Earl Scruggs logo.png
I have to think that Scruggs would be proud of this place.
— Washington Post
Cleveland County Courthouse, Shelby NC - Home of the Earl Scruggs Center  

Cleveland County Courthouse, Shelby NC - Home of the Earl Scruggs Center 


"This was the courthouse until 1974," says Emily Epley (Executive Director of the Earl Scruggs Center: Music & Stories from the American South). Emily is an effervescent, knowledgeable director with an energy that's contagious. She wants to share with the many music lovers, and Earl Scruggs fans the plethora of knowledge, memorabilia, history, and more regarding the master and, innovator of the three finger "Scruggs style" banjo.

On Saturday, January 11, 2014, banjo lovers from all over the world gathered to honor Earl Scruggs at the grand opening of The Earl Scruggs Center.  Little did they know, pickers had been planning to surprise the crowd with a flash mob jam featuring Earl Scruggs' legendary song "Reuben." Watch what happens.

The Earl Scruggs Center opened four years ago with much-preplanned fan-fare, but due to heavy rain, the planning committee moved quickly to plan B.  Directly across the street sits Central United Methodist Church with a gorgeous sanctuary that "looks and feels very much like the famous Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN) says, Emily." Close to five hundred people crowded into the church to hear local officials, the governor of NC and other VIPs speak. Little did they know, pickers had been planning to surprise the crowd with a flash mob jam featuring Earl Scruggs' legendary song "Reuben." As planned, the first musicians, Dean Jenks, appeared and began playing. He was joined one by one by members of Steep Canyon Rangers, and then as the music intensified, more an more musician began to pour in from all directions of the packed sanctuary. Interesting fact -the song is known by many names. Some of the most common of these (in Bluegrass circles) are: 'Reuben,' 'Reuben's Train,' 'Old Reuben,' 'Lonesome Reuben' and 'Train 45.' Most importantly, it is known as the song Earl Scruggs was playing when he had his 'AH HA' moment. The first tune that young Earl at the age of ten played with a three finger roll. That very moment he first got the three finger roll that would change the future of the banjo and create what is now known as the bluegrass genre. 

The scene was magical. A constant stream of musicians came out to play, including Sam Bush and numerous well respected local musicians - the power and intensity of it felt as if the roof would be blown off. 
— Emily Epley


A blueprint for success 

The Cleveland County Courthouse, like many across the south, became the local history museum in when court business relocated to a new facility 1976. Like so many local history museums, it was very "stuff" based as community members donated most of the objects and artifacts. It remained the Cleveland History Museum until 2004. The doors were locked, and the items inside sat untouched for two years. Given the building was erected in 1907, as it goes with old buildings, creatures getting in, and general weathering both inside and out. The 'stuff' and the building were deteriorating rapidly. A gentleman from North Carolina State University who specializes in helping small towns revitalize was brought in. As the story goes, he showed up a day early just to secretly 'check out' the town. The date was around 2006, and the economy was doing rather well except in Shelby where double-digit unemployment hung like a dark cloud over the town.

The uptown area had a smattering of little shops and restaurants, but it was pretty dead after business hours - nothing happening. Traffic largely passed by Shelby on highway 74, which acted as a by-pass and offered strip malls, chain restaurants and multiple fuel options for those heading mostly to the mountains or toward Charlotte, often not knowing the beautiful Uptown Shelby area existed.   The next day at the meeting, the NCSU professor let the assembled group know that he had been checking out the town. He then mentioned he understood he had been asked to tell them what to do with all of the 'old stuff' crammed in the old courthouse, BUT he wanted everyone present to know that they had a much more significant issue than what to do with the stuff in the building. Much to the surprise to everyone else in the room, the gentleman exclaimed, "Your small town has a problem, and this is just one example. If you don't do something, your small town as many small towns in America is going to have tumbleweeds blowing around downtown streets. You all are just volunteers... you certainly don't have to do anything about it, but I just wanted you to know."

His words were the catalyst to spark discussion over what to do with the 'stuff,' or something else. From that point forward an initial committee formed to look at possibilities for revitalizing their community. Seeking inspiration, committee members and various town residents made multiple bus trips to other small towns and cities that had successfully reinvented themselves. One idea they were considering was a local history museum. So, the committee members met with North Carolina's Department of Cultural Resources. The response was not what they expected. "Have you been to the Lincoln county museum?" No. "The Gaston County Museum?" No. "Why not?" Well, we really aren't interested in their history. "Why would folks from out of town pay to visit your local history museum?" The committee continued their research and brainstorming to discover what Shelby had that no other towns did. Two legendary sons, Don Gibson and Earl Scruggs! Everywhere the buses took them to see what others had done to revitalize their downtown further cemented the idea that the committee was now on to something. A core of those volunteers decided to move forward. A first step in the process of becoming a 501-c3 non-profit organization. They named the organization Destination Cleveland County Inc. (DCC) because they wanted to make their community a destination. DCC's volunteer board then spent an entire year solely on research - feasibility analysis, economic impact studies, created proformas for similar type projects in other communities and if/how that could work in Shelby. That is what is referred to as 'getting your ducks in a row'!

It’s more than the MAN. It’s more than the MUSIC. It’s more than the PLACE. It’s about the spirit of tradition and innovation that resonates throughout, celebrating the unique American South
— Earl Scruggs Center

Around the world, Don Gibson, and Earl Scruggs are not only known as great musicians, but they are also known for what they did for music.

Emily Epley started working on the project in June of 2008 as a part-time Executive Director for the non-profit known as Destination Cleveland County. From there the capital campaign was launched by the members of DCC. When all was said and done, they raised a little north of $8,000,000 with the total of both projects around $9,000,000. How did they spend the money? First, they created the Don Gibson Theatre in what was a 1939 art deco movie house by completely renovating the existing movie house to a state of the art performance space and doubling the size with an addition to be used for pre-show events, modern restrooms, and rentals for special events such as weddings and meetings. The facility now hosts special events, top-shelf bands and more. The result is an incredible theater bearing the name and honoring Cleveland County native Don Gibson. 

Part two of the project: Earl Scruggs

Honoring Earl through the lens of where he came from by looking at the music, history and the culture of the place he was born and raised. He grew up in the small Flint Hill community about 15 minutes from where the Center is located. His history aligns closely with the culture and traditions of the area.

The goal was to bring in people from around the world. To date, patrons have visited from every US State and 18 foreign countries. Not your run of the mill museum, the Earl Scruggs Center offers much more: (small sample)

  • In - museum and Into the Classroom Curriculum-based programs: Social Studies + Music + English + Science + Art that are interactive, inexpensive and custom.
  • Banjo lessons - banjos provided for beginners. 
  • Exhibits: (While visiting the ESC, we thoroughly enjoyed the David Hold Exhibit) David Holt is a musician, storyteller, artist, historian and radio and television host who has collected and performed the songs and stories of the Blue Ridge Mountains for more than forty years.  This exhibit includes over 30 framed black and white portraits of Holt’s musical mentors and heroes from the 1970s to the early 2000s.  In these photos are icons such as Doc Watson (whom David considered his musical father), Etta Baker, Earl Scruggs, and Dolly Norton, as well as musicians who, while not well known, were influential in David’s life.
  • Events (also available to rent for your event)
Expansive rental space.

Expansive rental space.

Earl Scruggs reinvented the bluegrass banjo. This place might reinvent cultural shrines.
— Raleigh News & Observer
Want to join a Jam Session? No musical skill necessary, just choose an instrument and JAM ON!

Want to join a Jam Session? No musical skill necessary, just choose an instrument and JAM ON!


The Earl Scruggs Center is remarkably beautiful and well designed. There is so much to see and do! First, a small theater gives you the 'nuts & bolts' of the Earl Scruggs story, while numerous interactive exhibits provide a thrilling experience for all ages. Spend a day at the Earl Scruggs Center, marvel at the beauty of Shelby's uptown with boutiques, brewery, fantastic foodie eateries, and catch a show at the Don Gibson Theatre. 

- February 27, 2018 YOUR ROOTS ARE SHOWING - GraciousRoots.net