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Texas | Columns | "Hindsights"

Looking back at
Pearl, Texas –
The Sound of Music

by Michael Barr
Michael Barr
When the town of Pearl, a remote community in western Coryell County, decided to have a Bluegrass Festival, citizens crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. Pearl, after all, is miles off the interstate. It’s hard to find, even if you’ve been there.

“We thought if we could get 150 people we would be doing well,” said Ronald Medart, one of the organizers of the Pearl Bluegrass Jamboree. “Now hundreds show up every month. Admission is free. People come and stay all day long. Musicians play in three rooms in the Community Center and outside under the trees when the weather is nice. We don’t know exactly how many people come to the Jamboree. They don’t stay still long enough to count.”

The Pearl Bluegrass Jamboree began in 1996 when Roy McGaugh, a bluegrass musician from Izoro, booked the old Pearl School House, now the Pearl Community Center, for a series of bluegrass concerts. The building was in need of repair so Pearl residents took advantage of the gathering to sell food in hopes of making a little money to fix up the place. Then after six shows McGaugh’s band broke up, and the residents of Pearl decided to put on the Jamboree themselves. Since October 1997 the Pearl Bluegrass Jamboree had been held the first Saturday of each month except September when the event moves to the second Saturday.

The response, to say the least, has exceeded expectations. The crowd at the Bluegrass Jamboree is equal to ten times the total population of Pearl. The parking lot is full. On a recent Saturday afternoon I spotted license plates from fourteen states and Canada.

“We get started about noon,” Medart said. “We schedule 45 minutes for each band, but you know how bluegrass musicians are. There are jam sessions going on all over the place. Bluegrass lovers come from all over the country. We never know exactly who is going to show up. Many of them bring their own instruments and sit in. It’s a family thing. We officially close about midnight, but people play out under the trees and in the RV park until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Pearl TX Bluegrass Jamboree
Photo courtesy Michael Barr

The home-style food, served out of the old school cafeteria, is as good as it gets and reasonably priced. Ladies in the community make brown beans, cornbread, black-eyed peas, sandwiches, hamburgers, soup, stew, chili, bar-be-que, and the best pies in Central Texas. The kitchen closes at 6 – or earlier if it sells out.

The Bluegrass Jamboree has put Pearl on the map, but the town dates back to Civil War days. It was originally known as Swayback, after Swayback Mountain, but when Swayback applied for a post office in 1884, the federal government made a clerical error – a common occurrence in those days – and named the post office Wayback. That name never sat well so in March 1889 citizens renamed their post office and their community Pearl after Pearl Davenport, the son of the local store operator.

Pearl was once a bustling community. At the turn of the twentieth century there were three doctors in Pearl. Competition for patients was fierce. Fees for bone settings were negotiable. Babies were delivered for $2.50. In 1908 the “Price System” telephone came to Pearl. Customers had to buy their own telephone boxes, wire, and posts, then string and maintain their own line. Cost for the service was 40 cents a month. As late as the 1920s all the churches in Pearl - Methodist, Baptist, Church of Christ, and Church of the Nazarene- held ten-day revival meetings every July and August. Families came by wagon and horseback from Evant, Beehouse, Purmela, Levita, Izoro, Ireland, and Adamsville. They brought bedding and food and camped out under the stars. A camp meeting was the social event of the year.

Then after World War II, Pearl was caught in an unfavorable economic cycle. Creeping inflation drove up the cost of necessary goods and services while the prices farmers and ranchers received for their products remained stagnant or slipped slowly downward. Large operators could hang on, especially if they were debt free, but a little guy with a mortgage had a hard time making ends meet.

The exodus began in the 1950s when many farmers and ranchers sold their places for what they could get, left Pearl, and moved to town. They left for factory jobs with steady paychecks, company benefits, and 40-hour work weeks. Young people found good jobs in the city. The population of Pearl declined. The school consolidated with Evant in 1958. The post office shut its doors. The last business closed in the 1960s. Pearl, Texas almost died of neglect.

But there is a revival in Pearl – thanks to hard working volunteers and a unique form of American music. Pearl may be miles off the beaten path, but you and your GPS can find it on FM 183 twenty miles west of Gatesville.

If you lose your way, don’t be discouraged. Just follow the sound of music.


© Michael Barr
"Hindsights" November 3, 2015 Column

Sources:
Interview with Ronald Medart, Pearl, Texas
Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, Austin Texas
Unbroken: The Pearl Bluegrass Circle, a film by Mystic Films, LLC, produced and directed by Winston Hall



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