I can't believe all these people came out,” said John Evans, surveying the scene at the first-ever Stingaree Music Festival in not-so-warm, definitely-not-sunny Crystal Beach, Texas. And all things considered, there was a pretty damn good turnout for this thing a couple of hundred people bundled up in winter clothes piled into lawn chairs in front of a stage in a muddy pasture outside a tiki bar about ten miles from the ferry landing and a half mile from the beach.
The brainchild of former Bolivar resident Hayes Carll, the weekend-long festival's lineup included everyone from Evans and fellow Houstonians in Medicine Show to Ray Wylie Hubbard, the Gougers, Todd Snider and Stone Coyotes.
As a long-standing lover of all things Bolivar Peninsula, I thought it would make for a killer family music weekend, especially when Carll told me I could use the beach house that he had reserved for the brass at his Nashville label Lost Highway, who, presciently, decided they would not be able to attend. We my wife, ten-year-old son John Henry and two-year-old daughter Harriet, and I would spend mornings at the beach building sandcastles and frolicking in the brown waves before heading over to the 57-acre venue around lunchtime. We would stay there as long as the kids could stand it, and then I could stay a little longer and get the scoop.
Stingaree Music Festival
That was the plan, anyway. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to lift her dress and whizz all over it. Well, maybe that's an unfortunate image actually, it didn't rain, at least not all that much. It was cold as a well-digger's ass, though, and the mean old wind never once died down. It only changed direction.
Our family is never well-prepared when we go away, least of all for this trip. But we had an excuse this time. Was it not April? Were we not going to the beach? Isn't it always 80 degrees this time of the year? Amid the usual bickering that accompanies our packing the car to go anywhere further away than the corner H-E-B, neither of the adults consulted the weather.
And it didn't seem that bad on Friday night. We arrived at the venue to pick up our tickets and keys at about 9 p.m., and there was a stiff wind, but it was blowing off the Gulf. The skies were overcast, though, and Carll's manager Mike Crowley was nervous. “We built a tent out in the pasture way back there,” he said, when I asked him why all the customers were vanishing between a line of trucks behind the tiki bar. He asked if I had any news about the weather. I didn't, really, but I assured him it would get better. This was April in Texas, after all. The winds would cease, the sun would shine, we would come back tomorrow and a great time would be had by all.
In fact, the temperature was high enough to sleep on the front porch of the beach house, which was exactly what I attempted to do. And sure enough, the wind ceased abruptly at two a.m., which enabled a cloud of sand fleas to emerge from the dunes and attack every millimeter of exposed flesh on my body. I staggered inside where I passed the rest of the night on the couch.
I rose at dawn the next day to find that the wind had started up again, except this time it was coming in hard and steady and cold from the north. I piled on two layers of T-shirts and a guayabera to go with my shorts and sandals and hoped for the best. After a cold morning building sandcastles in the lee of a man-made dune, we headed down to the venue for lunch.
If you've never been to Bolivar, you really should go now, before the developers (or a hurricane) ruin it. Bolivar's population consists of shrimpers, Texas Cajuns and salt-crusted libertarians. Right now, it is relatively unspoiled, a couple dozen miles of ramshackle beach shacks and mom-and-pop shops and bars. In fact, the only chains I saw over the course of two days there were a Subway and a RadioShack, which was tucked away in what can only be described as the “Bol-Mart,” a huge, independently owned gas station/grocery store/beach supply/beer-‘n'-cigs emporium.
At any rate, by this time, there was some talk of abandoning the tent in the pasture, as the threat of rain had mostly passed, to be replaced with a concern that the wind might crumple the tent. Despite the fact that the event was immensely family-friendly, John Henry and Harriet were not too enthused by the idea of standing around in a 30-mph norther all afternoon, so I ferried them back to the beach house after a lunch of various fried things, and we all passed the afternoon listening to the beach house wobble, creak and groan.
About five, I headed back to the Tiki Bar and Grill. I had a story to write, after all. I would try to find some winter clothes here on the peninsula. And I soon found there were none to be had they had all been mothballed for next year. (If, on the other hand, I wanted a $35 Hawaiian shirt or a $20 floppy straw hat with a slogan like “Crystal Beach a quaint little drinking village with a serious fishing problem,” I would have been in like Flynn. The Bol-Mart's racks were stuffed with this sort of thing.)
My only alternative would be the old-school one drink enough booze to numb the cold. But I didn't have a designated driver, and I have a rule about driving drunk: Don't do it. Especially not at night, in high wind, on a two-lane highway, in an unfamiliar town full of cops. (I imagined being taken to the pokey in Galveston via some kind of middle passage on the ferry, and it didn't seem like much fun.)
But wait there was one last chance for warmth. All of the artists on the bill had joined forces at the swag table, which was piled high with hats, CDs and other such sundries, including clothing. “All right, who has the warmest merch?” I asked one of the ladies there. With a straight face she offered me a pink beach towel. All right, bartender, make that Jack on the rocks a double, please, and give me a Shiner Bock on the side.
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Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans took the stage. “We thought we left this weather behind us up north,” said Lund, in a Canuck accent that would do Gordon Lightfoot proud. And his rollicking, twin-guitar, slap-bass attack set a few of the hardier souls in the windswept mud field dancing. I ran into Carll's former guitarist Lance Smith in the crowd, and he was bundled up in both sensible clothes and a not-so-sensible liquid parka. “Me and my buddy have been on the beach all day boilin' crawfish and drinkin' wine,” he explained. “And tonight we're gonna build a huuuge fire! I got so much fuckin' wood it's pitiful.”
Evans had just finished his set, at which he had stripped down to nothing more than his nuthuggers, so the cold didn't impress him that much. He was, however, as mentioned, pretty amazed by the turn-out. And the bar must have been, too, as many of those who would have spent the whole fest in front of the stage had repaired inside, where they hoisted one drink after another. In fact, it was not yet sundown, and at one table a group of raucous fiftysomethings, some clad like KGB agents in fur-lined leather jackets and Russian astrakhans, were already autographing the panties of a woman who had put them outside of her jeans. Don't ask why; their martinis did look pretty damn dry.
By this time, though, the wind had only intensified. Now it was blowing grit into my eyes. Lund was onstage singing a song about how “Good Copenhagen is better than bad cocaine.” Truer words were never spoken, but cold grit blowing in your eyes is infinitely worse than both, so I hauled my dripping nose and bluish extremities back to the beach house, where I decided it was as good a time as ever to teach my wife and son to play poker. We used raisins for chips.
While I was there, I did get to talk to Carll a bit, and he didn't seem too disheartened by the whole cold reverse-hurricane thing. And while we were chatting, a well-wisher came up and said, “Hey, Hayes, don't let this weather get you down. You better do this again next year.” And indeed he should. This year's model might not have been the fun family fiesta I had hoped for, but the people who could drink all day and night and build huuugge fires on the beach seemed to be having a blast.