In the aftermath of Katrina, we heard a lot about its effects on the long musical tradition of New Orleans, a tradition that’s still struggling to find its feet. That city was spared from Hurricane Ike last weekend; instead, the winds came ashore on the Gulf coast of Texas, a wonderfully stubborn and weird region with just as many musical landmarks to lose. Here’s two worth remembering:
As the storm swept across Galveston, it took with it the Balinese Room, a notorious nightclub and former illegal gambling hall built on a pier over the Gulf, whose history stretched back to the ’20s. The inspiration for ZZ Top’s “Balinese,” over the years the club welcomed top-shelf performers like Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Duke Ellington — and my father, a bassist with the Houston Symphony, who used to play dance band gigs there. The Texas Rangers (not the baseball players, the lawmen) (yes, they totally do exist) eventually wielded their considerable powers to get the gambling shut down in 1957, but after a 2001 renovation, the joint reopened as a restaurant and live music venue. My dad’s got a poker chip to mark its history; otherwise, there’s not much left but the pilings.
Ike was even crueler to the communities of the Bolivar Peninsula, particularly Crystal Beach, a former Prohibition-era smuggling spot that was completely decimated. Of that lost land, we have another, more vital cultural artifact: The music of singer-songwriter Hayes Carll, a Houston native who spent four years writing songs in the bars of Crystal Beach, honed his performance skills in front of its ill-tempered crowds, and hosts (hosted?) a music festival on its shores. Carll’s third album, Trouble in Mind, scored an A- from EW’s Ken Tucker when it was released earlier this year, and last night, his brilliant “She Left Me for Jesus” (co-written with Brian Keane, former banjo wizard of my favorite NYC-based bluegrass band, Red Rooster) won the Americana Music Association’s award for Song of the Year. Certainly hope that cheered poor Hayes a bit, as I can only imagine he’s had a crap week.
I’ve embedded a live performance of “She Left Me for Jesus” below; give a listen, and spend a couple minutes of your day honoring a place that, for the moment at least, lives on only in musical spirit. If I know my fellow Texans, though, it’ll be back. Takes more than that to keep us down. We were a country once, you know.