Hayes Carll, the Balinese Room, and Hurricane Ike

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.

Comments (9 total) Add your comment
  • KLF

    Whitney, I knew you were good people when you said you were from Texas. I was born and raised in Port Arthur, also on the coast. The Balinese was more than a club to me, it was part of my youth as we spend every summer at Crystal Beach, just across the ferry. So much history and fantastic performers and so many people had no idea it was there! My Dad told me the story of the gambling days and all the gaming was in the far end of the club. When the Texas Rangers would show up, the band would strike up “The Eyes of Texas” making it impossible to get to the gamers before they could get rid of the evidence!
    Everybody knows….it was down at the Balinese!

  • Jenny

    I knew you were my favorite Pop Watcher for a reason, Whitney. I’m from Beaumont, just a hop, skip and a jump from Crystal Beach, and my summers will never be the same. It’s hard to believe that I can’t just drive down Hwy 87, hop on the ferry and go shop out on The Strand, visit Moody Gardens or just hang out on the seawall. So many beautiful landmarks lost, it breaks my heart.

  • Roads

    With its coastal villages a universe away from the metropolitan chaos across the bay, the Bolivar Peninsula embodies the charm and soul of a favorite pair of ragged, cutoff shorts. But sooner or later you know every garment gives up the ghost. So you pay your respects then grab some new jeans and put them under the scissors; buzz saws and nail guns will be Bolivar’s equivalents. Though not the same as the old, “new construction” will soon feel broken-in and comfortable. To put it another way, Willie Nelson looks weird when he shaves his beard– but we know it’ll grow back. Thanks for turning me on to Hayes Carll.

  • ashley

    Not only were we once a country, we are also the only state with the b**ls to name toast after ourselves.

  • Stef

    Amen. I just got my power back after 9 days, and it’s great to find this wonderful tribute. God Bless Texas!

  • Crystal

    Congrats Stef!
    I hope your friends and family back home are good. It’s hard to imagine when I go home for Christmas I won’t be able to go to The Strand or Moody Gardens on a daytrip.
    Thanks for the youtube link :)

  • Megan

    I know – no Dickens on the Strand this year! And who knows how long the Grand will be closed.

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