Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ETA Cruise - Friday at Sea

Days at sea on a cruise ship provide a chance to rest, enjoy the ship’s activities, and hang out with new friends. We had a long, leisurely breakfast being joined at first by Skip Cherryholmes and later by Jerry and Tami Butler. One of the differences between bluegrass cruising and attending festivals or concerts lies in the opportunity to come to know bluegrass performers in new and different ways. Jerry and Tami Butler had moved from mere bluegrass acquaintances to friends over the past several months as we grew to know and appreciate each other. On the other hand, members of the Cherryholmes family have been much harder to get to know.

Bluegrass fans know the story of how the Cherryholmes family, grieving after the loss of the oldest daughter, attended a bluegrass festival, were moved by the music, and moved to the desert to learn to play bluegrass under the tutelage of their mother Sandy Leigh, who has a background in music education. Over time the kids learned instruments and the family began to appear at festivals, first playing at their campsite, then at open mic sessions, and finally as paid performers. Over the next few years their skills increased rapidly and they moved to headliner status, being named Entertainers of the Year at IBMA with Cia Cherryholmes, now the oldest, winning awards as both a banjo player and a singer. Their story is remarkable, but has not been accomplished without very hard work and a good deal of sacrifice. They are a close knit, focused family, not easy to know although always friendly and approachable at their merchandise table. The bluegrass cruise gave us, and others, a chance to come to know them in a much more personal way. Watching eighteen year old Skip, developing as a first rate guitar player, ride the FlowrRider, or seeing Molly Kate, nearly sixteen, clowning with other teen agers opened doors otherwise hard to penetrate. While trying to respect their privacy, we still had opportunities to chat at a more personal level with all members of the family and to appreciate their skill, hard work, and talent at a much deeper level. We also heard more about the plans and aspirations they have for the future. We’ll certainly follow their progress with greater attention and affection in the future.

Every way you look at it Liberty of the Seas is a major operation. Billed as the biggest (cruise) ship afloat, Liberty of the Seas is 1111.876 feet long (338.9 meters) and weighs in at a hefty 154,407 tons. She is 126.64 feet wide and draws a maximum of 29 feet. With this much size, she carries up to 4300 passengers served by a crew of 1400 people coming from 65 countries and cost $800,000,000 to build. During a one week cruise, she can desalinate 233,000 gallons of fresh water a day, and at full speed consumes 11,312 kg of fuel per hour. Each week the food and beverage staff prepares 105,000 meals, 60,000 appetizers, 84,000 main courses, and 90,000 deserts. 85,000 eggs are prepared and consumed weekly. All these superlatives should not be allowed to mask the true value of what actually gets served up on a Royal Caribbean cruise. Every day, despite the fact that the ship was filled with over 4000 passengers including 1200 kids on spring break, the ship was kept spotless and odor free. Crew members, wherever we encountered them, smiled and said hello. When there were problems, and there were a few, the staff at guest relations did their best to solve them. Twice when we had problems the crew member dealing with us had sufficient authority to solve the problem in our favor, even though it cost the cruise company money. In every aspect of shipboard life, our comfort and pleasure seemed to be important to the crew. An entrée not prepared to your liking at dinner? Send it back for another portion or a different choice. Want another one? Order it. Not able to make a choice of deserts? Have ‘em both. Hungry at midnight? Stop at Sorrento’s on the Promenade deck for a slice of Pizza. Want coffee at 4:30 AM? Go to the Promenade Café and there it is. While Royal Caribbean is a corporation operating to make a profit, it achieves its goal through delivering quality.

There were a couple of exceptions to this passenger’s always right and anything a passenger wants approach. Passengers had to pay extra for water and carbonated drinks. We could buy, on the first day out, a bottomless carbonated beverage container for $48.00. This seemed a lot, but people who really like to drink Coke regretted not having bought it soon enough. Even at meals, Coke was a premium item along with specialty coffee drinks. As far as we could tell, there isn’t a single water fountain on the Liberty of the Seas. Water ordered any place but at meals cost extra. You could go to your cabin and draw water from the tap, or obtain ice water at the Café Promenade, but cold water wasn’t available otherwise. As ceaseless activity is encouraged by the cruise line, this seems excessive. The other exception revolves around smoking. Ship rhetoric declares the Liberty of the Seas to be “essentially smoke free.” Then it claims there are certain places (e.g. “smoking in many of our lounges and on open air decks starboard side”) where smoking is permitted. Since the odor of smoke insinuates itself into places not designated as smoking areas, the policy effectively means people may smoke nearly everywhere. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that there was some confusion about which decks permitted smoking and the fact that cigarette disposal was available on the port rather than starboard side. Effectively, unless the cruise line is both willing to enforce its policy and provides powerful ventilation systems in the places where smoking is permitted, there is no anti-smoking policy at all. These days, even on a cruise like this, smokers are in the minority, but the power of the odor they create prevails. It was nearly impossible to go from stern to aft without walking through areas where smoking was permitted. Because crew members are reluctant to confront passengers about their behavior, this problem will continue to prevail.

Galley Tour

On Friday afternoon at 4:00 PM, after packing our luggage and preparing to put it out in the hall for early delivery to the luggage carousel, we presented ourselves at the doors of the Rembrandt dining room with about 30 other passengers. The head chef divided us into three groups and we were given a tour of the kitchen (ship talk = galley) facilities. At four in the afternoon, with dinner to be served in less than two hours, the place was nearly empty and spotless. Stainless steel prep tables gleamed, ovens blinked at a variety of temperatures, and huge soup pots steamed as the soup stocks simmered. At one table a cook had about two hundred sugar free Key Lime pies laid out and was garnishing each with a berry topping. For some reason, three of the most obnoxious passengers on the cruise decided to take this tour. All were apparently restaurant guys, and they talked loudly, opened pots, tasted covered items, ignored the chef giving us a tour, and generally soured this truly interesting presentation. One man took out a covered plate of food. Where he obtained this and who gave him permission remains a mystery. The chef told us that any food remaining for as long as four hours after preparation is destroyed. There is virtually no waste and the ship arrives in port with an empty larder. It is only stocked with fresh food purchased by ship’s agents in Miami. Passengers can be confident that food on Royal Caribbean ships is clean, fresh, and prepared under sanitary conditions. Furthermore, at the entrances to all eating places, in every bathroom, and at other convenient locations hand washing stations dispense anti-bacterial hand sanitizer which everyone (crew and passengers) is encouraged to use frequently. Our final dinner on board tasted even better after this visit as we said farewell to our wait staff and presented them with their tip envelopes. A word about tipping might be in order here. The cruise line suggests a standard for tips, which might seem excessive, but consider. Dinner, for instance, with all its courses is roughly equivalent to a $40.00 dinner in pretty good restaurant. This makes $3.50 a day per person not excessive, especially since the wait staff also works on rotation in other places where they are not tipped. Similarly, the cabin attendant’s suggested tip of $3.50 per day seems more than reasonable.

Three Levels of Dining Rooms

Final Cocktail Party - Jayme Booher and Friends

Staff Captain Henrik Loy and Steve Wallach
The last day’s activities started with a 5:00 o’clock cocktail party in the Sphinx. It gave Steve Wallach a chance to talk to us about debarkation the next day and for all of us to meet together once more informally. After dinner we re-assembled for our final cruise activity, the talent show and band scramble. Lorraine Jordan had been put in charge of organizing this event, and she did a superb job. She had been rushing around recruiting singers and musicians to pick and sing in the talent show. Little did I understand that each person stepping up would have a great backup band. Imagine singing a song with Josh Goforth, Phil Leadbetter, Ben Greene, Beth Lawrence, B.J. Cherryholmes, and Jerry Butler behind you. These guys could make Hilary Clinton sound like a bluegrass singer. Each person or group came up and either sang with the backup band, presented a duet, or in one case performed as a full family band. This group came from Alaska for the ETA bluegrass cruise. Josh Goforth accompanied Lorraine Jordan’s nephew on a jazzy version of Over the Rainbow.

Family Band from Alaska

Some Kind of Back-Up Band
The Yankees and the Rebels
Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Ross Nickerson

Alan Munde
Next up was Ross Nickerson and Alan Munde. Nickerson has combined his bluegrass banjo cruise with the ETA cruise and ran a parallel instructional program daytimes. I stopped in for part of one session and saw several banjo students working with Ross on song kick-offs. On several occasions we jammed with some of Nickerson’s students, who all seemed to be having a great time. His web site is filled with useful information and learning opportunities for banjo pickers, while more information about him can be found here. Alan Munde, recognized in Pete Wernick and Bill Keith’s book Masters of the Five String Banjo has recently retired from his college teaching job and was on Ross’s faculty. I had never heard either play, and it was a real treat as both played virtuoso pieces in the half hour allotted to them.
Band Scramble
You Identify the Members in Each Band

The Band Scramble provides members of all the performing bands to really show their chops as bluegrass pickers. Bands perform using well rehearsed and carefully developed songs, often taken from their CDs. They rarely perform in off the cuff fashion, and it’s important for them to be polished and professional sounding. In a band scramble, members of all the bands are mixed up with no more than two pickers from the same band playing together. Each band is given two songs and two minutes to decide who will kick off the song, who will play breaks, sing lead, sing which harmony, and so-on. They must also come up with a name for their bands. The songs they were given were bluegrass standards that any good parking lot picker knows. Notwithstanding this, each band performed with professional skill, making each song stand alone and showing what bluegrass is truly all about. This is a great idea and shows what good professional musicians can do when forced to meld their skills and work with people they’ve seldom, if ever, picked with before. Great stuff!

Bradley Walker and Jim in Schooner Bar

Tim Graves, Steve Wallach and Jim

Debbie Gulley Sings with Jim

Steve and Steve Watch Debbie

The Bluegrass part of the ETA cruise was over…but wait! Many of the group repaired to the Schooner Lounge where for the past couple of nights the bluegrass crowd had, with the acquiescence of the resident piano genius, sung to his accompaniment. Bradley Walker and Steve Gulley both sang. Debbie Gulley, Steve’s wife who sings at Renfro Valley, did a great Patsy Kline song, and Josh Goforth sang while accompanying himself on the piano. Jim, the pianist, worked with each to find the right songs in the best key to showcase their voices from within his own repertoire. This all culminated with Steve Wallach sitting down at the piano and playing a couple of his own compositions, including one song he had written for Josh Grogan. We had no idea of his great skill in this area. We headed for bed shortly after midnight, knowing that tomorrow would be long and that we’d start tired. It was and we did, but the cruise had been a success for us. I’ll be writing an account of the debarkation procedures and a final assessment later in the week.

Josh Goforth Tickles the Keys

Steve Wallach's Last Refrain

Sunday, February 24, 2008

ETA Bluegrass Cruise - Thursday - Labadee, Haiti

Liberty of the Seas at Anchor

Labadee Beach
Haiti is the poorest island in the Caribbean and the oldest island nation there. It has been ruled and mostly destroyed by a succession of brutal dictators who have become rich on the backs of the people. The United States has wooed, bullied, neglected, invaded, and manipulated Haiti without ever seeming to have had a positive effect. Royal Caribbean leases a mammoth beach area called Labadee (Wikipedia profile) on a secluded point as a stopover spot for its cruise ships. In its promotions and preparations for the visit, passengers almost never hear the word “Haiti” and all is focused on enjoying a day of fun in the sun on Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s web site promotion). We were told that Royal Caribbean has a significant beneficial effect on the island’s economy (Wikipedia says the line pays Haiti’s government $6.00 per tourist landing there), but never are passengers faced with the realities of the tragic nation on the island of Hispaniola, one of Columbus’ first stops. Excellent pictures of Labadee and reviews of experiences there can be found here.
Main Activity Area - Labadee

We awoke to find the verdant mountains of Haiti rising above us as we slid into the harbor at Labadee (aerial photo- Google). Haiti has been extensively deforested by natives needing fuel for cooking (no one here needs to heat their home), but Labadee was covered with palm trees, bushes, and shrubs providing attractive plantings as well as plenty of shade for those who want it. There are several small beaches on the Caribbean side of the peninsula and a short walk takes people to the Atlantic side where there is much more space as well as some surf for those wishing it. The central part of the island has rest room facilities and a large, open air cafeteria where a sumptuous luncheon, prepared entirely from food brought from the ship, is served. Each beach has one or more open air bars. Paved walkways lead from place to place, and a free shuttle conducts people to the rather reaches of the area.

The Liberty of the Seas anchors about half a mile offshore and soon a small fleet of tenders, each carrying about 200 passengers begins to conduct the 4200 people on board to shore. This is done with dispatch and efficiency complemented by the different schedules people prefer. I made two round trips to Labadee (assessments from Trip without ever waiting in line more than fifteen minutes. As passengers board they are encouraged to purchase quart bottles of water ($3.50 charged to your Sea Pass), and it’s a very good idea to buy water sooner rather than later. Other than at meals and in the staterooms, there is no place on the ship where free water is available. (Since staying hydrated is of major importance in the tropics, water sales must be an important profit center for the shipping line, and it approaches the irresponsible for Royal Caribbean not to provide copious amounts of free water at Labadee as well as on St. Martin.) The tender drops passengers at a dock and everyone debarks into the continuing hard sell. Ships photographers are everywhere snapping shots of people with the ship in the background, in front of life rings, on various attractions, and so-on. Later on these pictures appear in a photo gallery on ship where people can purchase various packages to put together showing their experiences. These are high quality pictures and priced somewhat below studio poses, but they also represent another opportunity for commerce.

Steve Wallach
My response to Labadee as a beach is informed by our other beach experiences in the Caribbean. On three occasions we’ve taken Caribbean vacations where we’ve rented apartments or small villas on beaches. We’ve had the freedom to eat when and where we wanted, to travel easily, and to shop widely. Such experience is sufficiently unlike the cruise experience to color my assessment of a place like Labadee. Having said that, numerous activities are offered for ship’s passengers coming ashore. A large area on a beach near the docks is given over to a range of slides, floats, and other constructions suitable for children’s play (SeaTrek Aqua Park - $15.00/hr). There are opportunities to drive a wave runner ($89.00), Parasail ($89.00), ride a speedboat ($42.00), ride a zip line ($80.00) or take a snorkeling adventure ($42.00). Depending on your perspective, these “Explorations” can be seen as expensive luxuries, once in a life-time opportunities, or reasonable vacation expenses. People traveling on a more restricted budget can have a beach chair set up (no tip required) to enjoy the sun, go for a swim and relax. The ship provides a buffet luncheon. About 200 vendors have small shops in a market area where local crafts are sold and tourists encouraged to bargain to their hearts content. We came back early for lunch on the ship and a quiet afternoon, but others we talked to reported a fine time on the best beach they’d ever visited.

Josh Goforth
Passengers returned to the ship and managed to look fresh and happy at dinner, although we noticed plenty of empty seats as man chose to eat in the Windjammer Café, which is open for all three meals and for long hours for those not wishing a tablecloth, waiter service meal. We generally ate breakfast and lunch at the Windjammer and found the food to be tasty, varied, and well-prepared. We were fortunate to have Josh Goforth, the very talented fiddler for Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road, as well as Todd Meade, bassist for the same band, as our table companions, giving us the opportunity to come to know them better and to gain a deeper understanding of the realities of being a road musician. Josh, at age 26, is a particularly interesting young man. His career has included stints with several other bands, including his own. He often performs with folk historian David Holt (four time Grammy winner) and also makes frequent appearances in the U.S. and abroad as a solo artist and lecturer on old time traditional folk arts. He plays all acoustic instruments as well as, we later discovered, a mean pop/jazz piano. Josh is unusually articulate about his own music and the role of band member in a bluegrass band. His contribution to Lorraine Jordan’s band has been significant.

Lorraine Jordan

Ben Greene
In the evening we assembled for the nightly bluegrass concert. Four bands performed. Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road led off with another spirited traditional bluegrass set. Lorraine is an impressive woman who has fronted this band for about nine years. She plays an upfront Monroe style mandolin, writes songs, and sings. In recent years the band has seen considerable changes in personnel (what bluegrass band doesn’t?) but has been stable for the past eighteen months as she has molded it into the best of her bands yet. Ben Greene’s playing style on banjo isn’t flashy, but very solid as he plays strong breaks, excellent backup, and contributes a mellow bass voice to gospel quartets. Lorraine has also attracted a strong and loyal fan club who form a significant part of the bluegrass cruise group. Lorraine and her band are eager to interact with their fans and create good will throughout the cruise.

Jerry Butler and Lorraine Jordan

Tired Road Fan

Jayme Booher (Grasstowne)
Grasstowne followed with another of their fine sets. I’ve written so much about this group I find little new to say. While the emphasis about this band has rightly focused on the three principles (Alan Bibey, Steve Gulley, and Phil Leadbetter), who are among the finest at their jobs as any in the field, it’s worth talking about the two sidemen for this band. Jayme Booher is only twenty-one years old, and he’s the only member of the band not an original, having taken up his bass for Grasstowne after its first CD was finished. As with the other members of this band, he’s not a showy player, but his work on bass is better than good. Since bluegrass bands don’t usually (ever?) have drums, the bass provides much of the percussive drive as well as maintaining a solid beat for the entire band. Booher, who played for his family band near his home in Johnson City, Tennessee for many years, plays his role to near perfection. Hidden behind the band and further reducing his presence by hiding himself behind his bass, Booher nevertheless, is clearly in evidence for those who appreciate his seemingly easy but absolutely necessary instrument.

Steve Gulley

Mark Newton
The Mark Newton Band followed. Newton plays and sings well and leads his band with humor and good grace. Beth Lawrence on bass is a standout, offering strong bass play, a pleasant if retiring personality, and a lovely voice in leads and harmonies. Dave Denman is a strong lead guitar player and singer. Tony Wray on banjo is a standout, a player I’d never heard of but came to appreciate more each time I hear him pick. Mark Newton’s band has announced that he is newly represented by the Angela Roberts’ booking agency, Sound Kitchen Productions. One can only hope this new association gets him more bookings and wider recognition.

Beth Lawrence (Mark Newton Band)

Dave Denman (Mark Newton)

Mark Newton Fan
Bradley Walker sang again, once more backed up by the Cherryholmes minus mom and dad. Walker only grows on me as I listen to his mellow voice and very clear diction. Known more as a country singer, Walker has indeed a first rate bluegrass voice. Singing with Cia Cherryholmes’ harmonies, he sounds even better. Although we weren’t there, he later brought down the house singing in the Schooner Bar on deck five after hours.

Bradley Walker

Lorraine Jordan and Fan Club President

B.J. Cherryholmes

Thursday, February 21, 2008

ETA Bluegrass Cruise - Wednesday - at sea

Jerry Butler (Carolina Road) and Tim Graves

A day at sea provides time to get rested up, a bit. The entire ETA group assembled on the heli-pad on the front-most deck of Liberty of the Seas for a group picture. Passengers and musicians clustered together while one of the ship’s photographers perched on a small platform and held fast by a rope shot some pictures. After the picture we rushed to our cabins for me to change into a swim suit for the first time on this trip.

Faithful Blogger

Jerry Butler
Your faithful blogger had decided to challenge the dreaded Flow Rider, mastered by children and adults of all ages. After signing a release form assuring the cruise line would not be responsible for anything happening to me for the remainder of the trip. I think if I had a heart attack and died in bed any time in the next six months, Royal Caribbean would be completely absolved of any possible connection to this relatively harmless, but exciting, water activity. The fact that the person in line ahead of me was a tiny girl just reaching the 48” minimum height and weighing no more than fifty pounds provided no solace. Irene took a convenient seat for photo purposes as I joined the line. Forty minutes later I stood on the rubbery blue surface while tons of water cascaded past my ankles at 35 miles per hour as the life guard-coach gave me final instructions. I placed the butt end of the boogie board against my upper thighs and leaped (well…stumbled) into the void. I slid quickly down to the lower end of the Rider, adjusted my weight forward, and slowly moved up towards the break at the top. More forward pressure brought me sliding toward the bottom, letting it up allowed me to slide upwards. I was riding the Flow Rider! Getting the board marginally under control, I worked it from side to side, once sliding out of the heave water onto the right side where almost no water flows. I pushed myself back into the stream, achieved a bit of equilibrium and rode for a few seconds. My next challenge was to try to do something. The choices include getting up to your knees, doing a headstand on the board, achieving a forward somersault board in hand, pushing the board away from you and hope it catches you before you’re ridden off the top, or doing a barrel roll. I lined myself up, tired to roll over while clutching the board to my chest, lost control, and quickly slid off the top. My ride was over, but it had been great fun. I sat down with Irene, took a quick look at a few of the pictures and waited for Jerry Butler and Skip Cherryholmes to complete their much more aesthetic rides. Jerry managed not only to get to his knees, but to release the board with his hands and flex his muscles before going over when he, too, tried a barrel roll. Skip had a successful, but shorter, ride because he tried the barrel roll pretty quickly. Irene and I headed to the cabin to change for lunch and, later, a much needed nap.

Later in the afternoon we headed to the conference center to see if there was any jamming going on. In one of the rooms we found the Mark Newton band, augmented with guest mandolinist Alan Bibey, practicing for Thursday’s performance. The practice session, which we watched for perhaps 45 minutes, proved to be quite interesting. Under Mark’s direction, but with lots of give and take, the band members worked through the songs in their set, deciding who would sing which parts in the trios, the tempos and keys they wanted for each song, how the pattern of solos would work, and other details. They’d break off a tune in the middle to chat with bass player Beth Lawrence playing a crucial role. Alan, who doesn’t play with this band, is a very quick study and worked out solos as well as back-up licks that fit in perfectly. The band would begin where it had left off and work through the song until Mark was satisfied they were ready. The seeming ease with which each person fit into the familiar bluegrass patterns and blended together into a working ensemble speaks to the high quality of their musicianship as well as providing an example of one of the wonders of watching a playing bluegrass. Bluegrass musicians, particularly in a jam situation, can use the conventions of the music and their familiarity with its patterns to create a sound giving the appearance of years of playing together. As they ended we went off to find the ice rink and get a seat for the ice show.

“Ice show?” you might ask. That’s right, there’s a small ice rink located at the bottom of the ship near the center, presumably a place where the ship’s movement is minimized. We sit down just behind Phil Leadbetter and his wife Lisa. The show, a mélange of familiar tunes, many coming from show music but based on classical repertoire (Carmen, Kismet, Viva Las Vegas) used the music as a forum for the skaters to twirl and jump, lift and spin with surprising speed considering the size of the surface. The skaters, many from Russia, gave an excellent account of themselves. The highlight was a young Russian skater doing a solo routine which began with her twirling a single hula hoop and became increasingly complex and amazing as she added hoops. By the end of her routine she was keeping at least a dozen hoops going while she moved and spun. The rousing finale featured the entire cast skating to a rousing rock medley and bringing the crowd to its feet. The show ended with the crowd on its feet as we headed for the exit to change for formal dinner.

Ten minutes later we walked into the dining room to find our seats taken. Lorraine Jordan had seen us at the ice show, noticed we were still in shorts, and assumed there was no way for us to get to dinner. Fooled her! After some readjustments, we had our seats back with Josh Goforth, Todd Meade, and Susannah, Lorraine’s delightful fifteen year old daughter. Ben Greene, Carolina Road’s very able banjo player, joined us, too. Dinner featured lobster tails, a delicacy which often involves a contest to see who can eat the most of them. We abstained, but there was plenty of lobster eaten. Dinner over, we headed for the music portion of the evening. What had started as a leisurely day ended in a rush to get it all in.


Grasstowne opened the evening with another great set. Jason Davis on banjo seems to have improved his already fine picking over the past few months. Davis is a man of few words who shows almost no emotion as he plays wickedly clean and accurate banjo at speed. Because there is no pretense or showiness in his play, listeners might miss the extremely high quality he achieves. In fact, Grasstowne as a whole is business-like and straightforward in its play. They banter back and forth some and clearly enjoy making music together, but the excitement they generate lies more in their music than in their show. Alan Bibey plays mandolin with such authority and grace he seems to be making hardly any effort at all as the complex fingerings and marvelous triplets leap from his instrument. It almost seems too easy, but make no mistake, Bibey has paid his dues in sweat and toil to achieve this seeming ease. No one plays the mandolin any better. Similarly, Phil Leadbetter on Dobro seems to be a chatty friendly guy at the left end of the band. His sound soars and dives in and around the melody, helping create what has become the unique Grasstowne sound. Steve Gulley, on the other hand, lets it all hang out as his voice curls around the tunes, showing pain, love, and loss in each note. Together, this band, with Jayme Booher providing the ever solid beat on bass, has forged a sound honoring traditional bluegrass while reflecting contemporary sounds and sensibility. They’re truly a marvelous group.

Alan Bibey

Phil Leadbetter

Steve Gulley

Tim Graves and Cherokee

Tim Graves and Cherokee faced a challenge as the middle group sandwiched between a new super-group that has risen to prominence in a little over a year and a family group that has taken the bluegrass world by storm during the past four or five years. Graves, whose Uncle Josh played Dobro with Flatt & Scruggs for many years, plays his uncle’s more traditional style and sings in a very fine high baritone voice. Supported by Daniel Grindstaff on banjo and Joe Benning on guitar, Graves’ presents a very solid show which should please any fan of traditional bluegrass. Bennie Bolling on bass remains in the background, but is quite evident both for his solid beat and his huge smile. Planted squarely behind the rest of the band, he presents an elfin presence filled with the joy of the music. Tim Graves and Cherokee do a fine job.

B.J. Cherryholmes

Skip Cherryholmes

Molly Kate Cherryholmes
The Cherryholmes Family closed out the evening with a set composed mainly of some new songs being added to their performances and songs requested from their first big CD. BJ Cherryholmes, in the spirit of the islands, wore a Rasta cap with black dreadlocks dangling down. He called himself Billy Bob Marley. Humor, however, can’t mask the intensity of his performances, whether on fiddle, mandolin, or in vocals. His singing has improved greatly in the past year or two, with new timbre appearing in his once reedy voice. Molly Kate, the youngest member of the family, is now nearly sixteen but graduating from home-school with sufficient credits to enter her sophomore year of college. Her play on the fiddle and her much improved stage presence show the intelligence behind them. Skip Cherryholmes is more than a Flow Rider surfer. Both his rhythm guitar and his aggressive flat picking add drive and strength to the band. Cia Cherryholmes, thin and wraithlike with her black hair and piercing red lips, continues her strong vocals and fine harmony. Her harmony work has received great recognition as she sings on many albums fronted by other musicians. Her banjo play remains excellent. Mother Sandy Leigh, who provided much of the early instruction and organization for this band continues to offer her high energy and mature voice, while father Jere emcees and offers what passes for humor with this band. As the interaction between the younger members has increased on-stage, his peculiar brand of humor has become less necessary. One of the real pleasures of this cruise has been the opportunity to interact with the kids in a more informal setting where they can be the enthusiastic young people they are. Their increasing interest in broader approaches to the music will bear careful watching as they continue to grow.

Sandy Leigh and Jere Cherryholmes

Cia Cherryholmes

As the evening ended, a number of fans and musicians retired to one of the shipboard bars for some impromptu music making while we headed for bed. Haiti and the private beach at Labadee tomorrow.

Steve Wallach