Merle Travis was born in 1917 and raised in the coal-mining county of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, an area that would eventually inspire many of his most memorable original songs. The son of a coal miner whose family lived on the brink of poverty, Travis began playing 5-string banjo as a child and switched to his older brother's homemade guitar at the age of 12. Travis became enamored by black guitarists such as Blind Blake, the foremost ragtime and blues guitarist of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the Western Kentucky finger-picking traditions of guitarist Arnold Shultz, who had taught the style to several local musicians, including Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of the Everly Brothers), neighbors of the Travis family. The technique utilized a thumb and index finger-picking method, creating a soloing style that blended lead lines and rhythmic bass patterns picked or strummed by using a thumb pick. Ranger and Everly passed on this unique picking style to the teenage Travis, who soon grew astonishingly proficient at it, applying it to an early repertoire of blues, ragtime, and popular songs.
Performing on an amateur radio program at age 18 led to Travis' first offers to work with local groups where he gained more experience. Two years later he was hired as the guitarist in fiddle player Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, before joining the Drifting Pioneers, a Chicago-area gospel quartet that performed on Cincinnati's WLW radio, the primary country music station north of Nashville. The staff and listeners at WLW were all impressed with Travis and he became a popular fixture on "Boone County Jamboree," the station's popular live barn dance radio show. It was during this time that Travis began performing with Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny, and Joe Maphis, all of whom would became lifelong friends. When the Drifting Pioneers left the radio station, Travis, Grandpa Jones, and the Delmore Brothers formed a gospel group called the Brown's Ferry Four to fill the programming gap that opened up at WLW. Travis also traveled to Los Angeles, where he began performing in Charles Starrett's Western movies and playing with Ray Whitley's Western swing band. Here, Tex Ritter and Cliffie Stone encouraged Travis and in 1946 he released the topical song "No Vacancy," which addressed the displacement of returning World War veterans, and "Cincinnati Lou," which became a double-sided hit. This led to the recording of Travis' first album, Folk Songs Of The Hills, arguably one of the first concept albums. Released as a set of four 78-rpm discs, the project was a commercial failure at the time of its 1947 release, despite the fact that it was widely admired by musicians and contained now classic originals like "Sixteen Tons," "Dark as a Dungeon," and "Over by Number Nine," and introduced the standard "Nine Pound Hammer" to countless other artists. Following the initial failure of his first solo album, Travis returned to Cincinnati and released dozens of popular gospel recordings with the Brown's Ferry Four during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He also continued writing and recording and not only scored Top Ten country hits of his own, like "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," and "Three Times Seven," but also wrote the million-selling hit, "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke (That Cigarette)," for his friend Tex Williams.
By this point, Travis had become a master guitar virtuoso and a widely respected songwriter. Although his own string of hits was short-lived, his popularity continued to increase with his live performances and session work for others. In 1953, he landed a movie appearance in From Here To Eternity, one of the biggest films of the year, performing "Re-Enlistment Blues." Two years later, Tennessee Ernie Ford released his cover of Travis' "Sixteen Tons," scoring a huge crossover hit. Travis also devised the first solid body electric guitar, which Leo Fender soon developed and perfected, helping to pave the way for early rock 'n' roll. He was respected and had become prominent enough to have an instrumental style ("Travis picking") named after him. Only Chet Atkins (another Travis acolyte) came close to rivaling the influence that Travis had on the way the guitar was perceived country music. By the end of the 1950s, Travis' influence could be heard in countless guitarists, including Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley's lead guitarist) and a number of Travis' songs, such as "Dark as a Dungeon," "John Henry," and "Nine-pound Hammer," had now become folk, country, and bluegrass standards. His reputation as a songwriter and guitarist continued to grow following the re-release of his earlier recordings in 1957, and his Walkin' the Strings album in 1960, a mostly instrumental outing, would be an inspiration to many of the guitar pickers recognized in the decades to come, including Doc Watson, Jorma Kaukonen, David Bromberg, and Leo Kottke.
During the American folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Merle Travis' career got a second wind, leading to live appearances at clubs, folk festivals, and even a prestigious Carnegie Hall performance in 1962. By this point, Travis' trademark style incorporated elements from country, ragtime, blues, boogie, jazz, and Western swing. His guitar playing was marked by rich chord progressions, harmonics, slides and bends, and rapid changes of key. Travis could shift quickly from finger-picking to flat-picking in the midst of a number by gripping his thumb pick like a flat pick; in his hands, the guitar could indeed be as exciting as a full band.
This December 1966 performance, recorded before a wildly appreciative audience at the Ash Grove, in Los Angeles, captures Merle Travis in fine form, performing many of his classic songs as well as giving listeners a sense of his warm, self-effacing personality.
Written by Alan Bershaw