Early in the 1970s, reporter Keith Lawrence followed the trail of an African American musician from Morgantown, Kentucky: Arnold Shultz. Lawrence interviewed Shultz's family members and friends and put together the story from the tidbits he discovered through these interviews. The findings uncovered the musical genius of Shultz and how his musical style influenced a generation of musicians. One, in particular, was Bill Monroe.
"When you read about Arnold Shultz, he's sort of a nebulous character," said Dom Flemons. "He's sort of this mystery guy that does a lot of stuff and who is the catalyst that does something to build Bill Monroe's music."
Dr. Richard Brown helps run the Arnold Shultz Fund, headed by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). In 1988, as a young musician, Brown once played with Bill Monroe in Cape Cod. In Brown's September 27, 2022, WBUR interview, he told how Shultz was a one-man band who adeptly managed melody, harmony, and bass through his thumb-style bassline picking technique.
Brown and Lawrence joined Flemons and historian Michael L. Jones who moderated an hour-long panel on Arnold Shultz and his influence on Bill Monroe and bluegrass (see the link to the panel discussion below).
"When it comes to someone like Arnold Shultz," said Flemons, "it's a perfect example of an African American musician performing as a communal musician. He never made records, so now, in the 21st Century, we have no documented record of what he might have sounded like, and we have only two pictures of the man himself. Arnold Shultz could not have changed his trajectory, but the fact that he influenced many musicians who happened to be white as well and that those musicians made their way into the music industry in innovatively new styles is worth noting."
In Lawrence's 1980 piece in the Owensboro, Kentucky Messenger-Inquirer, he wrote:
"…music histories say that Monroe, another self-taught musician, began following Shultz around to country dances as a 12-year-old in 1924. Historian Bill Malone says Monroe's "first actual experience as a performer came when he accompanied the well-known Negro guitarist and fiddler, Arnold Shultz, who played for country dances around Rosine."
Bluegrass historian Steven Price notes that "Monroe . . . was particularly impressed by Shultz's smooth transition between chords as well as his blues playing."
While Monroe was studying Shultz's techniques, other musicians were too. Mose Rager (1911-1986) of Drakesboro, KY, taught Merle Travis (who, like Monroe, is now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) to play the thumb-pick style on a guitar. Travis passed the style on to Chet Atkins, and millions of other pickers around the world picked it up from him. (Lawrence 1980)
"It's sort of a subtle conversation because Arnold Shultz was known as both a fiddler and guitarist, and that's where Bill Monroe's story comes in. Other people that knew [Shultz] mentioned that he was the first guy they had ever heard that played lead guitar in the string band. And he played in a brilliant sort of guitar style; it was very fast, exciting, and something people had never seen before. There's also a theory that he's playing in a thumb style."
Influencing many people with so many musical ideas for the previous decade has always been a part of black music, Flemons said. "I started teasing out ideas like, with Arnold Shultz, why do we have to relegate him to just string band music?"
Flemons described how Shultz traveled from Kentucky down to New Orleans and back doing seasonal work, and going to New Orleans, learning new bits of music and bringing that back to Kentucky.
"And I noticed that going up that same river line, Louisville is part of the journey. He's also stopping off in another urban center. From the early 20s to the early 30s, when Bill Monroe begins to record, there has been jug band music, great mandolin, and guitar duos. Thinking about those musicians being on record in the previous decade, I can't help but think that Arnold Shultz has some aspect of that style. One of the things they mention is that he brought in passing chords, which are melodic and stitched together the 1-6-2-5 and the A7 chords into the counting that changed everything."
Flemons points out that music, up to that point, was three chords, "and I think bringing Jazz instrumentation or just a little extra harmonic flavor made Arnold Shultz so special, as well as playing the blues and Bill Monroe's music. I can only imagine that he brought in some flavoring of blues phrasing because Bill Monroe tends to do a lot of that." He added that an easy tune with blues flavoring and syncopation into the mix is definitive in his style.
Was that part of Arnold Shultz's legacy? Flemons has spoken to several people who wrote about Arnold Shultz, including Keith Lawrence, who probably wrote the most definitive article. "He met some of Arnold's family members and spoke with them. They said [Shultz] was part of the string band growing up. They played with a fellow by the name of Tex Atchison, who played fiddle with a group called the Prairie Ramblers."
The Prairie Ramblers backed up Patsy Montana (Rubye Rebecca Blevins) and also knew Arnold Shultz. They were kind of the foundation of western swing groups. "The convergence of popular records at that time coincided with Bill and Charlie Monroe being on the radio playing this new syncopation, which gets on a record and becomes a general national style," said Flemons.
Recently Flemons launched a group to pay tribute to Arnold Shultz at IBMA. Both the tribute and the theme song written by Flemons were called Shultz's Dream. "I decided to write a song that would tell the story of Arnold Shultz." It's quite a story to tell about a very mysterious person who was known in the county as being a well-loved musician, he said, "but because he was African American, he was a second-class citizen who never really gets that whole recognition."
Arnold Shultz is gone He’ll no longer walk the river Picking his lonesome song So Let’s get out the gui-tar The fiddle and the bow And let’s send Arnold Shultz home He picked the fiddle and the guitar It was plain for folks to see How he walked the notes While crackin’ jokes Created quite a legacy He played from Morgantown All the way to Rosine With all he heard from Mecklenburg To Way down in New Orleans His cousin said that “Shultzy” played in the family band Arnold could play any “strings” that you’d put into his hands She said, “Shultzy loved his liquor and Boys it was a sin Shultzy died upon the dance floor A green eyed devil poisoned the bourbon.” Bill and Charlie Monroe sat at the fiddler’s knee Bill said, “He gave that railroad rhythm and the drive was up to me.” those young men learned their lessons played the music hard and fast Took that sound out of Kentucky But still they called it all Bluegrass But Arnold Shultz had a dream And I do believe its true We can learn from one other By the raising of the tune We can walk and talk And pick and grin And Sing that lonesome moan For each time we do it in earnest We send old Arnold home