Thanks to a grant from the IBMA Foundation’s Arnold Shultz Fund, PineCone is taking steps to reimagine a piece of bluegrass history. PineCone commissioned Dom Flemons to assemble a string band to interpret what Arnold Shultz might have sounded in rural Kentucky in the early 1900s.
The band is led by Dom Flemons (The American Songster). He will be joined by Dante’ Pope (formerly of Crossrhodes), Brian Farrow (of Ganstagrass), IBMA Award winning banjo player Tray Wellington and Shultz expert Dr. Richard Brown. The band will be filming a video and is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 1st at the Red Hat Amphitheater as a part of the festival IBMA Bluegrass Live! powered by PNC.
Arnold Shultz was a Black fiddler and guitarist who lived in rural Kentucky from 1886-1931. Shultz’s life story sounds like a tragic bluegrass song. As a young man, Shultz worked as a laborer in coal and on the Mississippi River. He played music on the side and, as legend has it, died after being poisoned by a white musician who was rumored to be jealous of his talents.
Shultz lived before bluegrass music was “invented” by Bill Monroe but Monroe frequently cited Arnold Shultz as an influence. “Bill actually played guitar at the time and… emulated Arnold’s style,” says Dr. Richard Brown from the IBMA Foundation Board. “Arnold hired (Bill Monroe) to play in his band for dances. He gave (Bill Monroe) his first gig.”
The Arnold Shultz story is one that has been shared in bluegrass circles for decades. As much as bluegrassers love to talk about the Shultz legacy and influence, there is very little documentation of his life and music. There are only two known photos, no tune list and no recordings. “Without recordings of Arnold Shultz we’ll never really know what he sounded like when he picked,” says Dom Flemons.
But Dom is trying to change that. For this project he’s writing an original song called “Shultz’s Dream.” He is also researching tunes for the band that were played during the time when Shultz and Bill Monroe knew each other. “When we think of bluegrass it is grounded in old time string band music as we would imagine it with the early British Isles music, and hoedowns,” says Flemons. “But there is a special quality that is akin to early jazz that is set within bluegrass where you have musicians breaking off and playing solos.”
Dom says that many believe that Arnold Shultz was one of the first string band musicians to play a guitar lead over a fiddle tune. Just like in jazz and other improvisational music, instrumental leads are a signature part of the bluegrass sound. “What a phenomenal innovation to bring into the music.”
“Bill Monroe told me himself that a lot of his runs and the blues that he puts into his music was one of the reasons he really admired Arnold’s playing,” says Dr. Richard Brown from the IBMA Foundation. “And you could tell that he (Bill Monroe) really meant that. He talked about playing square dances and at times they would end up playing until dawn as people were having such a good time.”
PineCone’s grant from the IBMA Foundation is one of eight projects supported by the Arnold Shultz Fund. Grants were also awarded to organizations and individuals in Alaska, Arizona, California, China, Hawaii and Kenya. The Arnold Shultz Fund was established in 2020 by the IBMA Foundation to encourage participation in bluegrass music by people of color.