A Visit to the Scruggs Center in Shelby, North Carolina
On December 1, 1945, Earl Scruggs took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and history was made, as bluegrass music made its debut. Descriptions of how the audience reacted vary, but they all include riotous joy over the drive, speed, intricacy, and wonder they heard. At the heart of that wonder was Scruggs’s inventive approach to an old, often maligned instrument. In his hands, the banjo had matured into a solo instrument capable of great variety, inflection, melody, volume, and syncopation.
In a brief film shown at the Earl Scruggs Center, comedian, actor, writer, and banjoist Steve Martin speculates on this moment, now nearly lost in bluegrass history. He imagines the old-time string band and country music people were used to hearing, with the percussive value added by the era’s use of the banjo. The audience had never heard anything like the sounds the young Earl Scruggs pulled from his five-string banjo with a three-finger roll picking style that cascaded out more notes than they had ever heard.
While no film of that moment exists, to my knowledge, here’s a pretty early recording of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys playing one of Bill’s famous breakdowns, called “The Bluegrass Breakdown.” The excitement and drive of Scruggs’ solo in this performance is palpable. Who could resist it?
Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys after having left his job at the Lily Mill in Cleveland County, North Carolina, which lies just north of the South Carolina border, about 40 miles west of the state’s largest city, Charlotte. The county, founded in 1841, was largely agricultural, dominated by cotton farming, and became the home of many mills making cotton cloth, yarns, and thread beginning with the re-industialization of the South after the Civil War. According to Lizzie Bramlet, the Vintage Traveler, by the 1940s there were 20 spinning mills in Shelby area, dominated by the yarn and thread company Lily Mills, where young Scruggs worked. Shelby, the county seat, was centered on a lovely courthouse, built in 1907. During the 1940s, the county and its courthouse began a long decline, which can be accounted for by the plague of the boll weevil and the exodus of the US milling business.
The creation of the Earl Scruggs Center in the revitalized Cleveland County Courthouse has sparked a renaissance in the downtown area of Shelby (called, for some reason, Uptown Shelby), by a group of far-seeing, committed city boosters. Here’s a video overview of the center and its mission first broadcast by UNC-TV:
Two major museum exhibits are on the planning board for the next year. Star-Spangled Sounds: Stories of Music and the Military will run from May 28, 2016 – January 8, 2017. According to the program’s description:
From the signal corps drummers in the Revolutionary War, to the brass bands of World War, to the USO, music has become a large part of the military’s success. Music has been used to bolster morale, serve as part of military strategy but also acting as an outlet for the public to unite for and against war and voicing the hopes of generations in war.
The exhibit will feature a range of interesting memorabilia, and the Center will host a series of activities focused on linking the role of music in the military to the bluegrass theme that is its core mission. This show is being originated and compiled by the Center’s curator, Adrienne Nirdé, and Executive Director Emily Epley.
Another show, called Grand Ole Opry, a traveling exhibition assembled by ExhibitsUSA, features:
Thirty gelatin silver prints by Gordon Gillingham, a commercial photographer hired to photograph the Opry between 1952 and 1960. The images document the radio show and the country music business during the zenith of country music’s postwar boom, and wonderfully capture the spirit, energy, camaraderie, and sheer joy of performing that permeated both musicians and fans of the Opry in its heyday. Gillingham’s photographs show us everything from Johnny Cash signing autographs backstage to artists rehearsing for the Grand Ole Opry television show to crowds of fans gathering outside the Opry auditorium.
If the current exhibition of prints by Charlotte photographer Don Sturkey is any indicator, the impact of this display should be well worth a visit to the Scruggs Center during its run.
The Shelby town square has become a bustling area of commercial activity, built on increased tourism due to the museum’s development. Restaurants ranging from simple, local food to fine dining now provide a range of choices. The Newgrass Brewery offers craft beer and live music. The Dragonfly Wine Market features live tastings and live music. Nearby, the rebuilt Don Gibson Theater presents major musical performances, and there is pleasant shopping to be found as one strolls around the courthouse square.
The Shelby County Arts Center is across the street from the Scruggs Center. Shelby City Park is the home of a beautiful restored carousel. The grave of the great Don Gibson is located in the Sunset Cemetery. Nearby Kings Mountain National Military Park was the site of one of most important battles of the Revolutionary War. The Foothills Farmer’s Market is held three days a week through the spring and summer, providing another good stopping place on a trip to Shelby.
In short, the Earl Scruggs Center can serve as your destination for a day or two spent visiting the Shelby area. Besides being a fine regional museum in its own right, the Center demonstrates how the development of a museum devoted to a music legend can help vitalize a downtown area. You can get hints and touches of small-town America and become better acquainted with one of the icons of American music in one of the finest local/regional museums we’ve visited.