Over one thousand fans of the five-string gathered in Shelby, North Carolina on Saturday, January 11, to experience the grand opening of the Earl Scruggs Center. Despite pouring rain that moved several events that had been scheduled to take place on the courthouse square into neighboring buildings, the day was still a fine tribute to the greatest of all banjo players.
Numerous dignitaries from the town of Shelby and the state of North Carolina gathered with a variety of bluegrass and country musicians for a ceremony at Central United Methodist Church dedicating the center. The crowd was standing room only, with attendees crowding onto the church’s steps, into its foyer, and lining the walls of the sanctuary.
The ceremony opened with special featured music, beginning with a performance of You Are My Flower by 4th grade students from Shelby’s Jefferson Elementary School. They were followed by a rousing and fitting homage to Scruggs, as a single banjo player playing Reuben was quickly joined by a huge crowd of musicians, including the Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush, and Darin and Brooke Aldridge, to complete the song.
After brief speeches by a number of people who helped bring the Earl Scruggs Center into existence, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory passed on a speech which he stated had been prepared for him and invited the musicians back out for another song, telling the audience that he figured Scruggs would have enjoyed listening to music more than a speech. After a quick scramble for their instruments, the musicians returned to the stage for a version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown that had the crowd clapping along.
The Earl Scruggs Center was also open throughout the afternoon for brief tours. Located in the historic Cleveland County Courthouse, the center includes a small museum dedicated to both the life and career of Earl Scruggs and the history of his native Cleveland County. In the museum, visitors begin their tour by greeting a life-sized statue of a young Scruggs, complete with an appropriate Presto tailpiece on his banjo and National picks on his fingers, before viewing a number of musical and historical exhibits. Highlights of the museum include Scruggs’ first homemade D tuner, made in 1952, two of Scruggs’ banjos (as well as instruments from several of his family members), and numerous large photos tracing Scruggs’ life. While the museum is not quite the three-finger banjo mecca that some fans may expect, it’s still an extremely nice space and an interesting look at the life and influences of a man who many consider a musical hero.
The day finished with a nearly sold-out concert called “Remembering Earl: Music and Stories” at Shelby High School’s Malcolm Brown Auditorium. With Eddie Stubbs as emcee, the evening replicated Scruggs’ “Family and Friends” concerts and featured Rob Ickes, Sam Bush, Jim Mills, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, John Gardner, and Randy and Gary Scruggs. Throughout the evening, the musicians alternated between songs and memories of Scruggs, reminding the audience of how much Scruggs touched all of our lives.
From Earl’s Breakdown to Reuben’s Train, the musicians kept the crowd captivated for over two hours as they worked their way through some of Scruggs’ most famous numbers, as well as songs that reminded them personally of Scruggs and his wife Louise. Each of the various stages of Scruggs’ career were covered, with a few traditional bluegrass numbers such as Sally Goodin and Molly and Tenbrooks, Flatt and Scruggs favorites like Foggy Mountain Rock, as well as a nod to the folk and rock influences of the Earl Scruggs Revue. Gill and Tritt sang a few country numbers, as well, including Tritt’s soulful rendition of I Walk the Line, a song which he said was one of Louise Scruggs’ favorites and which he sang at her funeral.
Several humorous and moving stories were shared during the performance, including Eddie Stubbs’ remembrance of the time he saw Scruggs at a Cracker Barrel in Nashville. Stubbs said he immediately invited Scruggs to dine with him, honored to be able to buy a meal for such a legendary figure. He told Scruggs to get anything he wanted on the menu, and Scruggs ordered pinto beans, cornbread, milk, and “the biggest slab of onion they had.” When the waitress asked if he wanted whole or skim milk, he replied whole because, as Stubbs related, Scruggs said he didn’t know there was any other kind.
If this past weekend’s events are any indication, Scruggs’ memory is not only alive and well, but is in good hands with the folks at the Earl Scruggs Center. With two floors of exhibit space, including special temporary exhibits which will change twice a year, the center is certainly worth the trip for those interested in learning more about Scruggs and the county and town that provided his earliest influences. For more information, visit the Earl Scruggs Center online at www.earlscruggscenter.org.