The “godfather of bluegrass”

The “godfather of bluegrass” has been dead for nearly 81 years.

But the music he inspired will live again at Owensboro’s H.L. Neblett Community Center starting March 1.

The International Bluegrass Music Museum and the Neblett Center are joining forces on the Arnold Shultz String Music Project, a program designed to teach children — black and white — to play bluegrass instruments.

The project honors Shultz, a black Ohio County musician who was a major influence on Bill Monroe, “the father of bluegrass music.” Some music historians call him the “godfather of bluegrass.”

The program is being launched during Black History Month.“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done,” Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director, told a Monday morning news conference. “Since I came here in 2002, I’ve been wanting to integrate the community more.”

The late Hattie Neblett began working to offer more recreational programs for black children in the community soon after she and her husband moved to Owensboro in 1930. The predecessor of the center that bears her name opened in 1936.

Greg Black, the Neblett Center’s executive director, said the goal is to create a bluegrass band from children in the center’s after-school program to play at the museum’s ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival at Yellow Creek Park in June.

Danny Clark, the museum’s marketing director, will teach guitar, fiddle and mandolin at the center from 4 to 5 p.m. every Thursday, starting March 1. Banjo lessons will also be offered if there is any interest, Gray said.

“There’s nothing I love more than teaching children to play bluegrass,” Clark said.

Students will range from 7 to 10 years old.

Rick Searcy, the center’s after school program director, said the bluegrass lessons will also be a gateway to playing music in other genres as well.

Asked if bluegrass will be a tough sell to inner city children, he said, “Those kids (7 to 10 years old) are more receptive to new things than older kids. We’ll also be teaching clogging.”

“They’re the most inquisitive at that age,” Black said.

Gray said more than 300 children are taking music lessons at the museum on Saturdays. “Their parents didn’t force them,” she said. “They’re taking lessons because they want to learn.”

The bluegrass community has never officially paid tribute to Shultz until now, Gray said.

“There’s more to the African-American influence on bluegrass than the banjo,” she said.

The banjo came to the United States from Africa in the 1600s.

Shultz, born near Cromwell in February 1886, is often credited with having put the blues in bluegrass, a style of music he didn’t live to hear.

By day, he worked the coal mines of Ohio County. At night, he grabbed his fiddle or his guitar and went looking for a place to play.

From the roadhouses and barn dances of the farmers and miners to the black community picnics to the homes of well-to-do whites, Shultz was Ohio County’s most popular musician in the 1920s, older residents of the area recall.

In 1980, Shultz’s cousin Ella Shultz Griffin, who was 87 at the time, said he joined the Shultz Family Band in 1911. “But he had been playing a long time before then,” she said.

The music they played wasn’t blues, she said.

“It was called hillbilly music then,” Griffin said. “And it was hillbilly too.”

In 1922, Shultz joined a dance band headed by drummer Forrest “Boots” Faught, playing for dances in Ohio and Muhlenberg counties.

“It was a four-piece outfit then and Arnold made five,” Faught recalled in 1980. “He was the only colored man in the band. He was the first man I ever heard play lead on the guitar.”

Faught said some people complained about his band having a black fiddle player. “I told them, ‘You don’t hear color. You hear music’.”

Monroe began working with Shultz as a mandolin player at country dances around 1924. Monroe’s uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, played fiddle for the dances and Shultz played guitar.

“People loved Arnold so well all through Kentucky,” Monroe said once. “If he was playing a guitar, they’d go gang up around him.”

Shultz also influenced Kennedy Jones and Mose Rager, two area musicians who in turn influenced Merle Travis and Ike Everly, the father of the Everly Brothers. Travis influenced Chet Atkins. And generations of musicians have been influenced by Atkins.

Birch Monroe, eldest of the musical Monroe brothers, said in 1980 that Shultz never formally worked with him and his brother Charlie, “but he played at dances where we were quite a bit.”

On April 14, 1931, Shultz died in Morgantown, where he had been playing, of a mitral lesion — organic heart disease.

He was 45.

But rumors persist that he was given poisoned whiskey by a man jealous of his talents.

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