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Michael Shull's Extraordinary
Mountain Dulcimer Odyssey

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Michael Shull, son of a noted South Carolina amateur entertainer, has performed since childhood. He knows and loves many styles of musicóbut not until he entered his 40s did he discover the magic of the mountain dulcimer. It became the musical love of his life, and in embracing it he quickly rose to prominence as one of the finest dulcimists in America. He won the Georgia state dulcimer championship in 1997 and released his first dulcimer recording in 1998. Now a decade into his dulcimer odyssey, he has recorded 10 albums and 7 books of tablature and has showcased the instrument's simple elegance and potential in countless competitions and concerts.

The interview below is a compilation of separate sessions conducted with Michael in 2003 by Hornpipe editor Dan Harmon and in 2004 by Michael's niece, Erin Cline.

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DH: Your father Creighton Shull was well known across South Carolina for his magic shows. Was he also a musician? What about your mother? Grandparents and great-grandparents?

MICHAEL: My dad was not a musician but was the emcee for our family when we played on stage as we were growing up. Our music, no doubt comes from my mother, Doris Taylor Shull. There was always music in the house as I grew up. Mom played the piano, mostly by ear and could play just about anything. Growing up in a musical family gets everyone into the act. We sang and honed our harmony skills standing around the piano while mom played the piano.

My mother's mother, Mary Ella, my grandmother also could play the piano and I often listened to her play and sing her favorite hymns and gospel songs.

My mother's father, Harold Taylor, loved music and played the fiddle and banjo. He died when I was five so I did not get to know him. I have his banjo hanging on my wall. It has special meanings to me. Sometimes I wonder what they would have thought about all we are doing today. I guess it's their musical legacy.

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DH: My first musical memory of Michael Shull is circa 1966 when you, your sister Susan and your brother David were onstage at a Lexington (SC) High School assembly program performing "Banua," "Stewball" and other folk ballads, a la The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. Tell us how you arrived at that point musically, and where you went from there after graduation.

MICHAEL: Well , we grew up with music all around us.  We sang at church when we were small. Susan and I sang at a talent show at our elementary school in 1960. We went on to sing in many talent shows and other events. We performed weekly on a square dance show on TV as the musical guests for a while. We also started appearing as guests with the Arthur Smith show whenever he would come to SC. We were really just kids.

Mom was right there playing the piano and I had started playing the guitar.  We did a variety of music.  We enjoyed doing folk songs and started playing at hootenannies that were becoming popular at the time.

As our brothers and sisters got older they would join us onstage. We eventually had a little band.  We enjoyed entertaining everywhere.  It was a big sacrifice for our Mom and Dad because they had five kids to haul around to play music.

Susan and I were best known for our close brother/sister harmonies and being the oldest, we were mostly up front until much later. We all went through band in high school and I played the trumpet. Susan played the clarinet and we worked that into our family show.  I played in a high school soul band when I was a senior.

We continued performing for several years after that but everyone was heading in different directions and getting on with life. We still performed on occasion for many years after that. I played in a Top 40 band on weekends in the late '70s and also starting DJ-ing when the disco craze was going on.

I was a cofounder of a Christian singles group in 1978 and played their dances once a month for 20 years.  It was there that I met the love of my life and wife of 22 years, Janice.

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DH: How old were you when you began playing mountain dulcimer?

MICHAEL: I was introduced to the mountain dulcimer in the spring of 1995.  We were on a vacation in western NC near Waynesville and I stopped at a Dulcimer shop near the parkway. There at Balsam Gallery Dulcimers, I met Karin Lyle and her father-in-law, Mr. Lyle. She showed me the mountain dulcimer and I was captivated by its sound. I bought a cassette that day and knew I had to have one of those instruments.

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DH: What inspired you to take up that instrument in particular, and at that particular point in your life?

MICHAEL: I'm not really sure.  I had not performed much for the last 15 years.  My son Todd, who is a great musician, said to me before I found the dulcimer, "Dad, why don't you play music anymore?  Don't you like to play?"  I found myself staying busy with other hobbies and interests.  Maybe I was not comfortable being a solo act.  I'm not sure.

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DH: So you didn't consider yourself a "performing musician" at that point?

MICHAEL: We always sang at church whenever asked. After I was playing the dulcimer for a while, I felt fairly isolated in SC with the dulcimer.  There was a dulcimer group that met once a month in Columbia called the Dulcimores. I would join with them.  I wanted to play more and jam with somebody.

I reached out to a friend I knew in high school, Dan Harmon.  I knew he played folk and old-time music.  I guess I caught you off-guard when I called after so many years because you said. "Michael Shull, the guitar picker?"

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EC: Do the Dulcimores still meet?

MICHAEL: That club still meets once a month here in Columbia on Thursday afternoon. Most people in the group are at a beginner to intermediate level -- beginners are most welcome. I owe a lot to that club for giving me a place to go to be around dulcimer people.

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EC: How many dulcimers and other instruments do you own?

MICHAEL: I have six mountain dulcimers, a hammer dulcimer, an autoharp, a guitar, a psaltery and a banjimer.

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EC: Tell us a little about the dulcimerís history. Do you perceive a growing interest in dulcimer music today?

MICHAEL: The mountain dulcimer is a musical instrument that plays any kind of music. Normally, it is associated with old-time fiddle music and mountain gospel music, but you also can play Celtic, classical, hymns, traditional folk music and about anything else.

Historically, the dulcimer had its roots and popularity in the mountains from around the 1830s til about the early 1900s. At that time, manufactured banjos, guitars and fiddles were bought out of catalogs and the hand-built dulcimer started to fade almost into extinction. In the early 1950s, Jean Ritchie, a Kentucky folk singer, took her voice and the mountain dulcimer to Greenwich Village and exposed it to the folk music scene. It started a resurgence through the '50s and '60s and into the '70s. There started to be dulcimer festivals in the '80s, and today there are dulcimer festivals around the country somewhere on most weekends.

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EC: What are the various levels of dulcimer competition?

MICHAEL: There are state competitions, regional competitions and the national championship. Usually, there are 15 to 20 participants. Itís always an accomplishment to place or win. Most dulcimer players never go to that level but enjoy the instrument for the satisfaction it gives them.

By far the most prestigious contest is the national championship in Winfield, KS. That is where the top players go. It is extremely intense and very tough. Very little separates the top five players. I have been blessed to place in the top five each time I've gone, placing Reserve National Champion in 2002.  Maybe one day. . . .

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DH: It's clear from your recordings and performances that you brought rock-solid musical discipline and a zeal for perfectionism (timing, tuning, etc.) to your dulcimer playing. Did your father and mother instill that in you when you were young?

MICHAEL: I'm not sure about rock- solid, but again, that was inherited from Mom.  Musical training at home, church, school and performing so much as children had to help. Yeah, I'm sort of a perfectionist and somewhat competitive. I always think I could play it better but I feel limited.  I can hear it sweeter than my physical musical abilities.

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DH: Your rise as a nationally known dulcimist was almost meteoric. How/when did you become interested in dulcimer competition? How far away have you performed? How often do you travel?

MICHAEL: As I stated, I'm a fairly competitive person. Quiet, soft-spoken and shy, but persistent. I started competing about two-and-a-half years after I starting playing.  In 1998 I won a lot of state and regional contests.  I just kept on to the next level of competition.  There were always more challenges. I've been from Florida to Ohio to Arkansas and to Kansas for the Nationals.

One large event took place in our family's life in late 1997. My Mom, Doris, died unexpectedly.  She was the spiritual and musical leader of our family.  It was very hard on all of us.  I spent many nights playing the dulcimer as I grieved her loss. I played for hours the old songs of the church.  Maybe it brought me closer because she played those same songs.  We played together when I was learning to play dulcimer but the piano and the dulcimer were strange bedfellows. Looking back now, I would love to sit down and play with her again. She never knew about the competitions or the recordings.  I often think of her when I play on stage.  Maybe in my small way, I'm carrying on the legacy.

Recently I played on stage at the Lake Junaluska Methodist Conference Center. I grew up every year going to events there with my family.  Many celebrities, preachers and evangelists have graced that main stage. My lifelong ambition of playing there was realized that day and I knew that Mom would have been right there on the front row cheering me on. Actually, she was right there in spirit.

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DH: Do you regret not having discovered the instrument earlier?

MICHAEL: Many times, but I got there as quick as I could.  In 1985, my brother Joel brought an instrument to our family Christmas gathering.  It was an hourglass- shaped board with three strings on it. I remember picking it up and picking out " Amazing Grace." I laid it down thinking that you couldn't play much music on that thing. How ironic!

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DH: Most of your repertoire consists of folk hymn arrangements. It seems evident you have a "mission" with your music. Tell us about that.

MICHAEL: I play mostly by ear.  I grew up with the songs of the church and it was only natural for me to play those songs. I can also put my heart and soul into them. The traditional hymns have stood the test of time and are so scripturally based. During those nights grieving the loss of my mother, playing the hymns gave me such comfort and was my inspiration of sharing the gift God had given me.  It was then that I recommitted my life and my gift of music for His glory. I'm continually amazed at His blessings on the music and me.

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EC: Where do you see yourself in five to ten years, in terms of your music?

MICHAEL: We have established our own independent music label and I'm marketing our music nationwide at this point. We are in most dulcimer and acoustic music shops around the country. We are also making inroads into the Christian bookstore market, mainly in the mountains and other tourist areas. We are hoping to go to some national trade shows for the gift store market in the future to expand distribution.

I also want to travel regionally and put on concerts at churches, conferences and music venues. This will give me an opportunity to entertain but, more importantly, to witness to people through our music and my testimony. God continues to open the doors. I'm just trying to get prepared for what He has in store for me.

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EC: What would you say to encourage younger adults to listen to your music or learn to play the instrument?

MICHAEL: It is real amazing, the talented young musicians in music today. Bluegrass, old-time and dulcimer music in general have an excellent group of young people carrying on the tradition. A 19-year-young man won the mountain dulcimer national championship in 2002. I have to compete against these good young players. The future is in good hands.

The movie Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? created quite a stir with young people and rekindled a new interest in "American roots music." It was a great thing for traditional music. Following this lead, I released a CD called Oh Dulcimer, Where Art Thou? -- mostly traditional music with a lot of good down-home, toe tappin' music. Ye, haw!

No matter where I play, someone always comes up to tell me they have a dulcimer -- usually in a closet or under the bed. They bought it and/or music while on a trip to the mountains. Most people have a desire to play a musical instrument. Most never try. Some do and give up. The mountain dulcimer is within the reach of most people if they will just give it a try. Their level of success could be just sitting out on the back porch and playing for their own enjoyment. Of course, that is what we all play for.

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© 2003-2005 Hornpipe Vintage Publications