There is a very close legacy link between country music and the Cayman Islands. Before Radio Cayman began to broadcast in 1976, music and song came in the form of vinyl records played on jukeboxes in bars and nightclubs. The majority of that recorded music was country … true country music, not the mainstream “hip-hop with a fiddle” music that comes out of Nashville these days.
The few tourists visiting back then found it peculiar when hearing fiddles, steel guitar and a banjo on a tropical island rather than the customary calypso, reggae and ska.
How did this come to be, when other nearby islands swayed to the rhythms of the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Kitchener and Marley? For the Caymanian men, before tourism and banking, the main source of making a living was turtling, farming or working as mariners on the huge ships that sailed the globe.
Music on the waves
Oil tankers, container vessels and even military craft preferred Caymanian seafarers over any other sailors. Often the men would be away from home and family for months (sometimes years) at a time. It was a lonely occupation.
To pass the time, the sailors would listen to stations broadcasting music from the U.S., for these stations were powerful enough to reach a ship in the mid-Atlantic or in the Gulf of Mexico, and they played strictly country and gospel. WSM from Nashville or KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, were the main contenders.
At the time, KWKH had the authorization to broadcast with 50,000 watts, and such power would reach far, especially at night. The tear-jerking lyrics of George Jones, Kitty Wells or Charlie Pride fused with aloneness and a vast boundless ocean could melt the hearts of the manliest of men.
When they made port, they would purchase vinyl recordings of their favorite songs and spin them on a record player when the ship was too far at sea to pick up a signal. Their record collection would eventually find itself under the needle of some Wurlitzer jukebox on Grand Cayman or the Brac.
Randy Davidson, a former part-owner of Treasure Island hotel, was so taken aback by the Caymanians’ love for country music that he had a number of Nashville celebrities invest in his hotel, including Conway Twitty and Randy Travis. There were even dive boats named after the stars.
Mr. Davidson was, at the time, one of Nashville’s biggest music distributors. With his Nashville connections and love for the island, he arranged to have Cayman’s legendary fiddler Radley Gourzong perform on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, and for local country singer Andy Martin to obtain a front-row seat at the 1985 Country Music Association awards.
Andy (The Cayman Cowboy) Martin spent some 15 years traveling the seven seas. A good portion of his duties as an oiler with the National Bulk Ship agency required nothing more than to stay awake and remain alert, which gave him lots of time to strum his guitar and mimic his favorite Nashville singers. Since then, he has recorded five albums, and from those recordings there have been several local and international hits. Martin’s original “Letter from the Sea” is considered the unofficial anthem of the merchant seaman. At a recent performance in the Bay Islands, hundreds of teary eyed ex-mariners could be seen singing along to every line of the melancholy sea shanty.
Country in the Caribbean
The Caribbean island of St. Lucia is so crazy for country music, its buses are named after Jim Reeves songs and its radio stations blare out Tammy Wynette. The country music connection came to be when the U.S. military had more than 4,000 enlisted men stationed on the island during the 1940s. They brought guitars, fiddles, cowboy hats and a vast repertoire of country music.
Today, many St. Lucians are remarkably picky when it comes to the actual country music they like; they’re uninterested in latter-day Nashville stars, obsessed instead with country tunes from between the 1950s and the 1970s. They just do not think modern country is really country at all; it sounds like rock music to them. They’re completely loyal to that old-fashioned aesthetic and extremely diehard. Not just the old folks, but the kids too. It’s not unusual in St. Lucia to go to a karaoke bar and see teenagers singing classic songs by Johnny Cash or Ernest Tubb.
A wonderful thing about country music – it shifts, ebbs, and flows dramatically in moods from calm to harsh … much like the sea that surrounds us.
“If you talk bad about country music, it’s like saying bad things about my momma. Them’s fightin’ words.” – Dolly Parton