Earl Scruggs Music Festival brings Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

After years in the making, the Earl Scruggs Music Festival kicked off its inaugural event Sept. 2, 2022 at Tryon Equestrian Center in Mill Spring. 

The multi-day festival convened artists from across genres to honor the legacy and musical influence of Cleveland County native, Earl Scruggs. Best remembered for his unique style of banjo picking, Scruggs was known to cross musical genres – blending country and bluegrass with rock music elements.

His ability to mingle music and generations is evidenced in the festival lineup with performances by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Rissi Palmer, The Earls of Leicester, and more.

Hosted by dobro master Jerry Douglas, the festival was established in partnership with Isothermal Community College’s public radio station WNCW 88.7 and the Earl Scruggs Center located in Shelby.

Crowds of all ages and musical interests filled seats for the three-day event. 

One attendee remarked, “You know, music festivals really do have a way of bringing people together.” 

Take Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Saturday night performance for instance. In a single row, multiple generations are standing and belting “Fishin’ in the Dark” and “Mr. Bojangles.” 

Jaime Hanna (left) and Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is one of the most “accomplished bands in American roots music” and a prime example of evolving and crossing musical genres, much like Scruggs himself.

A backstage meet-up between Earl Scruggs and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the catalyst for the Dirt Band’s three-disc album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Released in 1972, the project brought together country, folk, and bluegrass legends and is considered “a landmark recording in American music.”

That same collaborative spirit showed up at this year’s festival as artists joined each other on stage creating what festival-goer Madison Bridges says will be “remember when moments” marking the inaugural event.  

Providing education and cultural opportunities through music

“Music speaks for us when we don’t know what to say,” festival attendee Laura McBrayer said.

That’s part of its power.

It’s also a great convener – giving way to shared experiences and highlighting culture and history through the years. 

When Isothermal’s WNCW and the Earl Scruggs Center teamed up to deliver a music festival that honored Earl Scruggs, they were also on a mission to “underwrite educational programming and community outreach in Scruggs’ home region while carrying his legacy into the context of modern culture,” according to a press release.

WNCW 88.7 is a public radio station housed and broadcasted from Isothermal Community College’s campus. The station has been on airwaves for over 30 years and plays a mix of music genres, including alt-country, rock, Americana, bluegrass, Celtic, reggae, jazz, old-time, indie, blues, classic country, world beat, gospel, and singer songwriter. WNCW also carries NPR’s Morning Edition and headlines.

Sam Bush. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

In a 10-page document, Celtic Winds music host Richard Beard described the birth of WNCW. In the early 1980s, the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated money to each community college to create a single, job-related curriculum. Rockingham Community College created a fine woodworking program, Haywood Community College developed a sawmill operation for its Forest Management program, and Isothermal Community College chose Broadcasting Technology, a program that is still enrolling students today.

“Beyond the provision of workforce development and adult literacy programs, one of the original charges to the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) was to put forward cultural opportunities that were accessible to every citizen in every corner of the state,” Mike Gavin, Director of Marketing and Community Relations at Isothermal, said.

Gavin offered that WNCW is one of the best examples of creating cultural opportunities, fulfilling part of the NCCCS mission.

The call letters, WNCW, stand for ‘Western North Carolina’s Window.’

“This is a figurative way of saying that the station brings a world of culture to the Isothermal service area and the rest of western North Carolina through its varied programming. It’s also important to note that you can see through both sides of a window and, with WNCW streaming virtually anywhere, the world gets a look at the deep musical and cultural traditions of western North Carolina,” Gavin continued.

Béla Fleck & Friends. Courtesy of Eli Johnson

Similarly, the Earl Scruggs Center brings music, culture, and education together under one roof. They take on a collaborative approach, showcasing the life and career of Earl Scruggs while also highlighting the history and cultural traditions of the region.

Educators are encouraged to use the Center to enhance students’ learning experiences. According to their website, students visiting have an opportunity to learn about Scruggs’ worldwide impact and “discover the people of the region, the challenges they faced, and the changes they have made.”

The educational programs at the Center meet North Carolina state standards for social studies, science, arts and music, technology, and English language arts and benefit learners from second grade through high school. 

Since opening in 2014, the Center has seen visitors from around the world.

A portion of festival proceeds will support the Earl Scruggs Center and Isothermal Community College as they continue to provide cultural programming through various channels.

What’s next for the Earl Scruggs Music Festival

Event organizers said this is just the beginning and plan to host the festival around the same time next year.

As host Jerry Douglas said, “See y’all next year.”

The festival in photos

Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway. Courtesy of Eli Johnson
Alison Brown. Courtesy of Eli Johnson
Sandy Carlton of Big Sound Small Town, The Podcast interviews members from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Crowds during Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performance. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Closing out day one of the Earl Scruggs Music Festival. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.