The legendary musician on stage in front of the red curtains of the Don Gibson Theatre has something on his mind he wants to share with the audience. Propping his mandolin on his side, Ricky Skaggs leans into the microphone and addresses the Shelby crowd, his iconic silver hair falling forward. “You know something, y’all,” he says. “I just can’t seem to get enough of this barbecue.”
The crowd claps and cheers. A woman sticks two fingers in her mouth and gives a good whistle. “We love you, Ricky! And we love our barbecue!”
That Saturday, Skaggs most likely made a choice between Alston Bridges and Red Bridges for barbecue. He didn’t specify where he got his pork. He just couldn’t seem to stop talking about that fine, chopped meat and that fine, red sauce.
Someone may have warned Skaggs about telling the audience his dinner spot. They surely told him he’d get more than a whistle. Shelby is a town where residents are split in their usual choice for barbecue. It’s Alston’s or Red’s, depending on your location, your upbringing, and how you like your meat prepared. Some residents haven’t eaten at the other Bridges for years; some have never cheated.
But for Shelby, music is just as important as the barbecue, and for about a century, the two have been intertwined, creating a proud reputation for the town that’s folded just inside the outer rim of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Locals know they do two things better than most: cook a pig, and pick a banjo.
A tale of two Bridges
What Skaggs tasted that Saturday was a style of barbecue that has a 70-year history. Renowned barbecue legend Warner Stamey trained Red and Alston Bridges in the 1940s. Both were from Shelby. Both later opened their own barbecue joints.
Red and Alston were not related.
“Everybody thinks we’re cousins,” says Natalie Ramsey, Red’s granddaughter and vice president of Red Bridges. “Everybody. They come in and say, ‘You’re cousins,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re not,’ but they still don’t believe me.”
Red was a cook in the Army in World War II and returned to Shelby to learn the trade. He opened his restaurant in 1946, and Alston, a mechanic and Stamey’s brother-in-law, opened his in 1955.
Today Red’s is located off U.S. Highway 74, a busy boulevard that cuts through Shelby. Inside, a kaleidoscope-patterned bar contrasts with the turquoise barstools. Low, diner-style tables fill the floor, and Ramsey’s brother answers the phone. “We’ll probably run out of barbecue by 6 today,” he tells the caller.
On most days, Ramsey waits tables and answers phones (they have a separate line just for take-out, and they ship barbecue to Hawaii and California). Sometimes she helps cook shoulders in the pit out back, stoking the oak and hickory to make sure the flavor is right. She grabs more wood from the half-mile-long stack behind the restaurant. Nothing has changed here in 67 years, she says. The barbecue sauce still has the same tangy flavor that attracts hundreds — they ship it to New Zealand for one customer; sour cream still thickens the banana pudding; locals still order plates and out-of-towners still want sandwiches.
At Alston Bridges on Grover Street, five miles northwest, the menus read “Pigs are Beautiful,” and businessmen and locals munch on the red slaw that takes on a spicy flavor in the early summer when the cabbage comes in from the North. Reid Bridges, Alston’s grandson, explains the difference in chopped and coarse-chopped barbecue to a young woman. The coarse-chopped includes some crispy skin that adds a textural contrast to the meat, he says. There’s probably more fat in the plain chopped meat.
Reid Bridges arrived at the restaurant at about 4 this morning. He cooks about 50 shoulders a day, but he starts the pork on electric cookers and then finishes them in a pit. He prefers a certain style of shoulder — a short shank — and he buys from a distributor in Gastonia. Just like his grandparents did.
Emily Eply, the executive director of the Earl Scruggs Center, breaks open a hush puppy. “When I moved here we didn’t have any idea,” she says. “I told people I went to eat barbecue. They said, ‘Where’d you go? Alston’s or Red’s?’ I can do either one, but the meat here at Alston Bridges is chopped finer.”
Brownie Plaster explains her theory on the town’s division of Bridges. Because Red’s is off the highway, most travelers heading east or west go to Red’s. If you’re driving north or south, you’ll hit up Alston’s.
“If you just say Bridges that doesn’t tell you anything,” Plaster says.
Both restaurants swear there isn’t a rivalry. Natalie Ramsey at Red’s and Reid Bridges at Alston’s agree that they both have their own customers and there’s plenty of business for both restaurants in town. And when the third barbecue person, Skip Warrick, fires up his cooker in the name of charity, Reid Bridges picks up the phone and orders himself a rack of ribs and a bit of Boston butt.
A town of about 20,000, Shelby and its residents have long celebrated their role in the state. Since the mid-1900s, barbecue and music have been the backbone of this place, drawing in tourists and giving Shelby a reputation for producing tasty barbecue and groundbreaking musicians.
But back in 1843, when Shelby was officially incorporated, there wasn’t much here. Businessmen began investing in cotton, and in 1948, Cleveland County produced more bales of cotton than any other place in the state. The textile mills here paid some of the highest wages in the South, and workers arrived in droves.
By the 1950s, droughts and insect infestations had begun to slow production. The Bridges restaurants had opened up and were attracting customers, and Shelby’s reputation as a textile town slowly dwindled. Earl Scruggs, born in Shelby in 1924, popularized his three-finger picking banjo style — known as Scruggs Style — and gained legions of fans. By 1960, another Shelby son, Don Gibson, had arrived in Nashville and sang his way to the top of the charts with his hits “Oh, Lonesome Me” and “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles.” He earned the nickname The Sad Poet for writing heartbreaking ballads like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which has been recorded by more than 700 artists.
Destination Cleveland County figured out that the city should play up its rich heritage. They’ve invested more than six years and $6 million renovating the courthouse on the square and transforming it into a world-class museum dedicated to Earl Scruggs and the history of bluegrass. They spent another $3 million on the Don Gibson Theatre, a small venue that attracts performers like Ricky Skaggs.
Plaster, the chair of Destination Cleveland County, a nonprofit tourist group that works to promote the area, says the Earl Scruggs Center’s theme is built around the town’s character: resilience and change. “We’ve had to remake ourselves a lot over the years,” she says.
But when you walk around Lafayette and Washington streets and see the storefronts filled with shops, and hear townspeople argue about which barbecue restaurant is better, and hear the banjo picking down the street, it doesn’t feel like Shelby should try to remake itself.
Five years ago, a 77-year-old woman from Australia visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. There, she learned Don Gibson was from Shelby. She flew to Charlotte and paid a taxi driver $165 to drive her to Shelby to visit Gibson’s grave.
Her name is Daphne Rogan. She’s returning this year to re-visit Gibson’s grave, and she’ll be at the grand opening of the Earl Scruggs Center later this fall. Plaster already has 20 people lined up from Japan to visit in September, even though the center doesn’t have a concrete opening date.
Plaster has spent more than seven years on her Scruggs project, as she calls it. She starts many of her sentences with, “When we researched this.” She talks about her trips to different museums around the country to see how things are run. “People only read about 72 words in a museum,” she says. “People are not logical in museums.”
Plaster set out to draw people to Shelby. When she began her research, consultants quickly told her to zero in on one thing that sets Shelby apart from other small towns: music. As she walks through the old courthouse Plaster points to some exhibits: a touch-screen table that offers a history of music and a “pick ‘n’ play,” in which visitors can tap on Scruggs’s photo and hear him play; three movies featuring oral histories; and a “Super Earl” banjo that’s made of sterling silver and features gold inlays with a portrait of Scruggs on the back.
“This is the story of the world-famous banjo player extraordinaire and the place that gave birth to his music,” Plaster says. “He defined the voice of an instrument.”
While Shelby residents will have to wait for the museum to open, Plaster is excited. She knows the museum will be a success. In the meantime, as she walks to the gift shop — the old well house next to the courthouse — she points out the gray tile floor that takes the shape of a banjo. “That’s our logo,” she says.
Then she props her binder against her hips. “I’m hungry,” she says. “Let’s go to Alston’s.”
Spirit of giving
Plaster is just one example of the community resilience that defines Shelby. The residents here promote their town and build on what they know they do better than anyone else. They also work together. The Cleveland County Healthcare System is No. 1 in the nation for fund-raising for Relay for Life. The team has raised more than $1 million during its events, and a rightfully boastful banner claiming the honor is on display at the hospital.
The community spirit in Shelby is at its highest every fall at the relay, when that third barbecue person, Skip Warrick, fires up his cooker in the name of charity.
For about 20 years now, Warrick’s ribs, chicken, turkey, and barbecue — roasted for hours in his Cape Girardeau smoker — have been legendary in Shelby. Warrick is known locally as the third stop for barbecue. He doesn’t cook for profit; he only cooks for charity events, but when he does cook, he’s up all night stoking pecan wood in the smoker, turning Boston butts, and changing out about 135 racks of ribs at a time.
Warrick’s meat is the delicious, unifying option in Shelby. He begins chopping up a Boston butt on his white cutting board outside his business, the Shelby Nursery. The knife slices into different parts of the shoulder. Warrick picks out a piece of meat and hands it to a young woman standing next to him. “Try it,” he tells her. “You’ll like it.”
A few minutes later, after Warrick cleans his cutting board and begins pulling the ribs from the cooker, Marie Hendrick stops by to say hello. She’s a loyal customer. A fan of Skip’s ribs. She and the two nursery cats, Elvis and Priscilla, stare at the 18 pigs scattered across the white board.
Hendrick, who grew up on Red’s and still picks up take-out there occasionally, begins to shift her feet from left to right to left again. She keeps staring at the pile. Warrick takes another rack from the cooker and adds it to the table. The dry rub scents the air — a mixture of white sugar, lemon pepper, and chili powder whose composition Warrick won’t release to the public.
“Instead of dry rub we call it drugs,” he says.
This was the same Saturday that Ricky Skaggs just couldn’t stop telling the audience what good barbecue he’d had in Shelby. Skaggs never said where he stopped to eat, but maybe, just maybe, he didn’t go to Alston’s or Red’s. Maybe it was at Shelby Nursery where he was pulled in by that smoking pecan wood and the savory smell of barbecue.
5 things not to miss in Shelby
Owl’s Eye Vineyard and Winery
Relax and have a glass of wine at this vineyard located just outside of town. Choose from reds, whites, blushes, and dessert wines, and enjoy a stunning view of the South Mountains. Open Thursday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. and Sunday from 1-6 p.m. 1414 Metcalf Road. (704) 471-9196.
Buffalo Creek Gallery
Created in 2006 by 24 local artists, this gallery located off the square is filled with jewelry, pottery, and paintings. All the artists featured in the store are from Cleveland County. 104 East Warren Street. (704) 487-0256.
The Carousel and Rotary Train at City Park
Locals restored Shelby’s carousel in 1998, hand-carving new horses and chariots. Ride the carousel for 50 cents. But don’t forget the 1952 Rotary Special Miniature Train, which will take you around a loop inside the park. Sumter Street. (704) 484-6811.
For a nice evening out, consider dining at NiFen, well-known around Shelby for its shepherd’s pie and tiramisu. The wine list, which has more than 100 selections, is one of the most extensive in the region. 214-A South Lafayette Street. (704) 481-8882.
Lily Bean Coffee Shop
The owner of Lily Bean, Chad Stout, buys his beans from South America and Africa and roasts them in-house. The local favorite is the dark roast, but our recommendation: get the chai tea and pair it with a homemade chocolate chip cookie. 224 South Lafayette Street. (704) 476-0094.
Don Gibson Theatre
318 South Washington Street
Shelby, NC 28150
Alston Bridges Barbecue
620 Grover Street
Shelby, NC 28150
Red Bridges Barbecue
200 East Dixon Boulevard
Shelby, NC 28152
460 Cherryville Road
Shelby, NC 28150