While other Caribbean islands were built on the rhythms of reggae and soca, Cayman’s distinct roots grew from gospel and country music.
Country music first made its fiddles and guitars heard in these islands in the early 20th century. During that time, the main source of income was turtling, farming or working as a seafarer on the huge ships that sailed the world.
“Oftentimes the men would be away from home and family for months and sometimes years,” said Cayman country pioneer George “Barefoot Man” Nowak. “It was a lonely occupation, so to pass the time, the sailors would listen to stations broadcasting music from the USA. These stations were powerful enough to reach a ship in the mid-Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico, and they played strictly country and gospel.
“The tear-jerking lyrics of George Jones, Kitty Wells or Charlie Pride fused with loneliness 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 favourite 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 at the bottom end of a needle in some Wurlitzer jukebox on Grand Cayman or the Brac. 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,” said Nowak.
His historical knowledge is supported by native Caymanians’ memories of days gone by. In fact, generational seaman and Radio Cayman host for the last 40 years, Loxley Banks, witnessed his father bringing home the songs that helped build the foundation of Cayman country.
“My father was a seaman,” said Banks. “When he passed away, we went through his papers and found an official British Council document, dated 1915, that listed his age as 12 years old. This document … gave him permission to leave on a Cayman schooner and join an American schooner in Tampa, Florida, where the British Council was stationed at the time.
“So, he was a seaman all his life, from the age of 12. I remember him trying to get home at Christmas and he would usually come home with a stack of … at that time it was 78 rpm records … and those records were made of slate or clay and they would break easily. It took him great pains to get them home without [them cracking].”
But the music that stole the hearts of many back in the day wasn’t only played on slate records. “I think Cayman‘s affinity with country music goes way back,” added Banks. “If you can imagine the Cayman Islands after World War I, which ended in 1918, and right at the beginning of World War II, they called them ‘The islands that time forgot’. In that era I believe there would have been maybe one or two radios in each district.
“We could receive some of the signals from Jamaica, but the main radio contacts at that time were with XERF in Del Rio, Texas, WCKY in Cincinnati, Ohio, WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, and there was another station in Louisiana. They were mainly designated ‘clear channel stations’, [meaning that] no other station could occupy that frequency within thousands of miles’ radius. All those stations that I mentioned played country music, or folk music.
“Every house that had a radio, [would have] lots of people gathered around. Most times the radio could be moved, so whoever had it would bring the radio out on the porch where everyone would be sitting around to hear it,” Banks said.
The Cayman Cowboy, Andy Martin, is one of only a handful of seamen who travelled the seven seas while making country and western music on those journeys. Martin served as an oiler seaman for some 15 years and has been singing country folk songs since 1972. He penned an ode to the seamen, titled ‘A Letter From Sea’ in 1975. This has become an unofficial seamen’s anthem and is his biggest hit to date. He has recorded five albums in a musical career spanning over three decades.
“Growing up in the ‘50s when I was a boy on the Brac, I listened to Charlie Pride and George Jones,” said Martin. “Those guys were big stars back then and still are up to this day. But I just love country music, because it’s all I listened to when I was growing up.”
While Cayman country dates back to the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the cultural music still lives on through artists like Stacey Tibbetts, Bob Moseley, Andy Martin, George Nowak, Raymond Scott, Chuck and Barrie Quappe, Dalmain Ebanks, Dexter Bodden and Steve McTaggart, among many others, some who have passed on and some who continue to create new lyrical melodies heard throughout the Cayman Islands.
Did you know?
- Local country singer Andy Martin obtained a front row seat at the Country Music Association awards in 1985.
- Caymanian fiddler and seafarer Radley Gourzong was, and still is, the only Caymanian who has performed on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.