Monday, April 21, 2014

The Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, NC - Our Visit

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.

Scruggs Homestead in Flint Hill

He told us about a plan, then under way, to redevelop the long-closed Shelby County Courthouse, in the center of "uptown" Shelby as a museum dedicated to the life and work of the man who changed country music and redefined the banjo when he joined Bill Monroe's band in 1945. This winter, in a huge gala attended by music luminaries, the Earl Scruggs Center opened in Shelby, NC on January 11, 2014 to great acclaim. We were able to visit there in late March.

The Earl Scruggs Center

Cleveland County Court House

Scruggs Center Welcome Center

Main Desk at Welcome Center

Irene & Marta Jones
Shopping at the Well-Stocked Gift Shop

After several years of fund raising and under the auspices of Destination Cleveland County and with the full cooperation of the Scruggs family, those remaining in the region and Earl's sons in Nashville, the Earl Scruggs Center opened with visitors from Nashville including Randy and Gary Scruggs, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, Travis Tritt, Rob Ickes, Jim Mills as well as Governor Pat McCrory and Congressman Patrick McHenry. Darin and Brooke Aldridge, local bluegrass band and Nashville stars, performed at the opening ceremonies.

Flash Mob Performing "Reuben's Train"
United Methodist Church in Shelby

The Scruggs Center has successfully striven to place the life and times of Earl Scruggs within the context of southern culture in general and Cleveland County in particular. Located on the southwestern edge of the once rich Piedmont region, which prospered under a combination of growing cotton to supply a vast structure of textile mills, attracted away from New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the low labor costs and absence of labor unions. The region also had a rich and varied musical climate, celebrated by the Center. Earl Scruggs was born on January 6, 1924. The family was musically oriented, and Earl grew up in a musical environment, discovering a sophisticated three finger style of picking the banjo that was influenced by ealier claw hammer, two finger and three finger pickers. Scruggs' style, however, achieved musical prominence when he and Lester Flatt joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1945. The Scruggs Center, through its interactive exhibits, films, and displays looks at Scruggs in whole, rather than through the lens of the few brief years he worked with Bill Monroe or the longer period of success with Lester Flatt. Earl Scruggs and his technique are seen as developing within the social, economic, and racial environment of the deep South in the mid-twentieth century. For Earl Scruggs, leaving work in a textile mill to become a professional performer was a natural step. No one could have predicted the profound influence his banjo picking would have on country and bluegrass music through the next fifty or more years.

Introductory Film

Young Earl

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.

Museum Director Emily Eppley Shows Marta and Irene
the Musical Table

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.
Al Dunkleman & Darin Aldridge 
Demonstrate Picking 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. 

The Cotton Industry


Contributions of African Americans to the 
Sourthern Musical Tradition

Social Change Throughout the Region

   The Scruggs's Turn Toward Rock Music

Local Voices Heard From

 The Late Dr. Bobby Jones (Dr. Tom Bibey)

Darin Aldridge, Irene, Marta Jones, Me

In addition to coming to Shelby to soak up the museum, be sure to set aside some time to explore the town square built around the old Courthouse. A selection of quality restaurants and shops have been renewed around the square to go with the magnificent work done to restore and repurpose the Court House. Also, take a trip to Shelby City Park to visit the wonderful restored carousel there.

Carousel in Shelby City Park

Information about hours and admission to the Earl Scruggs Center can be found HERE. Make sure you take the opportunity to capture this fine museum to increase your appreciation of Earl Scruggs the man and the musician.

How to Get to the Earl Scruggs Center
enter your current location in the zero to see a 
customized map

Earl Scruggs