Polk County, NC: Earl Scruggs Music Festival and More
by Susan Marquez
Blue Ridge National Heritage Area
For sixteen years, Melinda Massey has been touting the assets of Polk County, North Carolina. As the county’s travel and tourism director, she knows that people are drawn to the area to enjoy the hiking, waterfalls, and mountains. “We are a driving destination,” she says. Polk County is part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, where folks work to preserve the stories of the mountains through music, craft, agriculture, nature, and Cherokee heritage. The Heritage Area encompasses 25 counties.
The area is quite scenic and has a lot of vacation rentals, ranging from rustic cabins in the woods to grand dwellings that can accommodate a large family gathering.
“Our visitation actually doubled during Covid,” says Melinda. “People couldn’t go to Europe or visit the big cities, but they wanted to getaway. Our area is very rural. As a matter of fact, we have four ZIP Codes, and half of the county is rural. Our website is firstpeaknc.com because we showcase the first designated mountain peak of the Blue Ridge Mountains as folks drive into the state from South Carolina.”
One of the big attractions in Polk County is the Tryon International Equestrian Center & Resort in Mill Spring. The center opened in 2014 and features restaurants, shops, entertainment, cabins, and a 50-room motel. Horse shows have been the main attraction at the Resort, but Melinda says that concerts are just coming into play.
This fall, the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival will be held at the Resort September 2 through 4 after being canceled two years due to Covid. The festival will celebrate Earl Scruggs’s legacy and unique banjo-picking style in partnership with WNCW 88.7 at Isothermal Community College in Spindale and the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby. The lineup for the festival will feature the best in traditional roots music and progressive fusion. Hosted by Jerry Douglas and The Earls of Leicester, the lineup boasts a strong slate of artists, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sam Bush Band, Alison Brown, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Dom Flemons, and more. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Earl Scruggs Center and Isothermal Community College, serving Scruggs’ home region of the Carolina Foothills with cultural programming.
“It’s great to see the Resort celebrating the legacy of such an impactful icon from our music history. Earl Scruggs Music Festival attendees can expect a terrific weekend of Bluegrass music in a top-notch venue,” says Melinda.
“When I see how beautiful the Resort is and how they framed the landscape, it makes me appreciate the mountains all over again. It is such an asset to our area. We have 20,000 people in our county, and the Resort regularly has 3,000 - 5,000 people attend events. A large festival may draw 9,000 or 10,000. The Resort focused on horse events when it opened, but it has expanded into music festivals and events. That’s exciting and gives both locals and visitors another way to experience the Resort.”
In 2021, Night in the Country Carolinas was the debut music festival at the Resort.
“It has been held for over twenty years in the desert out west,” says Melinda. “The promoters were looking for an east coast location, and it landed here. It was very organized and well-received. We look forward to having it back again this year, August 25 through 27.”
Another music feature in the area is the annual Junior Appalachian Musicians sessions at the Tryon Fine Arts Center each spring and fall. Local students and music teachers participate in preserving the music of the Appalachian cultural heritage. Students also learn local music history and theory, dance, folklore, and more. A public concert happens on the closing day of each session.
“We also have a local cheese maker with their own aging caves, four wineries with tasting rooms, and other agricultural attractions that weave perfectly into the bluegrass story we have in Polk County,” says Melinda.