The mandolin was available, so I grabbed it. Beth Cook strummed the Dobro, and her father, Glenn Reep, plucked on a banjo. Two other members of the Cook family, husband Chris and teenage daughter Emily, filled out the sound on guitar and fiddle.
My new bandmates and I had connected at Common Threads, a corner hangout of sorts at the new Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, an hour west of Charlotte. Scruggs, who single-handedly revolutionized bluegrass with his fancy three-finger picking style, grew up down the road in the Flint Hill community. When he died in 2012, at age 88, musicians from multiple genres feted his accomplishments.
Unlike the banjos and guitars used by Scruggs and his musical family, several of which are on display in a large glass case just inside the museum entrance, our band’s “instruments” were virtual. The oversize iPadlike surface we played them on kept the beat while we laid down our tracks to the bluegrass staple “Salty Dog Blues.”
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The Cooks, who hail from nearby towns, had brought Reep here for his 77th birthday in early March.
“I grew up in Drexel, and about every week I still go to the barbershop there,” Reep said, referring not to getting a trim but to attending the now famous bluegrass jams at the tiny Drexel Barber Shop. “It’s always full of people, and it don’t cost a thing.”
With the multimedia table’s “Pickin' Party!” conquered, we explored its other attraction, an interactive encyclopedia, with intersecting information about artists, instruments, genre, place, time and influence cleverly summoned by stroking overlapping strings.
“Look, there’s George Shuffler,” Chris Cook said when he landed on a photograph of the cross-picking guitar innovator and former member of the Stanley Brothers. “I know him. He’s from Valdese.” Cook swiped the image with his hand and slid it across the table like a hockey puck, another nifty feature, to his wife.
The two-level museum, with most information downstairs, is easy to maneuver. Friendly volunteer guides elaborate on displays and make sure that your earbuds, free with a ticket purchase, are properly plugged into the many audio kiosks.
Scruggs, up close
I have to think that Scruggs would be proud of this place (his family remains involved in some decision-making). He was still alive when the planning was in full swing and was pleased that it was set in the old Cleveland County courthouse, built in 1907 in the center of what is now historic Shelby’s attractive town square. A guide told me that Scruggs said that when he was young, the courthouse was the finest building he’d ever seen – and it’s still quite magnificent. Several exhibits, rich in graphics and photographs, explore Shelby’s past, when the once-vital textile manufacturing industry was fed by surrounding cotton fields.
It’s a good idea to start with the head-bouncing introductory film, in which Scruggs and some of his famous fans, such as Steve Martin and Bela Fleck, are interviewed. Scruggs, whose cotton-farming family all played music to relax, tells the story of how he was noodling on his banjo – at age 10 – and developed his signature style. “All of a sudden, I started playing with that middle finger. I went through the house saying, ‘I got it, I got it!’ ” an aged Scruggs recalls.
Several gallery stations examine the evolution of the banjo, a descendant of the African akonting, and the bluegrass sound that Scruggs created. At the “Banjo Breakdown” feature, you can view clear-front banjos being played from the inside out to compare styles. Scruggs’s own musical growth is detailed, too. Although he lived for old-time music, he was no musical old-timer. He parted ways with Lester Flatt after two decades, in 1969, when the two were still the most famous bluegrass band in the country (in part thanks to major TV exposure on “The Beverly Hillbillies”) because his musical mate wasn’t interested in change.
One of Scruggs’s quotes sums it up: “You can’t encore the past. If I see a bright light shining out there, I want to go toward it.” Not only did he form the rock-bluegrass band the Earl Scruggs Revue in 1969, the then middle-age star also shared the stage with up-and-coming folk singers Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Byrds, and jammed with Ravi Shankar and Elton John.
I learned that his wife, Louise, was forward-thinking too. With encouragement from her husband, she went on to be the Nashville, Tenn., music industry’s first female manager, and a strong-willed one at that. (The couple met at the Grand Ole Opry and ultimately settled in Nashville.)
Near the end of my tour, I met up with Reep again in the “petting zoo,” where a dozen banjos sat waiting for us. While strumming the actual instruments, Reep and I agreed between laughs that we were best suited for the audience instead of the stage.
Before leaving, I couldn’t resist a last run at the “Pickin’ Party,” where I captivated a crowd of one with my rendition of “Little Sadie.” This time I reached for the banjo.