The late summer sun is setting on the southeast Texas peninsula beach getaway known as Crystal Beach. Famously detailed in Hayes Carll’s early work and vividly in Guy Clark’s “South Coast of Texas”, it is a rough patch of land with a rough patch of characters attempting to alter its image. Post-last hurricane, it is cleaning things up and attempting to go (somewhat) upscale. It hasn’t lost all of its white trash charm yet though. For example, one observation I noted while spending time on the public beaches where they allow parking and cruising right on the water, was that seemingly every confederate flag that had been removed in South Carolina had relocated to the surprisingly clean sand of Crystal Beach. In the shadows of multi-million dollar and $500,000 beach condos it was an odd, continual sight. Not saying it’s right or wrong…just odd.
Upon arrival at our weekend lodging, I found it flooded it out due to a cleaning mishap and the harried, white haired owner covered in soaked clothes scrambling to clean it up. As I parked and exited my car, he hollered at me, “You the one ‘sposed to stay here?” After an uneasy affirmative reply, he shouted over the sound of shopvacs and chaos that it was going to be unusable and that I should immediately head to the property management office to see if they could help me out. I rambled up to the office, down the road in the nicest strip mall on the peninsula, anchored by a Sherwin Williams and a liquor store. True symbolism of the Bolivar’s upwardly mobile progress. Construction and good times. Making ugly things prettier.
The kind blonde secretary with a natural tan called all over the island to find us a suitable place to stay. At one point, after a fruitless 15 minutes, she suggested they could get us a room at the local motel. My weary look and reply of ” I only know one motel down here and it’s not exactly a place you stay at on purpose…” made her chuckle and she went back to attempting to find us a spot. Just then she stumbled upon a possible solution. One of their big, Jay-Z level properties right on the water that sleeps 12 was coming open that afternoon. They would happily upgrade me to that for no fee since they felt so bad about our situation. This couldn’t be working out any better I thought to myself. Just as we were getting ready to grab the keys and head that direction, her phone rang. Her smile slowly turned to the flatline emoji before settling on a frown. Seems as though that was the de facto Jay-Z and he had decided to fly down for the weekend since the property wasn’t booked and he’d be there in a couple hours.
Back to the drawing board. Just about that time, another phone call…this time from the harried white haired cleaner of an hour ago. He felt so bad about ruining our trip plans that he’d decided to let us have his house for the weekend. A definite and welcomed upgrade. Texas hospitality knows no bounds really. As we returned to the scene of the flood, his only instructions for our stay at his luxurious pad was to “stay out of my liquor!”. Done deal (we had our own).
The trip had been planned months ago as a guys trip to clear the noggin, cleanse the soul, cast the past into the Gulf and spring back on to the ferry with optimism for the future. As the departure date grew nearer our numbers grew fewer, but enough of us held it together to make this a worthwhile adventure. We were excited to begin. Fishing and beaching would wait for me. The date of this adventure had been planned around seeing one of my friends perform at a local restaurant/bar/grill that I’d heard wonderful things about. A rare two-night stand at the same venue. Old school. Jimmy Buffett may very well be a pirate looking at forty, but Drew Kennedy is a poet looking at 35.
DK had headed down to the Bolivar after picking up his family at the airport. The bar had been double booked and Drew had been bounced to the upstairs deck for the night. This turned out to be a fortuitous blessing. I’ve seen hundreds of gigs, but very few have had a setting as peaceful, pleasant and poetic as this one would turn out to be. A small, but passionate crowd had turned out solely to hear Drew play his songs. That did not stop a few unfamiliar folks from strolling in to yell out requests for Robert Earl Keen, Waylon, Willie, Guy Clark, Charlie Robison and more. Some were obliged outright. Others ignored. Still others were given an alternative treatment of Johnny Cash. Yet, admirably, Drew continued to play his songs. He’s a true songwriter. As I said, a poet. He has crafted a catalog of songs that are as strong and diverse as he is. A mountain of music full of wit, intelligence, heart, and melody. A folk singer playing his songs in a Buffett setting. It was as if time had reversed itself. Prior to becoming a margarita-casino-lifestyle conglomerate Buffett too was a folk singer. And he would’ve dug what DK was providing on this night as the sun set over his right shoulder, the seagulls sang along off key and the large ships traveled through the Intercoastal with a hearty hornblow of appreciation from time to time. Leftover Independence Day fireworks blasted in the distance behind us as the Kemah behemouths boomed in the far expanse ahead. It was a Norman Rockwell scene. If Rockwell painted folk singers playing on the bay in front of loyal friends and fans.
On the way down south, my inbox had been infiltrated by a message from a young ingenue. A 21 year old aspiring female country singer who was also going to be on the peninsula, had mutual friends and a shared admiration of Drew Kennedy (mainly due to his production work for Courtney Patton). She wanted to come to the show, pick my brain about her career and meet DK. Sure, I told her. She showed up in a flowy dress and had a sprinkling of tasteful ink on her arms. She drank Tito’s and Red Bull. So young. So green. Her questions and reactions reminded me of so many other young artists I’ve seen, both male and female, at the dawn of a dark highway they still see as basking under a full moon. I cringed when she requested Drew play “Wagon Wheel”. I cringed harder when she mentioned that “Angel From Montgomery” was an underused cover song. She played me a few of her originals. They were honestly pretty good. She had something there. I gave her some advice and hope to hear positive news from her if/when I run into her again.
After bidding the Stingaree adieu, we headed for some late night beachin’. The moon was quartered, the sky was dark and the beach was light. It was the perfect set up for contemplation. The beach was cleaner than I’d seen it in many, many years. The locals told us it was due to all the rains of early summer. It allowed me to make a righteous sand pillow. So, with my feet in the water, head on the ground, eyes on the sky and ears on Dawes –All Your Favorite Bands, I began to think. The people around me were tuned out. The headlights of ATV’s, trucks, cars, and the like were ignored as I truly began to do some Gulf meditation. 2015 has been a rough year for me. It’s had its share of blessings, but the scale has been tipped in the way of hardship for much of it. I’ve found fewer locales more beneficial to self-reflection and projection than the ocean waters. As the surf crashed, the guitars softly blared and the party happened around me I just relaxed. I let go of so much. I stared at the stars and wondered how different the view would have been in 2014; and what it will look like in 2016.
Soon, my phone was buzzing continually from notifications that my buddy’s were having great success with their night fishing expedition. The sun would be up soon, and so would I, so we hitched it on back to the borrowed beds, but no-borrowed liquor condo. Contentment and peace as we drifted off as you only can down in the salt life meccas.
Morning arrived soon enough and I was on the hunt for caffeine and tacos. I ended up in line at Dannay’s Donuts. It was no Shinyribs Palace, but it would have to do. The pleasant Vietnamese immigrant, possibly Dannay, that waited on me couldn’t have been nicer. The food wasn’t as nice…but it did it’s job. On return to the condo I was greeted by our extremely friendly host who informed me that the best places to go are Dannay’s for coffee and the trailer at the Big Store for tacos. Mentally filed away for next time. A quick change back in to beach attire and we were off to the water again. The beach in sunlight is definitely a different vibe than late night.
Splashing in knee-high. Casting in waist-high. Good-timing in it all. The funny thing about beaching is the pace of the clock. It runs faster or slower than anywhere else in the world depending on what you have planned. Slow when fishing. Fast when splashing. I borrowed a kid’s body board and lamely surfed around as only a mid 30’s white guy with years of rust can. I didn’t eat it too hard, and had a fun time. I was transplanted back to my youth in the moment and my present in my later soreness. Oddly, there were way less cruisers during our day trip as we saw at night time. The people that were cruising the Bolivar used every manner of contraption imaginable. Jeep, Razr, 4-wheeler, golf cart, truck, car, motorcycle, horse and buggy, donkeys, ligers, snowskis and snowdogs. Only 3 of those are made up. And one is not skis.
Being this far south, it only felt appropriate to have siesta time. After some quick shuteye, we utilized our dock/cleaning station area to get in a little channel fishing. Trout were plentiful despite the neighbor kids having more fun in the water than most adults I witnessed all weekend. Good for you kids. And thank you trout.
That beach timing almost snuck on us as Drew’s second set was soon to begin and we needed to hustle back to the Stingaree. I say we, but it ended up only being me. My crew decided to keep fishing and then head to the venerable Ship’s Wheel with some locals we had met. They were truly experiencing Crystal Beach. Ship’s Wheel looks like one of the places the Time Bandit crew grabs a beer in before Opi season. I decided to pass and head back to Stingaree for round 2 of DK, new friends, fantastic food and marvelous views once more. Setting up a PA, selling merch, conversation. All under control.
Tonight’s folk extravaganza would be in the larger room downstairs with scenic views and loud conversations. A juxtaposition from the night before, but allowing for the more amped up version of a DK show. Drew started his set with a flurry of some of his best and for the second evening in a row, “Hello Goodbye” was the tune that captured the room’s attention and caused relative bar silence to happen. I’ve said this and have heard many other musicians claim, as well, that Drew Kennedy’s acoustic guitar tone is second to none. He has discovered a set-up that makes him sound fantastic no matter the PA, room or situation. This was no different. His retro coiled amp cord cut through the bay air with ferocious, yet intentful soundwaves. Drew’s booming baritone blared over the roar of the waves, jokes, lies, waitresses and friends. A happy birthday sing-along, a Waylon cover and a run through about 25 of Drew’s best songs made him 2 for 2 at owning Stingaree during this late July series.
Goodbyes were said and the beach was once again the destination. Less crowded and even fewer cruisers than earlier in the day. Just as Drew had sequeled his previous night, we did too. Gulf, tunes, soft and short conversations mixed with thought. Dawes was once again our main soundtrack. Thinking man’s folk rock. The moon was a little less bright tonight, but that only made the stars more vivid. The towers of Galveston glistened to our right. The abyss stretched in front of us for thousands of miles. Certainty beside us, a blank slate in front of us. A metaphor for all lives, but especially the one I’m currently leading. I thought of my kids and how I hope they will enjoy such simple pleasures…and how I hope to share experiences like this with them as they grow. I thought of friends lost, friends found and friends in limbo. I thought of many things. This was no weekend jaunt to the coast just to have fun. This was a purposeful beach rendezvous. As Coach Taylor once said, “Clear eyes, full hearts can’t lose.” That’s not just a silly motivational ploy for a tremendous fictional football team; it reflects to life too. Sometimes we have to get away to recharge. Everybody’s gotta get away sometime, Pat Green once sang.
This was my sometime…until the next time.
Morning was upon us before we knew it and it was time to say adios. A quick clean-up and inventory of our host’s liquor later and we were Galveston ferry bound. Despairs of the past left in Crystal Beach. Positive vibes awaiting us at Galveston. Northbound 45 to the tunes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. All the contemplation had led to hope and acceptance.