SHELBY — Nearly 60 string musicians played a rousing bluegrass tune before Gov. Pat McCrory spoke at Saturday’s dedication of the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South.
Rain forced part of the grand opening celebration inside the sanctuary of Central United Methodist Church across from the new $6.5 million center that honors the late Cleveland County native and master of the five-string banjo.
As a standing-room audience clapped, a lineup of musicians that included noted bluegrass mandolin player Sam Bush and members of the Steep Canyon Rangers, a band that tours with actor/banjo player Steve Martin, played the instrumental “Reuben.” It’s the same number a young Scruggs picked when he learned to play the five-string banjo with three fingers.
McCrory told the audience that on the way to Shelby he had cranked up Earl Scruggs music full-blast in the car and that as he stood in the church sanctuary, “I feel like I’m in the Grand Ole Opry.”
Although he prepared a speech, McCrory said, “Earl didn’t like to listen to speeches. I can listen to music – how about you?”
He asked for an encore from the musicians. As they regrouped, McCrory said of the center, “This is going to help our economy. It’s the Grand Ole Opry right here in Shelby, N.C.”
The musicians came back and played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a song used in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
Other dignitaries at the ceremony included Scruggs’ sons, Gary and Randy, country singer Travis Tritt, and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry.
Gary Scruggs said his father and mother were behind the center from the beginning and that “I’m sure they’d be happy with the results.”
Cleveland County commissioners Chairman Jason Falls called Earl Scruggs a “homegrown legend” and said the center honoring his music and influence will “shape the lives of generations to come.”
The Scruggs brothers, Tritt, along with singer Vince Gill, Sam Bush and others were to perform Saturday night in a sold-out program, “Remembering Earl: Music & Stories.” The show was to be emceed by WSM Grand Ole Opry host Eddie Stubbs.
Banjos ‘make you feel happy’
Born Jan. 6, 1924, in the Flint Hill community near Boiling Springs, Scruggs worked in a Shelby textile mill before he joined Bill Monroe’s band and performed on the Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 8, 1948, in what was to be the birth of bluegrass music. Scruggs, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, died March 28, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn.
The new Scruggs Center is in the historic Greek revival Cleveland County courthouse in uptown Shelby. Planning for the center began in 2006, and it was launched two years later by 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 another local music legend.
The Scruggs Center has been a long time in the works. But now the old courthouse has been transformed into a high-tech center that not only focuses on the career of a performer who became a world musical force, but also the cultural history of the region.
Saturday’s rain apparently didn’t dampen the spirits of several hundred music fans who showed up for activities that had moved inside the church and the adjacent Cleveland County Arts Center.
At the arts center, visitors could listen to such performers as Gingerthistle, get a slice from an Earl Scruggs birthday cake or sample one of the banjo master’s favorite snacks – cookies and milk.
Alex Garmise, his wife, 3-year-old daughter, and mother-in-law drove up from Spartanburg, S.C., for the celebration.
Recently, he bought a used five-string banjo in Asheville, checked out the Earl Scruggs banjo book from a local library and began learning how to play. Hearing about the Scruggs Center grand opening on National Public Radio, “I said I felt like going,” Garmise recalled.
The rain didn’t matter. “You just put an umbrella up and go to it,” Garmise said.
Bluegrass music fans Laurie Hawks-Saultz of Ellerbe and Kim Crump of Rockingham also weren’t put off by bad weather. “Banjos always make you feel happy,” said Crump, 52. “You forget all about the rain.”
Tanzy Wallace of Shelby came to see the Scruggs Center’s historical look at the contribution of her late grandfather, promoter Ray Cabaniss. For decades, he brought famous African-American acts to Shelby, including Bo Diddley, The Staple Singers, Aretha Franklin, and Kool and the Gang.
“I’m glad they are recognizing my grandfather and showing his importance in the community,” Wallace said. “He brought the community together.”
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony, McCrory and other dignitaries toured the Scruggs Center. At an interactive table, he and Randy Scruggs picked virtual instruments at the same time.
“Hey, I’m playing with one of the Scruggses – that ain’t bad,” McCrory said.
Five-string banjo player J. Max McKee was among the first from the general public to step inside the new center.
“It’s beautiful,” said McKee, 65, of Shelby, as he looked around. “Earl Scruggs was the master. I think this center is a good thing for Shelby and Cleveland County. What more can you say?”