We first came to Shelby, NC in the fall of 2009 to visit a friend we had made on the Internet. We first knew him as Dr. Tom Bibey, who wrote a wonderful blog about being a small town doctor, a bluegrass musician, and a writer. It was warm, funny, and, to us, a deep mystery, because we soon realized that Tom Bibey was not the author's name. After several months of dancing around each other, the author revealed himself to us as Dr. Bobby Jones, indeed a family physician, musician, golfer, and writer who lived and worked in the small town of Shelby, and had played for many years in a band with Horace Scruggs, Earl Scruggs' brother. We met Dr. Bobby, as he was known throughout his bluegrass world, at a small, indoor festival run by Lorraine Jordan in Burlington, NC, and scheduled ourselves to come to Shelby for a visit later in the Fall. While there, he took us to the Bomb Shelter, a regional jam session, where we met Darin Aldridge, and a lot of his other bluegrass friends. He also took us to see the grave of country singer Don Gibson, and to the tiny nearby community of Flint Hill, where we visited the run-down Earl Scruggs' childhood homestead.
Typical of the high technology and thoughtful presentation characterizing the Scruggs Center are the innovative electronic table which has six stations permitting visitors to explore the place, genre, artist, influence, and instrument into relationship with each other. By tapping the intersection of two crossed strings, many elements come together to create bluegrass music can be explored. This magnificent table alone can take up hours of a visitors time, as the strings are played, and you can even jam together.
In another interactive exhibit, three styles of banjo playing (clawhammer, two finger, and three finger) are demonstrated through a window from below, clearly showing the hand actions required. By twisting the dials, one can slow down the hand action, getting a clear idea of the motions required by each style. (As a sidelight, this would be a magnificent technique to use to teach the banjo roles to a beginner.) Cleveland County Community College professor Al Dunkleman and instrumental great Darin Aldridge demonstrate the two styles.
Many bluegrass adherents prefer to picture Earl Scruggs' adventuresome approach and spirit as reaching its ultimate with his work in bluegrass music, downplaying his questing spirit which took him on the road for a number of years playing a variety of musical styles including folk and rock and roll with his family and friends for many years as the Earl Scruggs Review. For a period of time, this band was the second most popular college campus band in the country. Films show the Earl Scruggs Review in performance, as well as contemporary banjo greats like Bela Fleck and Chris Pandolfi attesting to Earl's influence in changing the way the banjo was perceived and played as well as attesting to his questing musical spirit.
The Earl Scruggs Center places Earl and his great work in the context of the culture and economy of his time in a small southern city just a few miles north of the South Carolina border. Earl grew up during the hard times of the depression, when music made in the family, church, and neighborhood was one of the few escapes from the drudgery of the cotton field and the mill. By the time Earl was a young teenager, he was recognized for the distinctive style and syncopation he had developed on the banjo, while working in a nearby textile mill, before escaping to reach for his musical destiny, still in his early twenties.