Everyone should visit this North Carolina county
Words by Marianne Leek
Photos by Eli Johnson, Marianne Leek
Southern Appalachian author and poet Ron Rash once described the area around Shelby, North Carolina, as “Here where the hills buckle to the mountains.”
Known as “Carolina’s Land of Rhythm and Roots'' and located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Shelby is the county seat of Cleveland County and is relatively close to both Asheville and Charlotte. This pastoral landscape, with its rolling hills and bucolic setting, only becomes more brilliant with each passing season—the rich new greenery of spring becomes awash in the golden glow of summer sunlight before the surrounding mountains come alive with the fiery hues of fall.
Shelby is a beautifully charming throwback to small-town America, with a bustling and vibrant town square that feels more like a neighborhood where everyone knows your name. Uptown Shelby is home to the thriving Foothills Farmers Market and endless opportunities for unique shopping and dining experiences. Home to some of the best livermush and Southern BBQ around, this endearing town is literally centered around the Earl Scruggs Center, which pays homage to the town’s musical roots, Earl Scruggs being one of its most beloved citizens. In addition to the Scruggs Center, visitors can take in a show at the Don Gibson Theatre, peruse art studios and galleries, grab a pint or glass at a local brewery or vineyard, shop at antique stores and boutiques, and enjoy area parks and trails. If you’re looking for respite from overcrowded tourist hot spots, this up-and-coming cultural destination is the perfect weekend getaway for rest, relaxation, music, and fun.
The Earl Scruggs Center is a state-of-the-art interactive museum that pays tribute to Scruggs's musical career and far-reaching influence. Located in the repurposed former historic courthouse in the center of the county, its 2014 opening was integral to the revitalization of uptown Shelby. The exhibits follow Scruggs’ modest beginnings on a 40-acre farm in the nearby Flint Hill community, his innovative and complicated three-finger style of playing the five-string banjo, and the trajectory of his life and career. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” featured in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” remains one of the most widely-recognized songs in bluegrass music. The museum also sheds light on the progressive marriage between Scruggs and Louise Certain Scruggs, who worked as the manager and booking agent for Flatt and Scruggs and was the first woman in the music industry to take on such roles, while the upstairs area of the museum includes an exceptional exhibit about the African influence on American music. The center offers year-round educational opportunities and hosts a variety of cultural events, many of which are free or of little cost to the public, and includes a music venue that hosts the annual Center Stage Concert Series, featuring bluegrass and roots artists once a month from April through October. Having worked with Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, and many others, Scruggs remains the “most celebrated and imitated banjo player in the world,” and even though he passed away in 2012, his influence is evident in modern bluegrass, country, and American roots music.
Steps from the Earl Scruggs Center is the Don Gibson Theatre. Named after another of Shelby’s most beloved sons, this 400-seat small but mighty venue has featured some of the most well-known artists in country, bluegrass, jazz, and rock and roll. Instrumental in “changing the sound of country music” and affectionately referred to as the “sad poet,” Gibson famously penned, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which has been recorded over 700 times, as well as other country staples such as, “Oh Lonesome Me” and “Sweet Dreams.”
In 2022, the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival kicked off in September at the nearby Tryon International Equestrian Center. The festival is a celebration of the best in bluegrass, Americana, and roots music, as well as the life and legacy of Earl Scruggs. This year’s festival takes place September 1 through 3 and features an eclectic mix of some of the most revered artists in Americana, including the incomparable Emmylou Harris, Greensky Bluegrass, and the Grammy-winning The Infamous Stringdusters. The price point of this three-day festival at a world-class venue makes it a bargain and the hottest ticket in town. The Tryon International Equestrian Center is situated about 20 minutes from Shelby on 1,600 acres and includes eight onsite restaurants, over 20 shops and services, a 50-room stable house inn, 44 one-bedroom cabins, 17 three- and five-bedroom cabins, and 200-plus RV pads with full hookups. The center is open year-round, seven days a week, with free parking and admission. It’s an incredible international facility that aims to make equestrian activities and events accessible to everyone. Whether you are attending a music festival, concert, rodeo, or show, The Tryon International Equestrian Center is well worth a visit. And if you have the time, be sure to visit Mountain Brook Vineyards located just down the road from the Equestrian Center for a premiere wine-tasting experience with the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop.
In addition to music, Shelby features plenty to please even the pickiest of palates. Start your day at the Shelby Cafe with the “Mayor’s Special”—two eggs, cheddar cheese, and livermush, scrambled together and served on pita bread with mayonnaise. The menu also includes biscuits and gravy, pancakes, French toast, their famous “Garbage Platter,” along with vegetarian options. Shelby is home to the Livermush Festival—“Mush, Music, and Mutts” in October, so whether you like it “split and dropped” or scrambled in your eggs, this “everything but the squeal” pork delicacy is something everyone should try at least once, and the Shelby Cafe has some of the best. This local gem is a nod to old-fashioned, neighborhood diners where everyone is welcomed like family, and the hospitality and service are impeccable.
While visiting, be sure to wet your whistle at Newgrass Brewery Co., which offers exceptional small-batch craft beer brewed on-site and arguably the best burgers around. Owner Roger Holland does his best to source ingredients from local farms, including beef for their burgers and grapes from nearby vineyards for certain beers, and also disposes of spent grain responsibly by recycling it as food for local farm cattle. Holland is conscientious about how he runs Newgrass, and it’s clear his focus is on quality food and beer, and building relationships within his community. “Our award-winning kitchen serves up as many local farm foods as we can get our hands on every day. I’ve never pressured [employees] to cut corners to increase profit margins; I always tell them, ‘Just do the right thing.’” Holland is a Shelby native, and Newgrass also played an important role in the revitalization of Shelby. He explained why he took on this challenge in his retirement years: “I grew up here and moved back here in 1979. I’ve got three daughters and I wanted them to have a place to come back to. The one thing Shelby was lacking was a craft brewery. It was about economic development, but it was also personal for me.” Newgrass provides a family-friendly atmosphere with an outdoor beer garden located beside the famous Earl Scruggs mural.
If you’re in the mood for BBQ, Shelby has some of the finest. Red Bridges BBQ Lodge has been owned and operated by four generations of family and has been going strong for over 78 years. They “slow cook pork over hickory all night long . . . to get that true old-fashioned flavor.” Equally delicious and just down the road is Alston Bridges Barbecue, and while they share a last name, they’re not related. Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille is another local favorite, featuring some of the best specialty pizza around and a full bar. If you’re looking to grab a nightcap, enjoy a wine or beer tasting, or hear some live music, then the Dragonfly Wine Market is the place to be. This lively establishment features some of the best local talent nightly.
The Foothills Farmers Market is a hub of activity year-round on Saturday mornings as well as Wednesday mornings during summer at the Bobby Bell Pavilion. Here you’ll find produce, honey, baked goods, and other food produced in Cleveland County and the surrounding area, along with family-owned farms and small businesses, potters, and artisans. You’ll meet local farmers and vendors such as those from Old North Farm, Old North Shrub, and Milk Glass Pie owned and operated by chef-turned-farmer Jamie Swofford and baker Keia Mastrianni. Keia’s pies are some of the most coveted sweet treats in the region, especially around the holidays, and Jamie’s Old North Shrub vinegar-based botanical beverages can be found in cocktail creations across North Carolina.
While visiting Shelby, ditch the chain hotels and be sure to book your stay at Morgan and Wells Bed and Breakfast. Relax on the front porch of this historic home within easy walking distance of all that uptown Shelby has to offer. With the finest attention to detail, owner Melanie Graham and her staff make sure that each person’s stay is unique and tailored to his or her individual needs. In an effort to maintain the integrity and heritage of this home, it features original in-room fireplaces, 12-foot ceilings, claw foot bathtubs, antique furnishings, and beautiful hardwood floors. This exquisite Black-owned, women-run bed and breakfast offers premiere accommodations in the heart of Shelby.
Rich in music history and rooted in Southern charm, uptown Shelby, North Carolina and the surrounding area need to be at the top of any North Carolina bucket list.