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Seaworthy Sound

Laura MacQueen Saunders, Class of 2001

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For Laura MacQueen Saunders ’01, most facts surrounding a memory – her age, grade or whether the leaves were green, golden or gone – don’t help her pinpoint that memory in time. Instead, she recalls the memory’s sound, the album she played incessantly at the time, now whirring on in her mind.

Then, she looks up the album’s release date.

“It’s the soundtrack of my life,” says Saunders, whose day job is to create unforgettable music festivals on cruise ships and sail the high seas with the Atlanta-based Sixthman.

Each with a unique theme, Sixthman cruises feature singer-songwriters, Southern and alternative rock acts, Elvis tributes and more. But the true purpose, according to Saunders, is bringing together musicians and their devoted fans.

The psychology major entered music promotion and management after interning with a record label in Asheville, N.C., and managing a major tour. After six weeks of living on a bus with two touring rock bands – Wideawake and the Zac Brown Band – Saunders had found her calling.

“They were really a sweet group of guys. I only had to throw one guy’s suitcase off the bus before he started picking up after himself,” she laughs.

In her current role as operations director, Saunders is like the sixth man coming off the bench to bolster a basketball team or a band’s elusive yet indispensible tour manager. She excels behind the scenes, giving Sixthman’s sailing guests a memorable and “seamless” musical experience. With many helping hands, she ensures the show will go on – that artists perform on time, that the bingo event always has enough tables and that any number of other magical moments “go off without a hitch.

“The festival flows very much like a land-based festival,” with 20 to 35 artists performing on stages all over the ship, she explains. But on a Sixthman cruise, unlike a land event, rock stars and their fans voluntarily maroon themselves at sea for days of rocking out. In that environment, “everyone is taken so far out of their element,” that there’s more chance for spontaneous interaction between musicians and fans.

“One night, Kid Rock decided he wanted to DJ. He gets on the ship’s loudspeaker and tells everyone to wake up and come up to the Lido Deck. People showed up in their pajamas and partied for hours,” she recalls.

And the other artists who’ve hosted – including Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Barenaked Ladies – do their part to cook up their own memorable moments, from Guitar Hero tournaments to omelet-and-trivia parties.“You can’t help but feel you’re being let in on some kind of secret,” says Saunders of the impromptu jam sessions that erupt all over the boat for nearby listeners to enjoy. “It takes a very special artist to do an event like ours. They have to be in touch with the people who love their music.”

Saunders has had a few “fan” moments of her own while sailing. Recently, she attended a thank-you party thrown by singer Brandi Carlile for the Sixthman staff. When Saunders stepped off the elevator, she couldn’t believe who was holding open the door to Carlile’s suite, ushering her inside: country music legend Lyle Lovett, a personal favorite.

“I hemmed and hawed,” she remembers. “If I’d wanted to say more to him, I wouldn’t have gotten it out.”Still more rewarding, however, is seeing other people “so blown away by that moment.”

After all, it’s moments like those that make memories unforgettable – just like her favorite songs.

– Jamie Self ’02