SHELBY Workers are putting the final touches on the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South, a regional education and performance venue in the planning and construction stages for eight years.
Exhibits, audio-visual and interactive components are being installed in the restored 1907 former Cleveland County Courthouse in downtown Shelby. The work is expected to be completed by mid-December when staff training will begin.
Named for Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs, five-string banjo master and bluegrass music pioneer, the center will showcase all kinds of regional music and focus on education and stories explaining the area’s cultural history. Scruggs died in March 2012 in Nashville, Tenn., at age 88.
Planning for the project began in 2006, and it was launched two years later by the nonprofit Destination Cleveland County as a way to lure tourists.
A soft opening for the center will be held in late December with the grand opening on Jan. 11, the week of Scruggs’ 90th birthday.
Brownie Plaster, chairwoman of Destination Cleveland County, said the center is a way to see the South through the eyes of an internationally known musician who grew up on a Cleveland County farm.
“I think when people leave the center they’ll have a sense of Earl and who he was,” she said. “And they’ll also have a better sense of place and learn something about the people of our region as well.”
A musical tribute to Scruggs on Jan. 11 has sold out.
“Remembering Earl Scruggs” will be held at the 1,300-seat Malcolm Brown Auditorium on the campus of Shelby High School and feature Grammy winners Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Sam Bush,Jim Mills, and Gary and Randy Scruggs, along with Rob Ickes.
Prior to the official dedication at 1 p.m. there will be special musical events on the court square in Shelby. These include jam sessions in designated picking areas and a chance for kids to hold and strum banjos.
A few blocks from the center is the Don Gibson Theatre, a renovated art deco theater and 400-seat performing arts venue that opened in 2006 and was named after another local music legend.
During the Jan. 11 grand opening, episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies” will be shown in the theater. In November 1962, Columbia Records released Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ hit bluegrass number “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which was played on the popular sitcom from 1962 until 1971.
On Jan. 9, the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” will be shown at the Gibson Theatre. Flatt and Scruggs performed Scruggs’ number “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in the 1967 film.
Visitors to the center will enter the Rotunda Gallery, which has eight instruments played by three generations of the Scruggs family. The exhibit includes the banjo on which Earl Scruggs learned to play and was previously on display at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
The center will make use of 118 oral histories collected from people around the region. Snippets from these voices will be heard at several points on the first floor. People from all walks of life – from farmers to textile workers – tell their stories.
The Southern storytelling tradition was important to Earl Scruggs, said his nephew, J.T. Scruggs of Shelby.
He remembers attending the Banjoman’s birthday in Nashville several years ago. About 150 people had been invited by Earl Scruggs’ wife, Louise.
She asked J.T. Scruggs to greet them at the front door.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
A who’s who of country music stars arrived, including such artists as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. Many carried instruments.
They lined up around the living room to watch a core group of about 40 – including Earl Scruggs – perform. Occasionally, they stopped to tell stories. Travis Tritt came in late and joined the group.
“That was some kind of picking and singing,” J.T. Scruggs said. “It lasted until midnight. But Travis stayed and they all stood around the piano reminiscing and telling stories until 2 a.m. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
When visitors see the center named after his uncle, “I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Scruggs said. “I think Earl would be pleased. My only regret is we didn’t get it open in time for him to see.”
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