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Gary Borders: Mt. Pleasant, Texas knows how to carry a tune

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Gary Borders
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I was taking a photograph of a city worker installing new banners along the light poles downtown the other day and humming along to a Bee Gees song as the music wafted through the square. It was coming from the Titus County courthouse, from the speakers installed along the roof. The sky was a brilliant shade of blue after the storm passed through, and it finally felt like autumn. I really wanted to just sit down on a bench, listen to the music and enjoy the cool air, but work beckoned. I reluctantly walked back to the office, the music still audible down at our new digs a couple blocks off the square.

There is a common question out-of-towners visiting me here in Mount Pleasant ask, especially if we run up to Laura’s Cheesecake for lunch.

Where is that music coming from?

Most folks, including me, enjoy it. The first time my wife and I walked around downtown, prior to me taking this gig, we wondered who was playing the music before figuring out it was coming from the courthouse.

“Wonder how that got started,” I thought.

Since then, friends and business acquaintances invariably remark upon the music, which apparently plays 24/7. At least, I have stumbled out of the newspaper office at 1 a.m. after covering football and laying out sports pages and heard a pop song playing in the distance. It sounds a bit ghostly at that time of night.

It was time to delve deeper into this. I tried the Main Street manager, who kindly went to the trouble of checking with the previous manager. She confirmed the courthouse music was installed around 1993, after the building was remodeled. At first the music came from a satellite dish mounted on the roof.

“It created an atmosphere of friendliness and charm,” May said.

In the early days, someone had to physically turn the music on and off. But since 2008, the music comes from Sirius XM satellite radio. The city pays the contract annually and that includes the licensing to broadcast to the public.

The manager added that he changes the stations every few months, “or whenever we get complaints that it is getting boring.” And, of course, the speakers broadcast Christmas music during the holiday season.

I have been told that the courthouse broadcast music as far back as the 1970s. A county commissioner who has been in office 28 years, told me the music was playing when he took office. But apparently there was a hiatus at some point until 1993.

Titus County appears to be unique in continuously broadcasting music from its courthouse. I whiled away an hour Googling “courthouses that play music,” “singing courthouses,” and other variations. The courthouse in Haskell, Texas has the capability to do so but only broadcasts on special occasions. The Northampton County courthouse in Pennsylvania did so until April 2012, when it pulled the plug because it didn’t want to pay a $2,343 licensing fee to ASCAP.

Those were the only two courthouses I could find, though there are plenty that hold musical events on their lawns.

I’m thinking this could be a tourism attraction: Titus County: Home of the Singing Courthouse. It certainly gets the attention of visitors and newcomers.

The other question I’m often asked is “Why do the courthouse clocks tell different times – none of which are correct?” The county judge said the clocks have been broken for years, and the cost to fix them is in “five figures.” That cost is hard to justify spending during these tight times, he said.

It does lead me to wonder if the Singing Courthouse has ever played that famous Chicago song: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”

Gary Borders has been an East Texas journalist and editor for more than 40 years. He works now as a freelance writer, editor and photographer. You can see his work at garyborders.com. He has written for World Wildlife magazine, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer and Airstream Life.