oak Ridge Boys have started the cruise with about three full days of shows and activities, then left on Day Four. But this year we joined the cruise at the halfway point and are here for the duration.

Logistically speaking, this cruise followed our two-week tour across Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, after which we bussed home long enough to repack (and, for me, upset my cats) before flying to Cozumel, on Sunday, January 29. We spent the evening and morning at The El Presidente five-star resort (not bad right?) in Cozumel, and then late Monday morning we boarded the Oosterdam, along with Tanya Tucker, Lee Greenwood, Vince Gill, and other artists.

Each year I am amazed at this huge undertaking—with 2500 or so fans, artists, band, staff, and gear—all expedited coming and going, with the many shows and the scheduling of special events. That it all goes off without a hitch boggles my mind.

After settling into our cabins on Monday, the only thing we had to do was tape The All Access, an interview show hosted by Deborah Allen and broadcast throughout the ship to let people know that we are here and ready to go. The welcome we received was beautiful to behold. Fans were yelling, ‘THE BOYS ARE NOW IN THE HOUSE!” Yes, indeed… ONBOARD and ready to sing and sing… a LOT! They don’t pay us to sit in the sun.

The ship departed Cozumel on Monday night as most of us watched Charlie Pride perform in the main showroom, where a headliner performs two 90-minute shows on his or her night. (On previous evenings, folks were entertained by Lee Greenwood, Vince Gill, and Brenda Lee.) Charlie is a living legend and not a young man, so it was a thrill to see him moving around and performing at an incredibly high level. We so love this man. He is an inspiration to us all, and we are honored by his friendship.

Tuesday morning, we dropped anchor in the small, Mexican coastal town of Costa Maya — a few miles north of Belize and the rest of Central America — with its impeccable water and lots of Mayan and Aztec ruins to see. I took a long walk and ran into Dailey and Vincent and Brenda Lee along the way. Then, after I got back to the ship, I headed to the Lido pool stage on Deck 9 to hear Martin Family Circus. I was not surprised to see almost all our bunch in attendance, especially proud grandpa Duane Allen, who was sitting front and center. The kids were awesome, as usual, and I am certain this was their first performance EVER in Costa Maya.

The Grand Ole Opry also plays a special role on THE Country Music Cruise, and Wednesday nights on the main stage have been dubbed the OPRY at SEA. We were honored to take part. Your humble scribe was asked to host both Opry shows, and it was an honor to do so. We ran the whole show as if we were at the Opry itself, with a stage design that put the audience ‘right there’ in the Mother Church. As our ship moved out to sea, the main showroom came alive with some great country music. Chuck Mead and His Grassy Knoll Boys opened, followed by Wade Hayes, Charlie Pride, Jimmy Fortune, Sylvia, Dailey and Vincent, and The Oak Ridge Boys, with the entire cast, including Brenda Lee, joining us onstage for “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” led by our Duane Allen. The first show had a technical glitch or two, and the second show went much smoother, but there was magic onstage from 5:30 PM until well after 10 o’clock.

My evening ended with sharing pizza with some of our band guys and Dailey and Vincent, followed by checking out Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley, before retiring to my cabin. On the way to my floating bedroom, I DID run into Johnny Lee, who shared a few jokes I cannot include here.

As I write this, it is Wednesday morning, February 1, 2017… We are at sea and will be until we put into Tampa, Florida on Friday morning. I feel like I have joined the Navy! Tonight is The Oak Ridge Boys night in the main showroom. We will perform two 90-minute shows as we steam across the beautiful Caribbean. I will continue this epic upon the morrow. Betting I sleep GREAT after two shows… This afternoon my only job will be to eat again and watch the deep blue sea flow by my cabin! I am picking this up late Wednesday night, stoked beyond words after our two shows. We were on it for these folks, and it felt great. The Mighty Oaks Band was cooking, and all four Boys were in top form and singing good! Performing on the cruise feels like singing for friends and family. On a regular show date one rarely sees the folks up close. You hang out in a hotel or motel all day, hit the stage that night, and then jump on the bus to go somewhere else. But here, you run into the same folks several days in a row — I mean, you see them every morning in the omelet line and THAT never happens anywhere else — and you get to know them a bit. Seriously I am thankful to God for two big shows tonight. We started this year a bit under the weather, so it feels great to feel 100%... NEVER taken for granted. We have been at sea now for twenty-seven hours. I am hitting the hay. We host a Gospel music show in the morning, and then more activities are scheduled, so goodnight… Thanks for riding with me… Thursday afternoon aboard THE Country Music Cruise… The Gospel show is over and, as usual, it is the highlight of the trip. We sang four songs to open, then hosted the rest of the way. We also sang our Dove Award-winning rendition of “Life’s Railway” with Jimmy Fortune, and Duane sang “I Know” with Martin Family Circus. All of the acts, including Dailey and Vincent, performed together for a rousing version of “Have A Little Talk With Jesus” to close. Everything changes… even the very sea that we are riding upon constantly changes. But Jesus NEVER changes. He is the same yesterday and today and forevermore, and it was an honor to sing for HIM this morning. I had lunch with Joe Stampley a few moments ago… I LOVE old Joe. I want to thank so many fellow artists for coming to our shows and showing their love and respect for The Oak Ridge Boys. It meant the world to know that so many of them were out there. Charlie Pride, Jimmy Fortune, D&V, Brenda Lee, Jo-El Sonnier, Deborah Allen, Lorianne Crook, Moe and Joe, the CIRCUS, and the list goes on. THANK YOU, DEAR FRIENDS!!! There is still a lot left for The BOYS to do today… An autograph session at 2 PM… A private reception for “OAKSFANS” at 4 PM, and a dinner with the powers-that-be at Star Vista/ Time Warner at 6:30 PM. I am troubled that I have no idea how the Groundhog did today… Oh, well… We will put into Tampa at 7 AM tomorrow, and after disembarking we will fly to Las Vegas for two days off before opening in Laughlin for a week at the Riverside. Although the Colorado River will be flowing by, I am quite sure that the Celebrity Room will NOT be moving. AHOY… and God Bless…

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