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Even before you walk into the Pearl Community Center to listen to performers on the main stage, you pass bluegrass musicians and fans of the music gathered outside in small groups to play. Inside, more music flows from rooms throughout the center. It’s obvious the Pearl Bluegrass Jam and Stage Show is much more than a bluegrass concert.
The monthly concert attracts anywhere from 150 to as many as 500 or more people from across Texas and even out of state to Pearl in Central Texas to play, listen and become students of bluegrass music.
Winding rural roads take you to Pearl, just west of Gatesville and north of Fort Hood. Although the main stage show is held the first Saturday of each month (except in September, when it’s held on the second Saturday), people begin arriving in RVs as early as the Wednesday before.
On the day of the show, bluegrass and gospel strands spill out of every corner of the Pearl Community Center, a renovated schoolhouse where shows are held. While groups perform on the main stage, other musicians meet to play in informal jam sessions in surrounding classrooms and outside. The music continues late into the night.
The bluegrass jam began in October 1997 when Ronald Medart, a rancher in Pearl, got together with friends to talk about organizing a monthly bluegrass event to raise money to fix up the former school.
“The bluegrass jam is a homecoming—a reunion—for the people who went to school here,” Medart says. “Everybody knows everybody, and if they don’t, they will in a few minutes.”
With money earned from food sales, renting out RV spaces and donations, Medart, a member of Hamilton County Electric Cooperative Association, and other event founders have been able to fix the roof, floors and windows of the center along with other building improvements and pay the utility bills.
The Pearl Bluegrass Jam and Stage Show is not just a place where people play and listen to music. It’s a place where musicians come to learn. People of all abilities are welcome on stage, and the musicians freely trade tips and advice.
J.P. Shafer, 18, is an accomplished musician who won third place at the 2013 Walnut Valley Festival National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kansas. Along with the mandolin, Shafer also plays the fiddle, guitar, bass and banjo. He says a good portion of his musical education took place at the monthly gatherings in Pearl.
“I’ve learned a ton here,” Shafer says. “It’s people of all ages teaching each other. If somebody does a lick you want to learn, they’re happy to show it to you.”
Shafer now returns the favor by teaching other musicians at the bluegrass jam, even working with some musicians who taught him when he was just learning to play.
David and Suzette May bring their three children—Ethan, 14, John-Samuel, 12, and Sarah, 7—to Pearl each month. In January, Ethan, playing banjo, and John-Samuel, on guitar, took to the stage to perform. “It’s like a family reunion. Everyone is so friendly,” Suzette says. (The Mays are also members of Hamilton County ECA.)
Fred and Sue Knorre, who live outside Round Rock, are longtime bluegrass jam volunteers who have been coming to Pearl nearly every month for 15 years.
“We love Pearl, it just clicks for us,” says Sue, a member of Pedernales Electric Cooperative. “If you like a friendly scene with a homey feel, then Pearl is for you.”
Admission to the Pearl Bluegrass Jam and Stage Show is free. Volunteers prepare homemade food to sell as a fundraiser. No alcohol is allowed. For information, visit pearlbluegrass.com.
Michele Chan Santos is an Austin writer.