Merle Travis - Biography
By J Poet
Merle Travis is one of country music’s most legendary guitar players with a unique style of three finger playing today known as Travis Picking. He developed one of the first solid-body electric guitars, and that design was the template Leo Fender used when he started making Fender guitars. Travis was also a fine country singer and wrote several standards including "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Sixteen Tons,” with lyrics so authentic that many think they’re folk songs. He remained an active performer and recording artist till his death in 1983. Travis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
Travis was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the son of a coal miner. He played banjo as a child and switched to guitar when he was 12, learning on a home made guitar that his older brother Taylor had made. The Travis family was musical and often played with their neighbors Ike Everly and his sons Phil and Don. Another neighbor, Mose Rager, taught Travis his right hand picking technique, a style he’d picked up from an African-American fiddler and guitarist named Arnold Shultz.
Travis ditched high school in favor of day labor and playing parties and square dances at night. He saved enough money to get a Gretch guitar, then left town to hitch hike around America and play on street corners for tips. In 1935 he was visiting his brother Taylor in Evansville, Indiana where a local band, the Tennessee Tomcats, hired him. He stayed with the Tennessee Tomcats for a year, then joined the Georgia Wildcats led by fiddler Clayton "Pappy" McMitchen, also a member of Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers. McMitchen got him a job with the Drifting Pioneers, stars of WLW-Cincinnati's Boone County Jamboree, later known as the Midwestern Hayride. When The Drifting Pioneers left WLW, Travis, Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers started playing gospel music as The Brown's Ferry Four. They cut dozens of bluegrass gospel sides for King Records and became one of the most popular country gospel groups in the US. The two disc set Rockin’ on the Waves (2001 King) collects everything they cut between 1946 and 1952.
Travis joined the Marines during WW II, but couldn’t handle the discipline and left the service to go back to WLW, but he was strung out on booze and drugs. After his second marriage broke up, he moved to California where he played in Ray Whitley's Western Swing Band and landed a few acting gigs in cowboy B-movies. He signed with a new indie label called Capitol in 1946. His first records were massive hits including “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” “No Vacancy,” “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” “Divorce Me C.O.D.” “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon.” Folk Songs of the Hills (1947 Capitol), his first 78-RPM album, collected hits like “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon.” It was reissued on LP as Back Home in 1957. The Merle Travis Guitar (1956 Capitol, 2009 Capitol) was an instrumental album that showed off his virtuosic picking.
Travis was a regular on two LA country music shows - Stone's Hometown Jamboree and Town Hall Party – and eventually hosted his own program Merle Travis and Company. He also appeared in From Here to Eternity as a sailor playing and singing with Frank Sinatra on the song "Reenlistment Blues." Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded "Sixteen Tons" in 1955 and by singing it often on his NBC-TV show, he made it a standard, and one of the best selling singles in Capitol Records’ history.
Travis was still struggling with alcohol and drugs, but when he was in the studio, he did no wrong. His albums included Travis (1962 Capitol), Songs of the Coal Mines (1963 Capitol), a collection of blues and folk songs, Merle Travis and Joe Maphis (1964 Capitol, 2003 CMH), Strictly Guitar (1968 Capitol, 2005 Sundazed), another impressive guitar playing showcase, and Great Songs of the Delmore Brothers (1969 Capitol). The Merle Travis Story: 24 Greatest Hits (1992 CMH) is a selection of his Capitol hits.
In the late 60s Travis moved to Nashville and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, but his problems with booze and pills were affecting his playing. He appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists) and made a duet album with his fan Chet Atkins called The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show (1974 RCA, 2002 Sony/BMG). It won Travis a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Album.
He signed with the LA roots music label CHM in the 80s and they started to reissue his old albums as well as recording new material like Light Singin' and Heavy Pickin’ (1980 CMH), Rough, Rowdy and Blue (1981 CMH), Travis Pickin' (1981 CMH), which got a Grammy nomination for Best Country Instrumental, Merle & Grandpa's Farm & Home Hour (1982 CMH) a collaboration with Grandpa Jones, and A Guitar Retrospective (1995 CMH.) Fanatics can pick up the five disc Guitar Rags and a Too Fast Past (1994 Bear Family Germany).