For longtime residents of this part of Coryell County, the Pearl Bluegrass Jam and Stage Show isn’t just about music. It’s also a chance to see one another, socialize and celebrate an event that has kept their town alive.
The Pearl Community Center used to be Pearl School. This building dates to July 1917, when local voters passed a $4,000 bond to build a school, according to the Texas State Historical Association. The brick building was used as a school until 1956, when it graduated its last class; that year, Pearl consolidated with Evant, says Ronald Medart, who helped start the bluegrass jam in October 1997. Medart, a member of Hamilton County Electric Cooperative Association, was part of the class of 1955.
At the community center, walls are still covered with photos of Pearl’s former students. Some of them come regularly to the monthly bluegrass festival. Many of the women in Pearl, including alumni of the school, are members of the “Pearl, Pleasure and Profit” quilting group, which has been quilting together since the 1930s.
Each month, the quilters hang three of their handmade quilts on the main stage at the Pearl Bluegrass Jam. The quilts serve to improve the sound and appearance of the stage. Quilts are regularly raffled off, for $1 per ticket, and some of the proceeds go to the maintenance of the community center.
Cynthia Smith is the treasurer of the quilting group. She is grateful for the bluegrass festival and the number of people it attracts every month.
“The bluegrass jam put Pearl back on the map,” Smith says. “When we lost the post office, school and voting precinct … when you lose those, it’s difficult. That’s why the bluegrass festival is so important.”
When the building was still a school, music events like piano recitals and talent shows regularly took place here, says Sue Knorre, a longtime volunteer with the Pearl Bluegrass Jam. Knorre is responsible for the festival website and was an associate producer for “Unbroken: The Pearl Bluegrass Circle,” a documentary film about the event.
“A lot of people in the community went to school here,” says Knorre, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative. “They used to always hear music here. All the people who used to go to music events here long, long ago still come here and listen to music.”
Whether they are alumni of the school or simply lovers of bluegrass who have attended the festival for many years, one word comes up again and again when talking about the bluegrass jam: homecoming.
Ginger and Don Shirley, members of Comanche Electric Cooperative, are part of a music group called the West Texas Hazbins. They live in Bangs, about 70 miles away, and attend the Pearl festival every month unless they are ill or there is bad weather.
“The people. It has to go back to the people. That’s what makes Pearl so special,” says Ginger Shirley, 76, who plays the banjo, fiddle and mandolin. “As long as I can crawl, I’ll come here. It’s like coming home.”
Michele Chan Santos is an Austin writer.