I love connections. This week’s favorite connection starts with an African American guitarist in western Kentucky named Arnold Schultz. Born in 1886 in Ohio County, Kentucky, Schultz has attained legendary status as the key figure in the development of the guitar finger picking style that is known today as “Travis picking.” Like Robert Johnson, he was remarkably skilled on his instrument, only one photograph is know to exist of him (shown below), he died at a relatively young age, and the rumors that surround his death center on a jealous husband.

Arnold Schultz

Arnold Schultz

Where and how Schultz developed his unique finger-picking style is not entirely clear, but he appears to have traveled and performed widely in his youth, possibly on riverboats. His reputation as a guitarist led many to seek him out for instruction: Melford Everly, grandfather of the Everly Brothers, is said to have once hired him to teach his daughter, Hattie, to play a song called “The Drum Piece.” He may have taught Hattie his unique finger-picking style, which involved playing a bass note with the thumb and the melody with the other fingers.

Throughout the 1920s, other western Kentucky musicians also listened to and learned from Schultz, including Kennedy Jones, who added a thumbpick to the style. Jones, in turn, influenced Mose Rager (1911-1986) and Ike Everly (son of Melford and father of Don and Phil). Mose and Ike played together early in their careers but eventually went their separate ways. Mose, in particular, employed alternate chords, embellishments, and other trechniques with the style. Merle Travis (1917-1983), also from Kentucky, credits both men as influencing his own playing style, which can be heard on his numerous recordings during the 1940s and 50s. His style of playing became the predominant style in country music and the next generation of guitarists studied his work closely. One was Chet Atkins (1924-2001), who heard Travis on the radio and imitated his style, adding his own personal elements. In time Atkins would be become one of the greatest guitarists, session musicians, and producers in Nashville. In fact, it was Atkins who was instrumental in helping Don and Phil make the necessary contacts in Nashville and ultimately led the studio musicians in many of their Cadence recordings.

As a side note, I think nearly every guitar student in the South, at least back in my day, learned some variation of Travis-picking, usually on old standards like “Wildwood Flower.”

Lightfoot, William E. “A Regional Musical Style: The Legacy of Arnold Schultz.” In Sense of Place: American Regional Cultures, edited by Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlereth, 120-37. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.

Wolfe, Charles K. Kentucky Country: Folk and Country Music of Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.


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