Guitarist, singer, songwriter
The name Merle Travis stands solidly on its own, the symbol of an era that witnessed some of the greatest innovations in modern country music. Along with other legendary pickers like Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, and Roy Clark, Travis was both a traditionalist and an inventor on the guitar. In songs such as “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Sixteen Tons” he fashioned emotive vignettes of scenes from American life; from his roots in folk culture he moved on to define classic honky-tonk music with his hits “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “Three Times Seven.”
While preserving the best of country music tradition, Travis’s talents extended the instrumental limits of country music styling. His development of the technique that became known as “Travis Picking” made a lasting impact on generations of Nashville pickers who would follow. In addition, he is credited with developing one of the first solid-body guitar prototypes; his early design was the inspiration for Leo Fender and the Fender guitars that became a mainstay of rock music.
Travis was born on November 29, 1917, in Rosewood, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The youngest of four children, Merle and his family moved to nearby Eben-ezer when his father left tobacco farming behind for the better pay offered by the coal mines. Merle’s first instrument was a cast-off five-string banjo that he played alongside his father, an enthusiastic banjo picker. When he was 12, his talented older brother Taylor gave him a guitar that he had made himself.
Playing music was a popular pastime in the area, and the Travis family often got together to jam with neighbors like Ike Everly, father to the same Phil and Don who would one day be one of the most popular vocal duos in America. It was from his neighbor Mose Rager that young Merle learned the basics of the right-hand guitar technique that would eventually bear his name. Rager, in turn, had been heavily influenced by the playing of a local railroad hand, African-American fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz.
During a time when most country guitar was a flat-picked rhythmic backup for vocals, Travis used the thumb of the right hand to create a syncopated bass-note accompaniment to the melody line created by the first two fingers of his right hand. His was a more complex arrangement than that shown him by his coal-miner neighbors because of Merle’s background as a banjo picker. The sound Travis obtained on a single guitar would never require backup by a rhythm section.
After grade school, Travis began to earn money by playing for square dances, town get-togethers, and whatever else he could find. Music was his path away
Born Merle Robert Travis, November 29, 1917, in Rosewood, KY; died of a heart attack, October 20, 1983; son of Robert Travis (a coal miner); married, 1937 (divorced); married June Hayden (a singer; divorced); married Bettie Morgan, c. 1954 (divorced); married Dorothy Thompson; children: Dennis, Mildred, Pat, Cindy, Merlene.
Began playing with Tennessee Tomcats, Evansville, IL, 1935; joined Georgia Wildcats, 1936; joined Drifting Pioneers and performed on WLW, Cincinnati, 1937-44; signed with Capitol Records, 1946-69; co-host of television show Merle Travis and Company, c. 1953; performed with other legendary country stars on Will the Circle Be Unbroken, 1972; signed with CMH. Appeared in films, including From Here to Eternity, 1953, and Honky Tonk Man, 1982. Military service: U.S. Marine Corps, 1942-44.
Awards: Inducted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, 1970; Grammy Award (with Chet Atkins) for best country instrumental performance, 1974, for The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show; inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, 1977.
from the hard life in the mines, a way of living with which he had become all too familiar during his childhood and about which he would write extensively in his later songs. He got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps until he saved $30, enough money to buy a Gretch guitar. With new guitar in hand, he and a friend hitchhiked around the country, playing on street corners for the money they needed to continue their travels.
In 1935, the year Travis turned 18, his ramblings had led him to Evansville, Indiana, where his brother Taylor lived. While attending a local dance marathon, he gave a performance of “Tiger Rag” that showcased his upbeat new style. Travis’s innovative guitar work caught the ear of the members of a local band, the Tennessee Tomcats, who quickly hired the newcomer. In late 1936 Travis left the Tomcats to begin touring with the popular Georgia Wildcats. Wildcatter Clayton “Pappy” McMitch-en, also a member of the Skillet Lickers and one of the most highly praised American fiddlers of the 1930s, would prove to be a great help in promoting Travis’s career. With Pappy’s help, in less than a year the young guitarist was performing with the Drifting Pioneers on WLW-Cincinnati’s Boone County Jamboree, a popular radio show that would become even more well known as the Midwestern Hayride.
The 50,000-watt signal generated by the station let Travis popularize his finger-style guitar technique nationwide during WLW broadcasts. Among his many national listeners was an asthmatic teenager from rural Georgia who was teaching himself to play the guitar in opposition to parents, who desired him to pursue a career as a violinist. Sitting by his radio, the teen leaned forward to hear every note of Travis’s intricate finger-picked guitar breaks—unique because of their degree of complexity and the bluesy sound they brought to country music—and was inspired to develop a style like it himself. The young man’s name was Chet Atkins; he would cross paths with Travis many years later when the two met in the recording studio to begin work on an award-winning collaboration titled The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show.
During World War II Travis joined the Marine Corps but found that its severe discipline clashed with his independent nature. After two years he returned to WLW, but problems with alcohol and pills caused his second marriage to come apart. Unable to deal with either his personal or marital problems, Travis blamed his dissatisfaction on the dismal Midwest winters. He moved to California in 1944.
Supporting himself by acting in minor roles in a few western films and playing with Ray Whitley’s Western Swing Band, Travis helped fellow musicians Tex Ritter and Cuffie Stone get a recording contract with the newly formed Capitol Records in 1946. There he became one of the most sought-after stars on the young label. Honky-tonkhits like “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” a take-off on advertising slogans of the day, was a radio favorite in 1947. Travis wrote or cowrote all of his songs; “No Vacancy,” lamenting the housing shortage facing the soldiers returning stateside after World War II, was a collaboration with Stone, and Tex Williams helped on “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette).” A song that grew to the stature of an American folk classic, “Dark as a Dungeon” was written under the glow of a street light as Travis stopped to jot down the lyrics on a motorcycle ride home from Redondo Beach.
With a great talent for both language and music, Travis was able to create new songs almost on demand. His witty lyricism was peppered with the easygoing slang that made his songs instantly popular. “Divorce Me C.O.D.” held the Number One spot for 14 weeks through the end of 1946. With songs like “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Sixteen Tons,” both released on Folk Songs of the Hills in 1947, Travis proved to be tough competition for other record labels. In 1947 rival RCA Victor hired budding guitar virtuoso Atkins to compete head-to-head with Merle; Travis was unbeatable, however, and Atkins temporarily returned to the performance circuit after only one recording.
By 1950 Travis had become a familiar face on Stone’s Hometown Jamboree and Town Hall Party, two Los Angeles-based television music shows; he and his second wife, singer June Hayden, also hosted Merle Travis and Company through several seasons. In addition, Travis appeared as a guitar-playing sailor in the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, swapping vocals with Frank Sinatra in the catchy “Reenlistment Blues.”
In the fall of 1955 Travis’s friend Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded “Sixteen Tons”; by working the song into his NBC-TV shows Ford made the song so popular that demand for it would make the Travis-penned saga of the coal-miner’s plight the best-selling 45 rpm single of all time. Its author soon attained celebrity status as well; unfortunately, not all mentions of the songwriter in the media were positive. One night in early 1956 he struck his third wife, Bettie, forcing her to flee their home. News accounts would embellish the details of Travis’s drunken threats and his final surrender to police. But by June the event was eclipsed as the musician returned to his hometown of Ebenezer, Kentucky, to be honored with a memorial and “Merle Travis Day.”
Unfortunately, hard drinking and drug use would continue to plague Travis throughout his life. In the early 1960s the musician was hospitalized for a period after his arrest on the charge of driving under the influence of narcotics. Although he moved to Nashville during the 1960s and appeared regularly on the stage of the famed Grand Ole Opry, Travis’s technique began to suffer from his taxing lifestyle. He recorded two more records, including another album of mining songs, before his association with Capitol ended in 1969. A recording project with producer Atkins, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, won the pair a Grammy Award in 1974. Shortly thereafter, Travis returned to the West Coast, where he played occasional concerts and recorded for CMH Records.
At this point in his life, newly remarried, Travis slowly began to get control of his life. His performance skills began to return to their former level, as evidenced by 1981’s Travis Pickin’, which earned Travis a Grammy nomination. Tragically, in October of 1983, a month shy of 66, Travis suffered a massive heart attack, which proved fatal. His film appearance in Clint Eastwood’s Honky Tonk Man a year earlier was his last.
Revered by countless musicians as country’s consummate Renaissance Man, Travis is acknowledged as one of the most influential guitarists of the twentieth century. Indeed, he has been an inspiration to many—like a young Gene Autry—who first heard his unique guitar stylings via the radio shows of the early 1940s. Noted performers Doc Watson and Chet Atkins both named their sons Merle—after the man they counted among their personal heroes.
Folk Songs of the Hills (includes “Nine-Pound Hammer,” “I Am a Pilgrim,” and “Sixteen Tons”), Capitol, 1947, reissued, Bear Family.
Back Home, Capitol, 1957.
Travis!, Capitol, 1962.
Walkin’ the Strings, Capitol, 1962.
Songs of the Coal Miners, Capitol, 1963.
Guitar Standards, Capitol, 1968.
(With the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others) Will the Circle Be Unbroken, United Artists, 1972.
(With Chet Atkins) The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, RCA, 1974.
Travis Pickin’, CMH, 1981.
The Best of Merle Travis, Rhino, 1990.
(With Joe Maphis) Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, Capitol.
Malone, Bob C, and Judith McCulloch, Stars of Country Music, University of Illinois Press, 1975.
Shestack, Melvin, Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1973.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1983.
Country America, March 1994.
Guitar Player, June 1969.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Rich Kienzle, The Best of Merle Travis, Rhino, 1990.
—Pamela L Shelton
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