Musical Arrangement: Mary Beth Martin ’08 Helps Expose North Carolina’s Musical Roots

Mary Beth Martin

By Chris Sauders | NC State Alumni Magazine

Mary Beth Martin ’08 comes from a musical family. Her mother has a Southern gospel background, and her husband plays the guitar. But none of that talent rubbed off on Martin, who doesn’t sing or play anything. “I’m one of those who took piano for seven years and cannot play at all,” she says.

Instead, she has found another way to show her musical appreciation. Martin, a Park Scholar who majored in political science, is executive director of the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby, N.C. There, she heads efforts to celebrate the legacy and contributions of Scruggs, who was from Cleveland County and is considered one of the most influential bluegrass and country-music banjo players in history. (One has to look no further than a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies for Scruggs’ reach. The theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was recorded by Scruggs and his longtime collaborator Lester Flatt.) The center also tells the larger story of the region. “There’s a really rich musical heritage to this county,” Martin says.

A large part of that effort means Martin, 34, works with her staff to develop educational programs, such as hosting a speaker who introduces children to 50 instruments from around the world. The center also purchases ukuleles, mandolins and percussion instruments for kids to get a feel for playing, and this spring marked the first time that a visit to the center was a mandatory field trip for all the county’s schools.

“I’m one of those who took piano for seven years and cannot play at all.”

Martin also puts together exhibits for the general public that might catch the center’s 7,000 annual visitors — some of whom come from as far away as Japan — by surprise. Take the recent exhibit featuring the visual art of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime songwriting partner and, it turns out, an avid fan of American roots music.

But Martin says the heart of the center’s mission is to make sure the center — located in the former Cleveland County courthouse — unites. “We exist,” she says, “to be a place in the community where people gather.”

This article was originally published in the spring 2020 issue of NC State Alumni Magazine (pg. 63)