Merle Travis

For American Songcatcher episode #7: She’s Gone With The Gypsy Davy

Merle Robert Travis was born in Rosewood, Kentucky, on November 17, 1917, a year his father invariably referred to as “the year of the bad winter.” The house Travis grew up in was owned by the Beech Creek coal mining company, which employed his father. (The couple who collected rent—who the family knew as Uncle Rufus and Aunt Rowena—were former slaves. In an interview in 1961 Travis recalled that “We loved ‘em and they loved us.”) 

His father never drove a car or owned livestock. They lived without running water, electricity, radio, even a rug on the floor. Yet, for whatever it lacked, the house was full of love and music. Travis’ father played harmonica—he called it a French harp—and banjo. His brothers played fiddle, banjo, and an “old tater bug mandolin,” one with a ribbed, bowled back, of the kind that arrived in Appalachia with Italian immigrants. His sister sang. One of his earliest musical memories was of his neighbour’s guitar. “It smelled so good, a musty sort of smell” he’d say years later. “It was the most fascinating looking thing.” His first instrument was a fretless banjo he made out of a carbide can, carbide being the fuel that was used to light miners’ lamps.

A cousin who lived across the field and had a radio with an antenna attached to a poplar pole. The family went up on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ol Opry, bringing in acts like the Fruit Jar Drinkers, Robert Lund, and The Lonesome Cowboy out of Del Rio, Texas. “I used to try to make it a point to go up there every day I could at noon to hear Gene Autry and Clayton MacMichum and the Log Cabin Boys,” he recalled. “It sounded so mysterious and so far away.”

Even without the radio, growing up in Muhlenberg County Travis had access to a uniquely rich musical education, thanks in large part to the steamboats plying the Green, Cumberland and Ohio Rivers. They took coal north to Pittsburgh, delivered milk and food to New Orleans, and brought travelling musicians everywhere in between. One of them was Arnold Shultz, who attracted everyone’s attention including Ike Everly, father of the Everly brothers, Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Kennedy Jones. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, played sideman to Shultz in some of his first paying gigs. Monroe later said that “there’s things in my music, you know, that come from Arnold Shultz—runs that I use in a lot of my music.”

Shultz played traditional tunes from the north, Dixieland tunes from the south, often mixing the two in a syncopated style, the thumb keeping an alternating pulse on the bass notes, the index and middle fingers brushing the high strings or picking out a melody line. The style was infectious and Travis was absorbing all of it. Of Rager he said, “I set there and drooled and thought, ‘boy, some day I’ll be able to play maybe like Mose Rager.’”

If his guitar playing was inspired by Shultz and Rager, his performing style was influenced by Raymond McClelland, a local performer he would describe as “one man show.” He knew countless songs and was as famous for his patter as for his playing. Travis and Raymond busked on street corners, hopping trains to Springfield, Tennessee, Paducah Kentucky, Fulton Tennessee, and up into Indiana. When he wasn’t with McClelland, he was riding the rails and the steamboats with Junior Rose, a mandolin player from Powderly, Kentucky. “We’d find an empty boxcar and crawl in it. And if it wasn’t empty, we’d climb on top of it, on the catwalk up there.” They’d head first to Central City, then catch a train to Paducah, before catching a river boat up to Dycusberg, Kentucky. In towns they played on street corners, on the boats, they’d play for the crew, in part to ensure that they wouldn’t be kicked off. “We’d figure we was millions of miles from home.”

When he was 16, Travis and his brother Taylor went to see a dance-a-thon being broadcast live by WGBF Radio in Evanston, Kentucky. No sooner were they in the door when Taylor walked up to the organizers saying “My little brother here’s got a guitar, and he can really pick it!” Travis stepped up and proved the boast and the next night, he was featured on air playing “Tiger Rag.” “I tried to play it as much like Mose Rager as I could,” he later said. “And that was the first lick I ever played on the radio.”

His reputation grew quickly, both as a musician and a performer. Soon he was hired by the Knox County Knockabouts, then the Tennessee Tomcats, then Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats to play school houses and civic auditoriums throughout the region. In March of 1937 he to Cincinnati with the Drifting Pioneers and played an impromptu set in the lobby of WLW Radio. They were hired on the spot. Travis stayed at the radio station for six years, preforming whenever he was called upon. Every morning on WLW there were 15 minutes of gospel music, and producers gathered any performers that happened to be in the building. They played unrehearsed out of the pages of a Stamps Baxter shape-note hymnbook, Supernal Joy. Travis was often chosen, as were the Delmore Brothers and Grandpa Jones. As the Brown’s Ferry Four, they recorded singles for King Records, becoming one of the most popular country gospel groups of the time.

One night in 1944, Travis went backstage to meet Smiley Burnett, known best as a sideman for Gene Autry. He played a tune for Burnett, another he’d learned from Mose Rager, attracting the attention Bill “Bo Jangles” who joined in by dancing along. Afterward, Burnett turned to Bo Jangles and said: “That feller could go to Hollywood, and stand on the corner of Hollywood and Vine and make a fortune playing that guitar.” Travis asked him if he really liked it in Los Angeles, and Burnett said he did. “I’d rather live in California and eat lettuce than to live here in this cold weather and eat caviar.”

The thought stuck. The next day, Travis asked Grandpa Jones and six or seven other performers to each lend him $10.  He then had musician Hank Ping to drive him to the railroad station and, with nothing in had but his guitar, the next day he arrived in Los Angeles. He knew all of two people, though that, combined with his obvious talent and charisma, was enough. He was soon appearing in “soundies,” short films of that were distributed through coin operated jukeboxes across the country. (The first was “Night Train to Memphis” with Jimmy Wakely and his Oklahoma Cowboys and Girls. One of them was a very young Colleen Summers, who would later become Mary Ford, life and musical partner to Les Paul.)

In 1947 Travis signed as a solo artist with Capitol Records. His first single was, “Cincinnati Lou.” The b-side was “No Vacancy” about troops returning from service in World War II being denied property by avaricious landlords. It was an early example of a typical Travis trope—singing about serious topics within the context of a pop song. He felt, above all, he was a performer, and his job was to entertain, just like Raymond McClelland had back home. But that didn’t mean the songs had to be vacuous.

Though he suffered from stage fright all his life, audiences certainly didn’t see that either in person or on screen. From the costumes, to the banter, to the 1000-watt smile, his film work cemented his image in the national gaze. He was also writing songs, most notably with Cliffie Stone, an assistant A&R man at Capitol. One of them, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” became a hit for Tex Williams. It was the first for Capitol to sell more than a million copies.

In every way, Travis’ career was taking off. To make the most of it, and broaden his appeal, Cliffie Stone asked him to record an album of folk songs. At first Travis balked. He was known best as a singing cowboy. He also felt that all the best folk songs had been recorded by others, such as Burl Ives and Bradley Kincaid. Stone said, “Well, why don’t you write some?”

He did, and he recorded them along with traditional Appalachian songs on the album “Folk Songs of the Hills.” It was unlike anything he’d done professionally up to that point. The arrangements were bare—just Travis and his guitar—and really showcased his picking style. Spoken elements brought his personality forward in ways that it had never before. And unlike the songs of life on the range, these drew directly from his experience growing up coal country. “Sixteen Tons” is about living in debt to the coal companies, much like his own family has. “Dark as a Dungeon” was about the long, punishing work underground. Those were also traditional tunes that he knew from childhood, including “I am a Pilgrim” and “Muskrat” and “Nine Pound Hammer.” His talent, his personal history, and his influences came together for the first time.

The recording drew little attention at the time, but it would go on to define his musical legacy. Meanwhile, his popularity grew thanks to appearances on television and in movies. In the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, starring Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Deborah Kerr, he appears as a soldier, singing “Re-Enlistment Blues.”

In 1971, Merle Travis and Doc Watson met during a recording session for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The tape was kept running and we hear Doc Watson, himself incredibly talented and influential, approaching Travis as a true fan.

In 1973 he joined his friend and musical disciple Chet Atkins to record the LP The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, earning a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977. “It’s hard for young people today to realize how different he was as a stylist and what an influence he was on everybody,” Chet Atkins said at the time of Travis’ death of heart disease in 1983.

Travis is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential guitar players of the 20th century, and while he’d be the first to say that he didn’t invent the style, it’s also true that most people knew it through his recordings. He extended it, adding elements taken from ragtime, jazz, blues, and Western swing. Known today as Travis picking, it’s impossible to understate the effect that it had. New York Times music critic Robert Palmer once wrote that “if there had been no Merle Travis … an entire generation of country, rockabilly and early rock‐and‐roll guitarists would have been deprived of its most important influence.”

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