Cleveland County, North Carolina
by Susan Marquez
Don Gibson & Earl Scruggs Country
When Emily Epley joined a bluegrass band in college, she had no idea she would one day be in the epicenter of bluegrass music and culture. I studied classical voice in college,” she says. “A teacher invited me to join their band, saying I had a good voice for bluegrass.” Emily grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and went to college in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Her husband’s job brought her to North Carolina in 1995, and Shelby, North Carolina has been home for the past 25 years.
Emily was in corporate development until she had her first child. “I got a call from a lady at church who told me she was working on a ‘little project.’ The project director was moving to Texas, and the lady told me she thought of me.” The “little project” was to create two attractions as a destination to draw tourists to the community. “There was a group of volunteers trying to reinvigorate the community. They wanted to find a way to bring life back, so they began to consider what our community had that others did not have.”
What Cleveland County had was a strong bluegrass music heritage.
It is the home of both Don Gibson and Earl Scruggs. The two projects could bring in “heritage tourists,” tourists interested in the history and heritage of an area. “They stay longer and spend more money,” says Emily.
The projects developed were the Don Gibson Theatre and the Earl Scruggs Center. The Don Gibson Theatre, a preserved 1937 art deco movie theatre, serves as a bar and event space, seating four hundred people and hosting big-name touring acts.
“He worked in a textile mill and lived on a farm,” says Emily. “Those experiences became a whole genre of music.”
The Earl Scruggs Center is designed for visitors to learn more about Scruggs’ story and the bigger picture of the area from which he came.
“We worked with top-notch museum designers from D.C. to create engaging, entertaining, and interactive displays. People stay longer because of the amazing technology and how information is layered in. The museum honors the music of Earl Scruggs, as well as the music of the region.”
Emily took the job and started in June 2008. “That group of volunteers raised ten million dollars for the projects. Half of that came from individuals, and we live in a small community. We also got an Economic Development Administration grant for $1.543 million.” The Don Gibson Theatre opened in November 2011 with Marty Stuart as the opening act. The Earl Scruggs Center opened in January 2014.
Now director of Visit Cleveland County, a job she has held since March 2019, Emily says that the two attractions have been very positive for tourism.
“The Don Gibson Theatre attracts local and regional residents, and the Earl Scruggs Center has had people from every state and over twenty countries. We should have a comprehensive economic impact analysis next year.”
Another musical attraction is the two murals of the North Carolina Musicians Murals project.
“A very talented mural artist wanted to honor North Carolina musicians who influenced American music. There are murals across the state featuring artists like Anita Baker, John Coltrane, and Nina Simone. We were fortunate to get two murals. One of Don on the side of the theater and one of Earl on the side of the Newgrass Brewing Company. It’s nice that folks can sit outdoors and sip on a Five String Ale with Earl looking down on them.”
Emily is looking forward to the Earl Scruggs Festival held in Polk County on Labor Day Weekend. “There will be educational programs and multiple stages with amazing artists. It has been canceled twice because of COVID, so we are excited that it is finally happening.”
In her time in Shelby, Emily says she has learned that the bluegrass world is a very tight-knit community.
“I was one of nine kids, and I did not have formal musical training. I was in choir and choral music in school and decided to go to college to be a music therapist. I never dreamed I’d be doing what I am doing now, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
When Emily took on her role with Visit Cleveland County, she restarted the tourism and branding. “We came up with ‘Carolina’s Land of Rhythm and Roots,’ which accurately describes what we have to offer. We have farm-to-table dining, rivers, trails, potters, and much more.
We also have an incredibly rich musical heritage interwoven in the community and attractions. It’s beautiful to see what can be accomplished when people come together for the right reasons for the greater good.”