Merle Travis - vocals, guitar
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 five-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 his 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 it's 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 his 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 to 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 and being played in 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 flatpicking 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 November 1965 performance, recorded before a very appreciative audience at the Ash Grove, 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. This would be Travis' final set of the evening on the final day of his two-weekend engagement and he is in particularly adventurous form. The vast majority of the songs played during this set are in direct response to audience requests, which he accommodates throughout the set.
Travis kicks things off with "If You Can't Go Right Don't Go Wrong," a prime example of his gift for crafting catchy lyrics around the hot finger-picking style that initially established his reputation. The next two numbers head in a bluesy direction, first with an instrumental reading of Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train," where Travis lets his fingers do all the talking, followed by the southern-flavored "Black Cat Blues." The set continues with "Jordan Is A Hard Road To Travel," a song that initially gained popularity via traveling minstrel shows in the 1800s. Travis updates the lyrics, giving listeners a taste of his sense of humor and then by request, plays another delightfully engaging instrumental, "Bicycle Built For Two." This is a remarkable example of Travis' ability to interweave rhythmic strumming with lead finger-picking in an incredibly fluid manner.
The next three numbers all veer into humorous territory. Although what was risqué seems downright innocent and quaint in terms of today, all three of these songs are incredibly well-crafted, with catchy melodies, instantly memorable choruses, and fueled by Travis' infectious guitar playing. From the politically incorrect, yet undeniably catchy Texas-styled swing of his 1947 hit, "Fat Gal," to the slightly sarcastic and very funny "Moon Over The Motel," which Travis was persuaded not to record back in the day (due to it being MUCH too risqué!), his sense of humor is delightful and his delivery thoroughly engaging. Nowhere does this apply better than on the song in between those two, "Divorce Me C.O.D.," which in 1946 would sail up the charts to number one and remain there for 14 consecutive weeks.
Many of the preceding songs were played by request, so now every song is followed by a barrage of requests and after considering several and even teasing the audience with a little taste of "Yakety Yak," Travis performs a truly astounding version of "Cannonball Rag," showcasing his dancing melodic ability and fiery technique within a ragtime context. This is a tour-de-force featuring incredibly intricate thumb and finger-picking played at nearly incomprehensible speed and with beautiful, never-faltering fluency. Next up is "Dapper Dan," a Dixieland flavored number celebrating the availability of beautiful woman in every city. A lovely unidentified instrumental is next and then Travis continues with the undeniably infectious song inspired by his father's experience as a coal miner, "Sixteen Tons." This is probably Travis' most covered song and despite other artists recording what are now the most definitive versions, it is a delight to hear Travis perform it here.
The final three songs of the set are instrumentals that thoroughly display Travis' undeniable guitar virtuosity. First is "The Sheik of Araby," a song written back in 1921, in response to the popularity of the Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik and later becoming a standard of New Orleans jazz bands. This followed by a dazzling display of ferocious finger-picking on "Wildwood Flower," eliciting a rousing response from the audience. Being a Sunday night and with time quickly running out, Travis closes the set with another unidentified instrumental that is a superb example of his bluesiest leanings. The nuances of his highly developed touch are even more obvious in this slower, bluesier number, which along with every instrumental number here will dazzle acoustic guitar players of any persuasion.
Merle Travis' pioneering approach to the guitar has certainly had a profound influence. Throughout this remarkable set, his self-effacing personality and incredibly fluid picking style infuses every song with genuine warmth and a depth of feeling that has rarely been equaled, proving him to be not only a great songwriter, but also one of the most talented and influential American guitarists of the twentieth century.
Written by Alan Bershaw