Born on Chestnut Mountain, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, on October 21, 1921, Shumate taught himself to play the fiddle as a young boy and he pioneered innovations that are still admired and studied by musicians today.
As well as listening to uncle, he heard the Grand Ole Opry’s premier fiddler of the time, Arthur Smith, who emphasized the “long-bow” style, playing plenty of double stops and bluesy slides. “I tried my best to play just like Arthur”, Shumate is quoted as saying.
Shumate won his first contest when he was fourteen years old.
As a young man, Shumate went to work in a furniture factory in Hickory, North Carolina, but he was soon playing on the local radio station WHKY with Don Walker and the Blue Ridge Boys.
Quite by chance, Bill Monroe was driving in the neighborhood, and he happened to tune in to the show and heard Shumate fiddling. A little while later Monroe invited Shumate to join his Blue Grass Boys to replace Chubby Wise, who left in April 1945.
Shumate didn’t stay with Monroe for very long as by December 1945 ‘Howdy’ Forrester had returned from the Navy to reclaim his job. However, Shumate got to play on the Grand Ole Opry and to make a very significant contribution to the history of the Blue Grass Boys and bluegrass music in a wider sense by introducing Monroe to a young banjo player, Earl Scruggs.
He didn’t do any recordings in the few months while with the Blue Grass Boys, but he did help to write The Old Country Baptizing, the Gospel quartet song that Monroe recorded in May 1962.
For a week in the spring of 1948 Shumate provided some relief for the Stanley Brothers, who were between fiddlers.
When Flatt and Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boys later in that same year, they hired Shumate as their fiddler. He participated in their first recording session, playing on Cabin in Caroline and Someday We’ll Meet Again Sweetheart.
To complete a very hectic year Shumate outplayed some of the country’s best fiddlers to win the National Fiddlers Convention in Richlands, Virginia, giving him the permanent title of Master Fiddler.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Shumate tired of life on the road. So, he returned to Hickory and to work as a furniture salesman. However, he continued to perform and record when time allowed.
He performed at the first MerleFest in 1988, returning in 2005 to play along with other former members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
As one of the pioneers of bluegrass music, Shumate appeared on a TNN special, Grass Roots to Bluegrass, in 1999 which highlighted the originators of bluegrass music.
In 1980 he recorded 13 tunes with the Blue River Boys; released on the Anvil label, Bluegrass Fiddle Supreme (RSR 1152).
Shumate was more active in the 1990s doing five sessions in Galax’s Heritage Studio, one of which realised a ten track cassette Tribute to Bill Monroe.
All of his recordings are included in The Jim Shumate Collection (Volume 1 and 2) available through Heritage Records in Galax, Virginia.
During his last few years Shumate was honored with several awards; induction into the in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, then in Nashville, Tennessee; the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award (1995); and induction into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame (2011).
However, the most significant would have to be the simple recognition that Shumate was responsible for the now extremely familiar fiddle kick-off, which he introduced during his time with Bill Monroe.
Jim Shumate passed away on October 10, 2013 not 2 weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. He had been suffering from renal failure and plagued by Alzheimer’s prior to his passing.
A funeral service was held yesterday (10/13). Remembrances can be left at the funeral home web site, or here at Bluegrass Today.
UPDATE 11/5: We received these comments and clarifications from Natalya Weinstein, Jim’s grandaughter-in-law (married to John Cloyd Miller).
To Richard Thompson and the folks at Bluegrass Today,
Thank you so much for your recent article about Jim Shumate and his contribution to bluegrass music. It was a very detailed and accurate account of many of his contributions to bluegrass music.
1. Jim actually doesn’t have a middle name, but somehow “Fred” popped up somewhere during his life.
2. Jim did not have Alzheimers – he recognized all of us until the very end, although he did have mild dementia (as most folks in their 90s do). He passed away peacefully from natural causes.
Thanks again for your thoughtful article!
All the best,
A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.
He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.
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