Mourning the Loss of Bolivar
During a concert last month in London, Hayes Carll held up a British newspaper to the crowd and pointed out a front-page photo. The photo showed a lion holed up in a church on a largely abandoned Crystal Beach after Hurricane Ike. "I took it out to explain to them that this is where I came from," he says. "Though I'm not sure if they got it."
Carll says the lion was a regular at his shows when he was in his 20s and began playing songs at Bob's Sports Bar & Famous Grill. "It added a Gladiator kind of vibe to my shows," he says. The lion's owner would park behind the stage where the lion could be seen in a cage in his truck through a window. The scene is referenced in I Got a Gig, a song from Carll's most recent album: "There's an old lion tamer parked behind the bar."
It's one of a handful of Carll's songs specifically about the Bolivar Peninsula, and he points out that several reference the region. Gig celebrates the area that was devastated by the storm, whereas his Highway 87 is markedly darker.
"It's unlike any place I've ever been or will ever go again," he says. "A lot of really colorful characters mixed in with lots of good hard-working people. It made for a unique town.
"I think any place on the water tends to be different. Bolivar in particular, because it felt remote. It wasn't far away from the city, but it felt worlds away. I'd take the boat to get there, and by the time I got to my front porch, the rest of the world would disappear."
Carll, who grew up in The Woodlands, lived on Bolivar for more than three years after he'd squeaked through college. His late grandmother had a home on Crystal Beach, and his family also owned a home there. Like most everything else on the peninsula, both homes were washed away by the storm. His family members are all safe, though he recognized some of the names listed as missing.
He was in Europe when the storm hit. "It was particularly surreal being away," he says. "You just want to be there because you feel so helpless when your town's washing away. Then I was just trying to find out how the family was. What had happened. We have a lot of memories out there. It's hard to think it's just gone."
Carll hasn't been back to Galveston or Bolivar. He just got back to his home in Austin last week and had just a week to rest before getting back on the road. He'll be back in the area this weekend to play the Conroe Cajun Catfish Festival. He says his father went to Crystal Beach and found next to nothing left.
"The entire neighborhood was washed away, but you could find something like a bedspread or a spoon that you knew belonged to your house," he says. "But a clawfoot bathtub, the house, all the heavy stuff, there's not a sign of it. Not a single board. But then there'd be something like my dad's fishing pole. It doesn't seem to make sense."
Another place Carll found footing as a performer was at Rex Bell's Old Quarter in Galveston. An early report suggested the club had been knocked down during the storm. But the building is still standing, minus more than 30 years of memorabilia related to artists such as Lightnin' Hopkins, Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley.
He says he and musician Jesse Dayton are talking about a benefit to help Bell rebuild. Carll says his next video, for Don't Let Me Fall, will be a tribute to Bolivar. And he's already trying to figure out how to increase the visibility of his Stingaree Festival, a multiday music event he's held annually on Crystal Beach the past couple of years. He wants to see if he can get bigger names that could draw more fans. It's too early to tell whether it could be held next year on Bolivar, but he says wherever it's held it will be a benefit for the peninsula.
"Whether this is feasible or not, I don't know," he says. "But that place is incredibly special to me, and it's hard to put into words the feelings it evoked."