SHELBY When Earl Scruggs worked in a Shelby textile mill during the 1940s, the Greek revival Cleveland County Courthouse was one of the most imposing buildings in town.
On Friday, a sign went up outside the historic 1907 structure identifying it as the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories From the American South.
In advance of the Jan. 11 grand opening, members of the media got a first look inside the center that honors the Cleveland County native and master of the five-string banjo.
The restored, 3-story courthouse in uptown Shelby has been transformed into a high-tech educational tool that not only documents the career of a former mill worker who became a world musical force, but also the cultural history of the region.
At an interactive table visitors can tap into regional musical styles, cultural traditions and social structures. In the Out of Carolinas Gallery, they’ll learn about the South’s influential 50,000-watt radio stations such as WBT in Charlotte and listen to music from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s on vintage radios.
“The music has always been here,” said Emily Epley, executive director of the center. “The center is about exposing this musical heritage of this community to the world.”
Planning for the $6.5 million center began in 2006 and it was launched two years later by the nonprofit Destination Cleveland County as a way to lure tourists to an economically depressed county.
That same year, Destination Cleveland County opened the Don Gibson Theatre a few blocks away, in the renovated 1939 Art Deco State Theater. The 400-seat performing arts venue is named after the local music legend.
The Scruggs center has received county and federal grants, along with donations from businesses and individuals.
Earl Scruggs was born Jan. 6, 1924, in the Flint Hill community near Boiling Springs and died March 28, 2012, in Nashville. A memorial service was held in Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, where Scruggs performed on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe on Dec. 8, 1945, in what was to be the birth of bluegrass music.
The Scruggs Center has a facade of the Ryman stage and a four-minute film that includes interviews, clips from performances and archival footage.
Vintage television sets will allow visitors to watch clips from the old Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs TV show sponsored by Martha White Flour. Flatt and Scruggs were also guests on “The Beverly Hillbillies” show and performed the theme song for the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.” Footage from the TV shows and movie will also be shown.
A 13-minute video in the Welcome Gallery explains the Earl Scruggs story and highlights regional history. Narrated by Eddie Stubbs, announcer on Nashville radio station WSM, the film includes commentary from Scruggs, banjo player Bela Fleck, actor/musician Steve Martin, country music historian Bill C. Malone, Carolina Chocolate Drops founder Dom Flemons, and Tom Hanchett, historian with Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South.
Banjo displays explain the evolution of the instrument from its African roots to Scruggs’ three-finger style of playing. His signature banjo is on display, along with other family instruments, including the one owned by his grandfather, George Elam Scruggs.
Destination Cleveland County Chair Brownie Plaster said members of the nonprofit spent 2007 visiting other small towns to “discover the best practices from the best museums.”
While the Scruggs Center will look back in time, Plaster said space is also being set aside “to look to the future.”
“We want always to be resilient,” she said. “And to always be reinventing ourselves.”
J.T. Scruggs said his uncle Earl would be proud of what’s been done to the former courthouse.
“It’s a grand old building,” he said. “We owed it to our donors, to the people who had faith in us and to the whole community to do a quality job. We hope they think we have.”
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