PEARL — In a deeply rural Coryell County town so small it was once taken off the map, a grass-roots bluegrass community thrives.
Pearl comes to life the first Saturday of each month when scores of musicians and devotees flock to the 100-year-old stone school building to perform, listen and jam to what many of the participants call “roots music.” It’s formally called the Pearl Bluegrass 1st Saturday Jam and Stageshow.
“This is the real deal,” said Brian deGraffenreid. “We travel from our home in Goldthwaite each month without fail to see and hear all of this true, American music. It’s a completely unique setting and atmosphere.”
Visitors experience a near total immersion in bluegrass, which begins as soon as they’ve parked. Informal jam sessions under trees, beneath sheltered outside seating and on the steps of the community center set the mood for live stage shows. The old school’s modest auditorium with its gently raked pine floor and intimate proscenium stage is bathed in soft daylight from the east windows. Curved plywood theater-style seats and mahogany church pews fill with audience members of all ages.
“We only use amplification for the stage shows,” said Fred Knorre from Round Rock, a fixture at the monthly event. High-ceilinged classrooms off the hallways host ever-changing ensembles for impromptu jams. “It’s totally acoustic in the jams. No amps allowed,” Knorre said.
Although the stage shows start at 1 p.m. Saturday, the area behind the center begins filling with RVs and camper trailers on Friday. Attendance swells during the next day as musicians of all ages warm up, fraternize and learn new “licks” from other participants.
Justin Shawn Doyle of Gatesville watched the stage show with his son, Justin II. “We came to Pearl to hear bluegrass as a special birthday celebration for my dad. He was born in 1943 and was in the last graduating class at the Pearl School.”
The prevailing musical style — bluegrass — has been described as a mix of gospel, old-time fiddle music and country harmonies. What you won’t see at Pearl are keyboards, wind instruments or any percussion. And watch your nomenclature, please. “It’s a fiddle, not a violin,” Tracie Upham from Austin said firmly, but with a smile.
Beginners are numerous and welcome, with much of the repertoire passed down from player to player. “No formal training” is an oft repeated phrase.
In many ways, the clock seems to have stopped years ago in Pearl. There’s no charge to participate as a musician and audience members can see as many performances as they want for free. Participation in the jams either as a musician or listener costs nothing. Attached to one wall is a box for monetary contributions and homemade style food and drinks are for sale in the cozy cafeteria.
“Those pies the ladies bake are really good,” de Graffenreid said.
There is a $10 RV hookup fee, “Too low,” according to Knorre, and somehow the whole enterprise seems to work.
Visible from the school’s elevation is Swayback Mountain, the inspiration for Pearl’s original name: Swayback. In 1890, the name Pearl was made official, reportedly in honor of the postmaster’s comely young cousin. The stone school structure dates from 1914 and has been through various trials including additions, fire, re-roofings and community uses. Standing across the road, at the front gate of the Pearl cemetery, a visitor looks back at the school and the nearby stone house built to house a teacher.
“It’s worn its years well,” said Kurt North, a bass fiddle player from Arlington. “Pearl is like bluegrass music. Down to earth and here to stay.”