Jim Shumate, a native of Wilkes County, North Carolina, made his name as a young fiddler in the 1940s playing with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and later with Lester Flatt and Earl Scrugg’s Foggy Mountain Boys. As a fiddler, Shumate pioneered innovations that are still admired and studied by musicians today.
Born on Chestnut Mountain in 1921, Shumate grew up hearing the sounds of his uncle playing fiddle at a neighboring farm. “He just played on his front porch when they got through working in the field,” he recalls. “Why, if the wind was coming in the right direction, I could hear him from our house, and, oh, it was so pretty.” Shumate says he has always liked the sound of a fiddle.
He also listened to the Grand Ole Opry’s premier fiddler, Arthur Smith. Smith’s style emphasized “long-bow” fiddling in which a number of notes are played with each stroke of the bow. “I tried my best to play just like Arthur,” Shumate remembers. In addition to learning bowing techniques, he was also influenced by Smith’s fondness for playing bluesy slides. Self-taught, Shumate began playing the fiddle as a young boy and won his first contest when he was fourteen years old.
As a young man, Shumate moved to Hickory, North Carolina, and went to work in a furniture factory, but was soon playing on the local radio station WHKY with Don Walker and the Blue Ridge Boys.
One day, as Bill Monroe was driving through North Carolina, he happened to tune in to the show and heard Shumate’s fiddling. Shortly thereafter, Shumate received a surprise phone call from the Father of Bluegrass himself asking him to join his Blue Grass Boys.
Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys played each Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry and spent the rest of the week performing across the South. During these trips Shumate realized the extent of their influence. “Little groups were all over the country and every one of them would be trying to do the same thing we had done on the Opry the night before,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Fellows, we’re making some kind of history, [but] I don’t know what it is.” While working on the Opry, Shumate introduced Monroe’s songs with a fiddle “kick-off” that quickly became standard practice in bluegrass music.
In 1948, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt offered him a job with the Foggy Mountain Boys, and Shumate fiddled on the legendary band’s first recording session. That same year, he 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. In 1949, Shumate tired of life on the road and returned to Hickory to work in retail furniture sales; however, he continued to perform and record when his schedule permitted. Over the years, Shumate has recorded old bluegrass standards as well as his own original tunes. All of his recordings are included in the Jim Shumate Collection (Volume 1 and 2) available through Heritage Records in Galax, Virginia.
Shumate’s upbeat, innovative style of fiddling and his stint on the Grand Ole Opry earned him recognition in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1995, his contribution to bluegrass music garnered him the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award given by the North Carolina Arts Council for “excellence achieved through a lifetime of practice.” 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 an informal jam session hosted by Mac Wiseman. Shumate performed at the first MerleFest in 1988 in his native North Wilkesboro and returned in 2005 to perform along with other former members of Bill Monroe’ Blue Grass Boys.
In addition to his prowess as a fiddler, Shumate is a composer of sacred songs. His favorite, “Old Country Baptizing,” is sung regularly in churches in western North Carolina. Reflecting on his musical talent, he is quick to acknowledge his blessings. “I just thank God for the gift that I have in it. And every day I can play a little better than I could the day before. So that‘s got to be a gift, you know.”
At eighty-nine, Jim Shumate lives in Hickory with Naomi, his wife of sixty-seven years. They enjoy spending as much time as possible at their retreat at his boyhood home place on Chestnut Mountain. A lover of the North Carolina Mountains, Shumate paid tribute to his Chestnut Mountain roots when composing his original tune, “Chestnut Mountain Rag.” He continues to play for family and friends, gives fiddle lessons, and occasionally gives selected public performances. His wife Naomi comments, “He picked up the fiddle when he was a boy and hasn’t put it down.”