By Keith Lawrence
In an a grave unmarked for decades in Morgantown’s Black cemetery lies an Ohio County man who just might have been the greatest guitar picker ever born. Eighty years ago, Ohio Countians said Arnold Shultz (1886-1931) was the best guitar man in the western Kentucky coalfields. And those who still hear his music in their memories say they’ve never heard his equal in all the eight decades since he died.
And that, they said, includes all the guitar greats who have come and gone in Nashville.
His reputation as the hottest picker alive may have been the reason Shultz never saw his 50th birthday. The sole survivor of the old Shultz Family Band [deceased since the writing of this article] said her cousin was murdered by musicians jealous of the magic his fingers worked on the guitar strings.
Music historians say Shultz was a major influence in shaping the musical direction of an Ohio County boy named Bill Monroe — the man who created the bluegrass sound more than a dozen years after Shultz died in Butler County. That, some say, makes him a godfather of bluegrass — a musical style he never heard. His influence apparently helped put the blues in bluegrass. His influence can also be traced into the mainstream country music and modern rock through less direct channels.
As far as anybody seems to know, Shultz was never recorded. But those who played with him say if he had ever made his way to Nashville or Chicago in those days of the late ’20s, he might have become one of the greats of country music — if he could have broken the race barrier of those days.
Some believe he could have, because he shattered all the racial taboos in Ohio County. “Arnold was always welcome in the best of white homes,” said Forrest “Boots” Faught (1902-1981), a white country and Dixieland bandleader in whose band Shultz played in the early ’20s.
But Shultz shunned the limelight. By day, he worked in the coal mines of his native Ohio County. But when the sun set beyond the Green River, he picked up his big guitar and went looking for other musicians. From the roadhouses and barn dances of the farmers and miners, to the Black community picnics, to the homes of the well-to-do whites, Shultz was always welcome. He was Ohio County’s No. 1 music man.
The passage of time has made him as much legend as man. And for the most part, Shultz remains a short, handsome, slightly overweight, Black man somewhat obscured by his big black hat and oversized guitar. His name is relegated to footnotes in the histories of country and bluegrass music — and is usually misspelled.
But here — thanks to the help of bluegrass musician Wendell Allen of Rosine, KY (1938-1999) in tracking down those who knew him best — is the Arnold Shultz Ohio Countians remember.
Born in the Cromwell precinct of Ohio County in February 1886, Shultz was the oldest child of David and Elizabeth Shultz. His father was born in slavery in Kentucky in 1844. His mother, who had been born free, was only 16 when he was born.
Shultz apparently managed to get some schooling. The 1900 census says he could read and write. But that year, when he was 14, Shultz was already working in the Ohio County mines beside his father. And he was already learning to play the guitar and fiddle from his musical relatives.
Ella Shultz Griffin (1883-1989) said of her cousin that Shultz had been playing music since he was a boy. She joined the Shultz Family Band when she was 18 and said “he had been playing a long time before then.”
The Shultz Family Band included Mrs. Griffin’s brother, Luther, on the bull bass fiddle, brother Hardin on the banjo, cousin Arnold on the guitar and herself on the fiddle. There were frequent replacements through the years. There were 12 children in Mrs. Griffin’s family and Arnold Shultz had a number of brothers and sisters too.
Music ran through the Shultz family. “I had the fever when I was 14 and I began playing music when I got up,” Mrs. Griffin recalled. [When this article was written she lived in a Hartford, KY nursing home.] “I didn’t play before I got sick. I was laying in the bed and I got to humming one of these banjo tunes and I told my brother Luther that I wanted to play the banjo. He was afraid I would drop it and break it because I was so small. I sat up in the bed playing and commenced singing one of these old songs.”
Before long, she was playing the fiddle, mandolin, bass, guitar and banjo. This inherent ability to play musical instruments was apparently the same as Shultz’s. He never had any training either as far as she knows.
The Shultz Family Band played country music — “It was called hillbilly music then and it was hillbilly too,” she said, laughing. “But it was all I knew, all I had ever heard.”
Mrs. Griffin was the only girl in the band. “I was too little to be running around with those boys,” she says. “It was too rough for me.” But she stayed with the band until her brothers moved away from home. “We just played around Ohio County,” she recalled. “I think one time we went to Rosine (about 10 miles from the Shultz home in Prentiss). It was cold but some woman fixed supper for us and told us to come on over. They had a big time. I think they danced until 11 or 12. We had started playing about 6 or 7 p.m. We’d go early and stay late.”
Allen said the place was likely the Moses Ragland home. Ragland (1845-1912), a former Ohio County clerk, entertained frequently with dances in a big room in his house, or on the lawn in warm weather.
In those days, Shultz would visit his cousins and jam for weeks at a time. “He was living at Williams Mines (near McHenry) then but he would come to Prentiss. Sometimes he would stay two weeks at a time. We’d just stay there and make music and the neighbors would all come in,” Mrs. Griffin remembered with a smile.
In 1922, Shultz, then 36, joined a makeshift band headed by drummer Forrest “Boots” Faught, a 20-year-old McHenry native. “Arnold was living in Hartford then,” recalled Faught, who was still playing drums in a senior citizen’s band when he was interviewed in 1980. “He’d been playing long before he ever heard of me. I don’t know exactly how I ran up on him. I guess I heard him playing somewhere. We played together for a year or so.”
That year saw a lot of exciting times, Faught said. “We played dances over at Cromwell regularly every Saturday night for six months. It was an old wooden frame school building that had been turned into a tavern (during Prohibition!).” Faught grinned at the memory of the night they tore that little roadside tavern down. “Arnold was playing the fiddle that night. He always wore a big black hat and he’d hang it on the back of the old split-bottom cane chair he sat in.
“Things was getting pretty rough in there. My instructions were to keep the music going and that would keep the crowd quiet. But it wasn’t working that night. Every now and then Arnold would reach around to get that hat. I’d say, ‘Let’s play one more, Arnold,’ and he’d start fiddling. I was playing the drums and the longer we played, the rougher it got. Finally, a man landed in my lap and me, Arnold, drums and all went over. He grabbed his hat and we went over across the street and the fight went on. We went back the next Saturday and nobody was there.”
Faught’s band played in a lot of rough places for very little pay. “We played the opening dance at the Twin Hills Dance Hall at Rosine,” he recalled. “They paid $3 from 7 to 12 and I mean you played, too. It had a bad reputation, but it wasn’t any worse than any other nightclub in the country.”
But a place in Central City called Hollywood and Kincheloe’s Bluff on Green River, “those were rough places,” Faught said. “Kincheloe’s Bluff was built way up on a bluff with a railing around it. It wasn’t nothing to see people sailing over that railing into the river.”
Faught recalled, “I had a four-piece outfit then and Arnold made five. He was the only colored man in the band. He was the first man I ever heard to play the lead on a guitar.” Shultz, he said, was always teaching the other musicians new chords. One night the band got together under the coal tipple at Render with a grass sack full of home brew for rehearsal and Shultz revolutionized their music.
“Back then everybody used just three chords (G, C and D). That’s about all anybody knew how to play. That night we was playing ‘See You in My Dreams.’ Arnold showed us where to put that A chord in there. From then on we used the A chord in ‘See You In My Dreams’ and a lot of other pieces. “
When they played in Ohio County, the band traveled by foot, horse or road wagon — or occasionally sneaked aboard the cowcatcher of a train, fortified against the cold with a jug of jake. “I don’t know what it was made of. It wasn’t whiskey but it was hot as fire,” Faught said, laughing. Trips to Muhlenberg County, however, occasionally were made by automobile, he added.
Like Shultz, Faught worked in the mines. “I shoveled coal all day and played all night,” he recalled. In McHenry there was a dance every night. “It went from house to house. I saw so many on a floor there one night that the floor just went down. Everybody was jumping up and down. They called it ‘toddle dancing.’”
Shultz continued to work on his own outside the Faught band during those years. “Walter Taylor (another of Ohio County’s outstanding Black musicians) played the mandolin. Walter and Arnold would come to McHenry on payday and make a hat full of money just sitting on the street playing. They weren’t bumming. They were just playing and people would automatically walk up and throw them money,” Faught said.
It was during the mid-20s, after Shultz drifted away from Faught’s band, that he began influencing the musicians who would carry his innovative techniques into the mainstream of American music.
Numerous attempts to set up an interview with Bill Monroe were unsuccessful, but the 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.
“I couldn’t say that I ever saw Arnold Shultz alive or dead,” said Rager, who played on the Grand Ole Opry in 1946 and toured with Grandpa Jones and Ernest Tubb. But Shultz influenced his music, he added. “Kennedy Jones, the man that taught me to play, learned a lot of chords from Arnold Shultz. He knew Arnold very well. I used to hear him talk about him.”
The thumb-pick style was Jones’s innovation, Rager said. “Arnold played with his thumb and finger,” he added. “He didn’t have no pick.” Jones taught Rager to pick guitar on a porch in Cleaton in 1925 and Rager isn’t sure just which of the chords that were passed on to him that summer when he was 14 came from Shultz, but some of them did. And they were passed on to Travis and Atkins and others.
The influence of Monroe was passed on into such unlikely areas as ’50s rock. Both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly listed Monroe’s music as an early influence on their careers.
Faught said that Shultz was “way ahead of his time on that guitar. It was just an old common flattop guitar that probably didn’t cost over $20. It was a large guitar, and I’m sure that it had a round sound hole and the old-time pegs that hung down under it. He had an old grass rope for a cord around his neck.
“He would use a pocket knife on the neck of it to get the steel sound before steel guitars came in. That was before the steel bar was introduced. It’s a shame we didn’t have sound systems back then. In the noise of a dance hall, if you got 40 feet from a band, you couldn’t hear them. If Arnold had gotten on records, he would have been in a class by himself.”
Nolan Baize (1905-1985) of Horton ran the Gold Nugget coal mine there in 1925-26 and he called dances around the area. Shultz frequently worked with him day and night. “He worked for me and two more guys who had the mines leased for about two years,” Baize recalled. “He was a good hand, no foolishness and always businesslike. He wasn’t very talkative.”
Shultz loaded coal at the tipple and Baize weighed it. “He didn’t go for playing for dances much. He’d just do it for a good friend or something. He didn’t seem like he wanted to step out as a musician. He always seemed to want to make his living working. But he was a guitar picker, I’ll tell you.
He could come nearer to making it sound like a piano than anybody I ever heard. He knew a lot of chords on that thing and where to put them in. He just used his fingers too. “He could play anything you could name. If he heard a record, he could sit down and play it in a little while. But I never heard him sing a lick. It (playing) was a gift he had.”
Baize remembered a night when he talked Shultz into accompanying him to a barn dance at the farm of Gilbert Wright, some four miles from Horton, KY. A platform was built in one corner for musicians who included Charlie and Birch Monroe, Cleve Baize and Shultz. Nolin Baize called the steps.
Birch Monroe (1901-1982), eldest of the musical Monroe brothers, didn’t remember Shultz’s guitar picking but he did remember his fiddling. “He was a pretty good musician and a good fellow too,” Monroe said. “He played a good old-time fiddle, I can tell you that.” Although Monroe said Shultz never formally worked with the original Monroe Brothers band formed in 1927, “he played at dances where we were quite a bit.”
School children in those days liked to sneak off and listen to Shultz play too, said Hugh Duke Sr. (1909-2003), a Hartford mortician. “A bunch of us school kids would ride the train from Dundee to Hartford and he would be on the train a lot of the time with that big guitar. It was huge, much bigger than the ones they have today. He was the Chet Atkins of his day. He could play anything, I guess — except maybe classical,” Duke said. “I’d go by and listen to him play when I could. He was really good. But I never heard him sing; he just accompanied others. That was about 1927, I guess.”
The following year, Shultz was back in the Horton area playing with Clarence Wilson (1874-1957), a clawhammer banjo player of considerable reputation in Ohio County, and fiddler Pendleton Vandiver, the Monroes’ “Uncle Pen” (1869-1939).
“He played with my Daddy and Pen Vandiver for dances Thad Kassinger ran at an old store in Rosine,” Flossie Wilson Hines (1910-1997) of Horton recalled. “They went around and about all over the country. Then they got to coming to our house” to jam. “I don’t know where in the world they got ahold of Arnold Shultz. Oh, he was a guitar player. He could play music. He was something else. It’s a pity that anybody that could play like that had to die. When you heard anybody else play after him it was just like sawing or something. It just sounded awful.
“When a dance was over, they’d say, ‘Arnold, are you coming back?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah.’ They’d all meet at our house and we’d go to these dances. We’d walk and carry our lanterns in our hands or ride in a wagon. I’ve walked many a time to way up above Rosine for a dance.
“We’d work all day (on the farm), walk to the dance and then dance ‘til midnight. One time it snowed and it done everything. There was still dancing there the next morning at 2 a.m. There wasn’t nobody able to go to work the next day, but it was too bad anyway.”
Hines remembered a time when the Black community that existed then around Horton had a picnic for the whites and Shultz invited her family to attend. “They had mutton and everything to eat and they just let the white people dance. Arnold played that night too.”
Sometime during those years, Shultz also worked for the Bond Brothers, loading ties onto freight trains in Rosine. Mrs. Donnie Crowder (1908-1987) remembered that he taught her husband, who was the Illinois Central agent in Rosine, to play guitar during rest periods around the depot.
But while Shultz overcame most of the race barriers in Ohio County, they still had an impact on him.
Faught recalled, “Back then we would go to play for a dance and somebody would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a colored fiddler. We don’t want that.’ I’d say, ‘The reason I’ve got the man is because he’s a good musician. The color doesn’t mean anything. You don’t hear color. You hear music.’” Around McHenry, white people would invite Arnold Shultz into their homes. He was very welcome. Big crowds came in to listen to him. It was something unusual. I took Arnold lots of places.”
But Faught remembered one night when Shultz was a victim of what he believes was racial prejudice. “We entered a contest open to anybody in Kentucky, over at Central City at the Selba Theatre. Arnold wasn’t with me then. There was bands there from everywhere. I guess there must have been 20 bands that night. We tied up with a band from Powderly. We fought it out there ‘til midnight. We finally came out second best. The prize was $50 and expenses paid to Hopkinsville to be on the radio. I’m pretty sure Arnold Shultz was there that night with an all-colored band. They was the best band there. If they had been white, they would have won that contest. They all had calfskin instruments — mandolin, guitar, tenor banjo and banjo guitar.”
Mrs. Hines agreed that it was unusual in those days for Black musicians to work so closely with whites. But, she said, “Everybody just went crazy when he came around. He could play too. That made him special and he was a nice person, too. He was the best there ever was on a guitar around here. He could really make one talk. I ain’t never heard anyone who could play like that.”
But Shultz always waited until after the Wilsons had eaten before he would eat, she said. One night when they were trying to get ready for a dance, she recalled her father telling Shultz, “Now come on in here and eat. There’s no reason you can’t. We work together and play music together.”
But Shultz still waited.
Baize, who frequently visited Shultz’s two-room house, in what was known as Coal Bank Hollow near Horton, didn’t find that a problem though. “He ate many times with me,” he said.
Shultz never married, and many of those who remember him said he had two loves besides music — whiskey and women. “He liked to play his box but he liked to get him a little ‘t’ along too,” Mrs. Griffin chuckled. “They’d just give them (musicians she worked with) a big drink of whiskey and that would start them off and they’d play all night,” she said. “He (Shultz) would be so drunk he didn’t know where he was at. He’d go to sleep and keep on playing. They’d wake him up when everybody quit dancing.”
Duke recalled, “He was a good man, but he liked to drink a little. There was a lot of whiskey around Ohio County then. He would play all night for a drink of whiskey.”
Faught, who joined Shultz on the jugs on occasion, remembered, “I rented the old Doctor Bean Opera House in Hartford for a dance one night. A man came up to me and said, ‘I haven’t got a dime but I want to dance. Would you be interested in trading a dance ticket for a gallon of moonshine?’
“I took this gallon of whiskey and set it up on the stage. When the dance was over, John Phipps and Arnold were laying in back of the stage. They’d been having a little too much. Arnold had his big black hat and I just put his money in his hat and laid it on his chest,” Faught remembered, chuckling.
Baize, however, said he believes the stories about Shultz’s women and booze are frequently exaggerated. “He’d take a drink now and then but I don’t remember ever seeing him drink much. I don’t remember him chasing women too much either. “
Earl Austin, a retired farmer and blacksmith near Rosine, recalled that Shultz could and did make a little home brew in those days, though.
Shultz played for a time with the Walter Taylor Band, a Black band, in the late ’20s but by 1931 he was spending a good bit of time in Butler County, living with the family of Beecher Carson, a Black butcher.
He still played for dances, although he had shifted his area of operations to Morgantown. “Members of his band were jealous of Arnold because he was getting all the attention,” Mrs. Griffin said. “People would say how good Arnold played.”
In April 1931 Shultz came back to Prentiss to visit his relatives. “He stayed at our house a week and then he went to Morgantown. Then he came back down there one Saturday night with three boys and they stayed ‘til just about night. Then they left for Morgantown to play for a dance. That’s the night they said he got some poison in his whiskey,” she said.
Bad whiskey killed many people in those moonshine days. Mandolinist Walter Taylor is said to have died from bad elderberry wine. But did she mean he was accidentally poisoned? Or was Shultz murdered?
“Yes sir, I do think he was (murdered),” Mrs. Griffin said. “He drank whiskey all the time before that and he never got sick over it. He drank that and he took sick and died. They gave him poison in his whiskey. People were bragging on Arnold for playing better than they (other musicians) did. So they thought they’d fix Arnold and put him out of the way — and they did. He drank that whiskey and died.”
According to the death certificate filed in Frankfort, however, Shultz died in Morgantown on April 14, 1931— a Tuesday— of a mitral lesion, or an organic heart disease of the valves. He was 45.
He was buried in the Black cemetery there. The grave was apparently never marked. The Great Depression was reaching rock bottom and relatives didn’t even know about his death until he was buried.
“We didn’t know a thing about it until he was dead and buried,” Mrs. Griffin said. “I don’t guess he ever did have a marker.” An index of Butler County tombstones didn’t list his name. Faught said there had been some talk among Ohio County musicians about taking up a collection for a marker for Shultz but nothing had been done yet. [The city of Morgantown, KY, erected a headstone for Arnold Shultz’s grave in 1994 in what is now known as Bell Street Cemetery.]
Photographs of Shultz are rare. “He just didn’t want any made,” Mrs. Griffin said with a smile. “He said if he ever did any devilment he could get away and nobody could find him. But he never got into any trouble.”
Mrs. Hines had a picture of Shultz and her father together playing their instruments. She didn’t recall just how she got him to pose for it, though.
Recording began in Nashville about 1928. If he had just taken the chance of going to a recording studio there, Shultz’s musical legacy might have been preserved on record.
But [in 1980] Arnold Shultz’ country blues and hillbilly guitar lived only in the memories of a steadily dwindling segment of Ohio Countians. The handsome man in the black hat is just a face in a fading photograph. But his music lives on in those he inspired, and those they have inspired.
Allen summed it up. “Little did Arnold Shultz know that his guitar style and musical contribution to Bill and Charlie Monroe and others, would one day be the object of intense research by writers, music scholars and historians from Washington, Nashville, New York and other faraway places, seeking insight into the self-taught musical abilities of one Black man in the country villages of Ohio County.”
(The Cornerstone, July 2020) This article, which originally appeared in the Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, KY, March 2, 1980, has been lightly edited by Nancy Cardwell.)