The marquee at Shelby’s Don Gibson Theatre usually pitches country, pop or blues music shows.
The latest addition is something different: “The Charlotte Symphony Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody.”
Composer David Crowe’s original work, which includes poetry by Cleveland County’s Ron Rash, first debuted in Charlotte in 2005. It’s being revived by the Levine Museum of the New South and the Charlotte Symphony as part of the annual Ulysses Festival, a month of musical events across the community led by Opera Carolina.
Over the years, “Mill Village” has been occasionally performed by the symphony’s chamber musicians in communities around the region.
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Levine Museum Historian Tom Hanchett said organizers again wanted to reach beyond Charlotte and picked Shelby because of its textile history.
Another key part of the decision is the opening later this year of the $6.5 million Earl Scruggs Center for Music & Stories of the American South. Located in the former Cleveland County Courthouse, the center that’s named for the late master of the five-string banjo will include more than 100 oral histories of millworkers and mill owners.
“It’s a great time to bring an original new musical composition that pays homage to this history,” said Hanchett. “Music is a wonderful metaphor. The New South keeps reinventing itself, but we never do give up our history. We can’t. It helped shape who we are. And Cleveland County is very good at this.”
Named for two Cleveland County natives who worked in local mills before they became music legends, the Gibson theater and the Scruggs center are seen as ways to help boost the local economy.
Last year, Cleveland County landed nearly $1 billion in capital investments and the prospect of 900 new jobs over the next three years.
And 2013 is off to a strong start. In February, North Carolina Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker came to Shelby to announce a German metal casting company was coming in, creating 189 new jobs over the next five years.
Michael Chrisawn, president of the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce, said the success has been built on planning by current and past county and city officials and the work of the Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership.
“A lot of things came together at the right time and in the right manner,” he said. “We continue to look at diversity as a fundamental goal.”
The new industrial foundation is going up while textile heritage is being recycled.
Planning for the Scruggs 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 State Theater. The performing arts venue is named after Gibson, writer of such country standards as “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Sweet Dreams.”
Gibson died in Nov. 18, 2003, at age 75; Scruggs died March 28, 2012, at 88.
When they’d worked in textiles during the 1930s and 1940s, Shelby was a thriving milltown.
Richard Cook, 78, grew up in the neighborhood across the street from the Shelby Mill. He shares memories of those times with members of a group called the Shelby Mill Breakfast Club.
At each monthly meeting, they recreate a classic Carolina mill village from the past.
“Everybody knew each other,” said Cook. “And everybody looked out for each other.”
His aunt worked in the mill, and he brought her sandwiches in a basket, which she hoisted up to a second-floor window in the plant. Music was an important part of the mill village. All-night gospel singings rocked the Tin Top Church, and the National Guard Armory near the mill had performers like Hank Williams Sr., Lester Flatt and Scruggs. A young Billy Graham had a crusade in a big tent outside the armory.
“The mill village was the best part of my life, I guess,” said Cook.
Shelby Mayor Stan Anthony, 57, remembers when the city’s mills ran wide open. Now most are closed, standing vacant or used for storage. Many of the old mill houses have been torn down.
But Anthony sees an opportunity for redeveloping the villages and hopes the city can promote the idea. In areas where the houses have been demolished, streets, sidewalks and sewer lines are still in place.
Already, out-of-town investors are buying some of the remaining mill houses, fixing them up and “putting them back on the market at a good price,” Anthony said.
Meanwhile, he thinks Shelby “is very fortunate to have this music thing with the Gibson theater and Scruggs center.”
“I’d like to see Shelby become a music destination,” he said. “Things are bubbling up. We’ve still got a lot of work to do. But it’s encouraging.”
Former Charlotteans Jamie and Jane Coulter, who opened Dragonfly Wine Market on South Lafayette Street in October, hope the Scruggs center will bring in tour buses and help their new business, which they say is already a success.
They’re already involved with the Gibson theater, helping sponsor an April 14 concert by the rock band Smash Mouth.
“Shelby could be a tourist destination between Charlotte and Asheville,” Jamie Coulter said. “It’s got nice restaurants, little gift shops. There are still some old buildings that need refurbishing. But the economy’s coming back.”
Brownie Plaster, chair of Destination Cleveland County, said folks who’ve gotten a sneak preview of the Scruggs center include country singers Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart.
“They were so happy we’re doing this for Earl, in his own county,” she said. “The center will be a cultural crossroads reflecting Earl’s life and spirit – and that of the region.”
As the Scruggs center nears completion, the Gibson theater is preparing for its first performance by Charlotte Symphony musicians.
Some of the poetry in “Mill Village” was written by Rash, who grew up in Earl Scruggs’ hometown of Boiling Springs and now teaches at Western Carolina University. His 2008 novel “Serena” is the basis for the upcoming Jennifer Lawrence-Bradley Cooper movie.
After Rash’s poetry collection “Eureka Mill” appeared in 1998 “I got beautiful letters from millworkers,” he recalled. “They were so glad somebody acknowledged that culture.”