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Jenkins: Banjo king Earl Scruggs is honored in Shelby

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

Earl Scruggs was 88 when he died last spring, so there are no people left in Cleveland County, 45 miles west of Charlotte in the rolling foothills, to tell the stories that the old timers used to tell after Scruggs got famous. While he was coming up, on the Grand Ole Opry, with Flatt and Scruggs, playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” appearing on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” becoming an icon to people from Steve Martin to Elton John, the stories were many.

Oh, yes, the old timers would say, seated up in the Snack Shop in Boiling Springs, nine miles West of Shelby, we remember that boy. Yessir, you could hear that little fella playing the banjo on his family’s porch in Flint Hill (a tiny community adjacent). He was about 4 years old then. We’d never have known. Nice boy. Quiet. Good manners.

And when he made it? Never changed, the old timers said. Still came home. Drove a big car, though. Used to stay with his brother, Horace, down the road a bit. They played on the porch just like they did growing up. That’s when everybody knew Earl was in town.

Now, Earl, in one way, is back in town, for good.

Smack in the center of Shelby, in the old Cleveland County courthouse, a fine structure that looks like a courthouse ought to look, will be the Earl Scruggs Center, honoring the greatest banjo player who ever lived. The extended Scruggs family lives here in these hills still, and they’ll be there when the center opens in the courthouse come January.

On Jan. 11, in fact, they’ll literally play the center into being with a sort of on-stage roundtable at Shelby High School that will include conversation and some music from the likes of singers Vince Gill and Travis Tritt and mandolinist Sam Bush, among others. They were frequent guests of Earl and Louise Scruggs for picking parties at their Nashville mansion. (In a conversation with Scruggs on his brother Horace’s very porch about 30 years ago, Earl modestly described it as “just a place in the soo-burbs.”)

In tandem with the Scruggs center is the Don Gibson Theatre in downtown Shelby, where shows and receptions and the like are in full swing. Gibson, a Shelby native, was a famed country songwriter who could have retired after one afternoon’s work, when he wrote “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Oh, Lonesome Me.” His career lasted decades, and he’s buried in the Sunset Cemetery in the middle of town.

Emily Epley, the effervescent director of the Scruggs Center, says local volunteers got together some years ago and brainstormed over what Shelby, which has suffered from the overall economic downturn, could do to draw visitors as a destination town. The old courthouse had been used as a museum before. And Scruggs, who counted people from comedian Steve Martin to Johnny Cash to the legendary Carter family to Hank Williams Sr. among his fans, seemed a natural “hook” for a museum-type venue. He knew about the plans before he died.

“We just started thinking about what we could do to get people interested in Shelby,” Epley said. “And here we had these two world famous musicians...and it started there.”

The 10,000-square foot old courthouse won’t be devoted exclusively to Earl Scruggs’s personal story.

“You can’t tell the story of the man without telling the story of the place,” Epley said. “So the Earl Scruggs story is going to be all through the center, along with the community’s story.”

Scruggs’ memorabilia will be on display, including Grammy awards and the banjo on which 4-year-old Earl started to play.

He was, once he made it, in many ways outside the lines of many country musicians in terms of his view of the world. During the Vietnam war, he spoke out against the hawks and played music with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. He played, in fact, with just about everybody. And meanwhile, his wife, Louise, a brilliant manager, was shrewdly investing his earnings and royalties to the point where the little Scruggs boy from Flint Hill became tremendously wealthy.

But the folks back home never saw much flash. When Earl and Louise Scruggs were in town, brother Horace would invite a few folks over to play, which many would later count as a highlight of their lives. They always found, on that porch, a quiet fellow little different from the one who grew up down the road. But when the banjo strings began to vibrate, those witnesses to genius would not have been surprised that one day he would be celebrated in a museum all his own.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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