Merle Robert Travis (November 29, 1917 – October 20, 1983) was an American country and western singer, songwriter, and musician born in Rosewood, Kentucky. His lyrics often discussed the exploitation of coal miners. His most famous songs were: Sixteen Tons and Dark as a Dungeon. However, it is his masterful guitar picking that he is best known for today. "Travis picking," a style of guitar playing enabling the musician to play a treble melody line and a steady alternating bass pattern simultaneously, is named after him. He also played a role in the early development of the electric guitar and appeared in numerous Hollywood films in the 1950s. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
Travis was raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining county later made famous to country music fans by its prominent mention in the John Prine song Paradise. His father was a tobacco farmer turned coal miner. Merle learned to play the five-string banjo from his father, but by the age of 12 had become more interested in the guitar. His first guitar was a home made version made by his brother. Merle saved his money to obtain a store-bought guitar that he had window-shopped for some time.
Several local guitar players drew Travis' attention. Mose Rager was his main inspiration. Ranger played a thumb and index finger picking style method which created a solo style blending lead lines (played with the finger) and a rhythmic alternating bass pattern plucked with the thumb (equipped with a thumbpick). This guitar style captivated several guitarists in the region. A part-time barber and coal miner, Mose Rager had learned the style from a musician named Kennedy Jones, as had Ike Everly, the father of The Everly Brothers. Young Travis learned from both.
In 1936, Travis performed Tiger Rag on a radio amateur show while visiting his older brother in Evansville, Indiana, leading to offers of work with local bands. He then spent a brief period with Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats before connecting with the Drifting Pioneers, who performed on WLW in Cincinnati.
Travis's style reportedly amazed the people at WLW. He became a popular member of their barn dance show the Boone County Jamboree and worked on various weekday programs, often performing with other WLW acts such as Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, and Joe Maphis, all of whom became lifelong friends. In 1943, Travis and Grandpa Jones recorded for Cincinnati used-record dealer Syd Nathan, who had founded a new label, King Records. Because WLW barred their staff musicians from recording, they used the pseudonym "The Sheppard Brothers." It was the first recording ever released by King, known also for its country recordings by the Delmore Brothers and the Stanley Brothers as well as R&B legends Hank Ballard and James Brown.
Career peaks and valleys
In 1944, Travis left Cincinnati for Hollywood where his style became even more renowned as he worked on radio, recording sessions, and live stage shows. After recording on several small labels there, he was signed to Capitol Records in 1946. Hits like Divorce Me C.O.D., Sweet Temptation, Steel Guitar Rag and Fat Gal gave him national prominence, although they rarely showcased the guitar work that Travis was renowned for among his peers in the music industry. However, he experimented with multi-part overdubbing on his Merle's Boogie Woogie at the same time that Les Paul was similarly engaged.
Travis' design for a solid body electric guitar, built for him by Paul Bigsby with a single row of tuners, inspired longtime Travis friend Leo Fender's early guitar design. That guitar now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame. His unique picking style spawned many followers, the most notable of whom was Chet Atkins, who first heard Travis on WLW in 1939 while living with his father in rural Georgia.
Asked to record an album of "folk songs" to compete with the success of Burl Ives, Travis combined traditional numbers with originals recalling his family's days working in the mines. This including his most famous numbers: Sixteen Tons and Dark as a Dungeon. The latter of which went on to become a standard during the 1960s folk revival. Dolly Parton also included a cover of it on her 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album.
Travis continued recording for Capitol into the 1950s, finding greater exposure after an appearance in the 1953 hit movie From Here to Eternity playing Reenlistment Blues. From 1944 through 1982 Travis appeared in 16 films.
In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford had a million-seller crossover hit with Travis' composition, Sixteen Tons. Meanwhile Travis disciples such as Chet Atkins popularized his picking style in Nashville. Another Travis fan, Scotty Moore, became Elvis Presley's lead guitarist.
Travis's personal life was less sanguine. A heavy drinker and at times desperately insecure despite his multitude of talents, he was involved in various violent incidents in California and married several times. He also suffered from serious stage fright, even though fellow performers reported that once on stage, he was an effective and even charismatic performer.
Plagued by substance abuse issues, he did not succeed in sustaining his commercial popularity, despite the reverence of friends like Johnny Cash, Grandpa Jones and Hank Thompson, with whom Travis had toured and recorded in the 1950s.
Late career, death and legacy
Travis enjoyed a brief revival in the late 1970s with some recordings for CMH Records which showcased the guitar work he was renowned for, including Western Swing, re-recordings of his hits, and acoustic playing. He and his songs were also featured on the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. In 1983, Travis died of a massive heart attack at his Tahlequah, Oklahoma home. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered around a memorial erected to him near Drakesboro, Kentucky. Today, his son, Thom Bresh continues playing in Travis's style on a custom-made guitar.
Travis left a lasting legacy. His two great songs, Dark as a Dungeon and Sixteen Tons became virtual anthems for coalminers and did much to publicize their plight. As an instrumentalist, he is among the most influential in American history, with thousands of musicians owing him a strong debt.
Longtime Travis fan Doc Watson—himself considered one of the greatest American guitarists—named his son, Merle Watson, in Travis' honor. Glen Campbell's parents named him Glen Travis Campbell in honor of Travis.
Travis won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1974. He was voted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
In Travis picking, the thumb (T) alternates between bass notes, usually on two different strings, while the index (I) and sometimes the middle (M) finger alternate between two treble notes, also usually on two different strings, most often the second and first. Using this pattern on a C major chord is as follows:
The above pattern indicates only the most rudimentary basis of "Travis picking." Travis' own playing was much more complex and not limited to these patterns.
- 2003, Merle Travis in Boston 1959
- 2002, The Very Best of Merle Travis
- 1986, Rough Rowdy & Blue
- 1985, Merle & Grandpa's Farm & Home Hour
- 1981, Travis Pickin'
- 1980, Light Singin' & Pickin'
- 1979, Country Guitar Giants
- 1969, Great Songs of the Delmore Brothers
- 1969, Strictly Guitar
- 1964, Merle Travis & Joe Maphis
- 1964, I'm a Natural Born Gambling Man
- 1963, Songs of the Coal Mines
- 1962, Travis
- 1957, Back Home
- 1956, The Merle Travis Guitar
- Hanson, Mark D. The Art of Contemporary Travis Picking: How to Play the Alternating Bass Fingerpicking Style. Accent on Music, 1986. ISBN 978-0936799001
- Sokolow, Fred. Legends of Country Guitar. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998. ISBN 978-0793544202
- Traum, Happy. Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar. Oak Publications, 2005. ISBN 978-0825603433
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