Forgotten Artists: Merle Travis (1917-83)
It troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.
Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.
Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.
Music was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don & Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice.
At the age of 18 Travis started appearing on radio shows in Evansville, Indiana, and landed a position as lead guitarist for Clayton McMichen’s Wildcats. While continuing radio work, he eventually moved on to WLW in Cincinnati. During this period he became friends with Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Joe Maphis, among others.
Travis’ recording career swung into gear in 1943 when he and Grandpa Jones began recording for Cincinnati used-record dealer Syd Nathan, who had founded a new record label named King Records. Because WLW barred their staff musicians from recording, Travis and Jones recorded under the name of the Sheppard Brothers, with Travis issuing solo recordings for King under the name of Bob McCarthy. During this period they joined forces with the Delmore Brothers to perform gospel music under the name Browns Ferry Four. The group made few personal appearances, mostly performing on radio. During WWII, they had many fill-in performers as Travis, Jones and Alton Delmore all served in the military at various times. After reuniting in 1946, the group went on to record several dozen songs together. By 1947, Travis had relocated to California and signed a recording contract with Capitol. The group continued until 1952, but mostly without Travis’ involvement.
As a solo artist, Travis charted heavily from June 1946 to April 1948 with nine Top 10 singles. Two of the singles, “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” reached #1 for 14 weeks apiece. Travis’ recordings were styled as western numbers, similar to the songs in cowboy films, with his smiling voice, and lead guitar playing accompanied by small bands that often included accordion and muted trumpet or cornet. He continued to hit the Top 15 through early 1949, but after that would only chart twice more: as a featured guitarist on Hank Thompson’s #5 hit in 1955, “Wildwood Flower,” and in 1966 with a recording titled “John Henry, Jr.”
For Merle Travis, it was never really about hit records anyway. He considered himself a guitarist first, a songwriter second and a performer third. After 1949, he continued to record and perform as a session musician for many years (he played lead guitar on virtually every track Hank Thompson recorded for Capitol and also on Thompson’s first album for Warner Brothers). He remained a highly visible presence on California television, and appeared in the movie From Here To Eternity. His performance of “Re-enlistment Blues” (a song he did not write) was sung twice in the movie soundtrack. He made a number of movie appearances, the last was Honky Tonk Man in 1982.
Travis was quite a proficient songwriter. In 1947 he issued perhaps Country Music’s first concept album, Folk Songs of The Hills, which centered around the life of the coal miner and yielded such classics as “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” “Sixteen Tons” and “I Am A Pilgrim.” Travis wrote much of his own material, particularly during his early days, and had hundreds of his songs recorded. Probably his biggest copyrights were “Sixteen Tons” (a huge hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford), “Smoke Smoke Smoke” (a huge hit for Tex Williams) and “Dark As A Dungeon,” which has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dolly Parton, Cisco Houston, Guy Clark and dozens of other folk and country artists (the most notable recent recording was by Kathy Mattea on her acclaimed album Coal). The last verse of “Dark As A Dungeon” is as stark as anything anyone has ever written:
“I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.”
Merle Travis was elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
As always, all vinyl albums are out of print. They are all worth picking up, although those interested mostly in his picking should really like the Columbia albums Merle Travis Guitar, Walkin’ The Strings, and Merle Travis & Joe Maphis. All of Travis’ biggest hits and most influential recordings occurred before the advent of the long playing album, so many of his Capitol albums are simply collections of older recordings and were not originally conceived of as albums.
After Travis was put out to pasture by Capitol, he signed with CMH. Although some of the CMH albums feature remakes of his earlier hits, many will prefer the CMH albums as they place more emphasis on his guitar playing than did the Capitol versions. The Merle Travis Story reprises 22 of his vocal hits, including “Re-enlistment Blues” which was the Travis song featured in the movie From Here To Eternity. I would recommend any of the CHM albums, although Farm and Home Hour (with Grandpa Jones) might not be to everyone’s taste. Titles to look out for include Light Singin’ Heavy Pickin’, Guitar Standards, Travis Pickin’ and a duet album with Joe Maphis titled Guitar Country Giants. While on the CMH label, he appeared on multi-artist projects such as the Clayton McMichen Story and made appearances on albums by Grandpa Jones and Mac Wiseman.
Travis cut one album for RCA, a 1974 effort titled The Atkins – Travis Traveling Show. This amiable romp through eleven tunes features Chet Atkins paired with Merle Travis, one of Chet’s boyhood idols, as they run through some vocals, some banter and lots of good guitar work. The session was produced by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed and also features Reed playing rhythm guitar on several of the tracks. Atkins and Travis received a well-deserved Grammy for this album.
The King recordings from the early and mid 1940s are available on a five-CD set issued by Bear Family and a two-CD set issued by Proper (see below).
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has 12 titles available including Walkin’ The Strings, available as part of a two-fer with Merle Travis Guitar, a live recording on Rounder titled In Boston 1959 and Folk Songs of The Hills, available on Bear Family in an extended version.
Collectors Choice Music has the same titles available along with a five CD Bear Family boxed set titled Merle Travis – Guitar Rags & A Too Fast Past. Disc one of the set covers the King years, including his Bob McCarthy recordings such as “When Mussolini Laid His Pistol Down” and Sheppard Brothers recordings such as “The Steppin’ Out Kind,” which became a signature song for Grandpa Jones. The sound quality of the first five tracks on disc one is iffy (apparently the masters are no longer available, possibly melted down for use in making munitions in WWII), but the remaining sound is up to Bear’s usual standards. The remainder of the set covers Travis’ work on Capitol.
The British reissue label Proper issued a two CD set in 2003, compiling remastered recordings from 1943-52 accompanied by a 15-page booklet listing recording dates and personnel. This set includes some rare Sheppard Brothers and Browns Ferry Four tracks.
It’s out of print now, but in 1990 Rhino issued the collection titled The Best of Merle Travis. While I think it is a mistake to want only one Merle Travis CD, if you were to buy only one disc, this would be the one, covering as it does the best of the Capitol recordings. The titles alone hint at the diversity of Travis’ output: “Cincinnati Lou,” “No Vacancy,” “Divorce Me COD,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” “I Am A Pilgrim,” “So Round So Rirm So Fully Packed,” “Sweet Temptation,” “Steel Guitar Rag” (vocal version) , “Three Times Seven,” “Lawdy What A Gal,” “Fat Gal,” “I Like My Chicken Fryin’ Size,” “Re-enlistment Blues,” “Sixteen Tons,” “When My Baby Double Talks To Me,” “Trouble Trouble,” “Kinfolks In Carolina,” and “Cannonball Rag” (instrumental). These songs range from tongue-in-cheek to deadly serious. This disc can be found with a little effort.
Various independent labels have issued radio transcriptions of Merle Travis performing. There are also some performance DVDs available.
Although it is now out of print, Travis’ son, Thom Bresh, organized a tribute album titled Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis. Bresh put together an all-star band which included Vassar Clements, Buddy Emmons and Kenny Malone, and featured guests Lane Brody, Marcel Dadi, Chet Atkins John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Grandpa Jones, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Josh Graves and Marty Stuart. A terrific album, well worth the search. Bresh is a pretty formidable guitar player himself, so you might want to try a few of his solo albums as well. There is a hilarious video on YouTube of his appearance on the Barbara Mandrell Show, where Bresh shows off his skill as a vocal impressionist.
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