Yes, Port Arthur is a blighted town, one called a “hellhole” by gangstariffic NBA star and native son Steven Jackson, a little slice of East St. Louis ringed by some of the most fearsome, toxin-belching refineries on planet Earth. We know all that, but here’s the thing: Port Arthur’s got more soul than any town in Texas, as attested to by the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame at the Museum of the Gulf Coast.
Billing itself as the place “where pre-history and pop culture meet,” the MGC’s Hall of Fame spotlights the chemical coast’s contributions to American music, and they have been many and diverse. (The museum's scope takes in a swath of I-10 roughly from Houston east to Baton Rouge.)
The newest of the 60-plus inductees is UGK, PA's Grammy-winning rap duo. (Bun B attended the ceremony earlier this year along with members of the late Pimp C's family.)
Pimp C was only 33 when he died in 2007, and tragedy stalks this pantheon's exhibits. On a solo album a few years back, Bun B sampled a bloodcurdling shriek from a fellow inductee: blues-rock belter Janis Joplin, perhaps Port Arthur's most famous musical export worldwide and the driver of a riotously painted hippie art car on display at the museum. Joplin's penchant for pills and Southern Comfort ushered her to the grave at 27.
A generation before, hard-drinking Cajun fiddler Harry Choates outlived Joplin by a mere two years. The man who did more than anyone else to make "Jolie Blon" the Cajun national anthem died drunk in an Austin jail cell. He reportedly had sold the rights to his eternal hit for $100 and a bottle of rotgut.
It's not all doom and gloom, and what amazes so much about the inductees is the range of genres our salt- and petroleum-coated coastline has produced.
One-time Port Arthur resident Clifton Chenier lived long enough to be crowned the King of Zydeco in the 1960s and did more than anyone else the genre from South Louisiana and East Texas to the world.
Big Thicket-bred George Jones can stake a claim as the finest male honky-tonk singer who ever lived. Houston's own ZZ Top are solid fixtures of the classic rock canon. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown fused Cajun, Creole, country, blues and jazz into a style all his own, one he called "American music, Texas style." The hall also honors pretty much every "swamp pop" hitmaker of note; the heavily Fats Domino-influenced 1950s music gave the world "Sea of Love," "Mathilda," and the Beatles' "Oh Darling!"
Away from the music, other wings of the museum explore the area’s natural history, sports heroes, and the works of Port Arthur’s most anomalous native son: artist Robert Rauschenberg.
Once you've got your mental fill of all this Gulf Coast culture and history, match a meal to the museum.
If you are on a budget, head across town to the Boudain Hut and enjoy some of the best boudain balls in the world, a burger and a cold beer in a laid-back dive that is open every hour the law allows a bar to be open. (7 A.M. to 2 A.M.). High-end diners can opt for the Beau Reve (“Beautiful Dream” for you non-Francophones.) Housed in an old mansion on the outskirts of town, Beau Reve offers Pontchartrain-stuffed filets, moquecca (creamy Brazilian-style shrimp soup), and shrimp and lump crab salads.
Museum of the Gulf Coast
700 Procter Street
5714 Gulfway Drive