Merle Travis

by Peter Stone

Merle Robert Travis (November 29, 1917–October 20, 1983) grew up in western Kentucky coal country. A vocalist, songwriter, and author, he developed his guitar technique, picking syncopated accompaniment on the bass strings with the thumb of his right hand while simultaneously playing lead on the treble strings with his index finger. from his Muhlenberg County neighbors, Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil, and Mose Ragen, who had his own three-fingered Kentucky style. This “Travis picking,” as it came to be called, influenced generations of performers including the Everly Brothers themselves, and, above all, Chet Atkins.

On a visit to his brother in Evansville, Indiana, in 1937, Travis got a break with local fiddler Clayton McMichen and moved with his band to Cincinnati’s WLW radio. He then began his association during WW II with Grandpa Jones; under the name the Sheppard Brothers they became in 1943 the first artists to record for Cincinnati’s King Records label. The ensuing years found him in California doing radio shows and recording sessions. After being assigned to Capitol Records in 1946, he wrote many hit songs that made the Top Ten with one of Capitol’s assistant A&R men, bassist Cliffie Stone. With the help of Stone and Tex Ritter, he recorded the topical song, “No Vacancy,” about the displacement of returning veterans, which, backed with “Cincinnati Lou,” became his first hit. Travis and Stone’s 1947 song, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” became a hit for Tex Williams and the first million-seller for Capitol. 1947 was a boom year for Travis’s hits, but the string didn’t last.

Travis intended a 1947 concept album, Folk Songs of the Hills, with acoustic guitar accompanying some traditional songs and three folk-like originals, to compete with Burl Ives’s successes, but it did not do well commercially. It did, however, contain what would become classics, including “Sixteen Tons,” an imaginative coal-mining tune that Travis had written the previous year.

In 1948 Travis designed a solid-bodied electric steel guitar, which was built by Paul Bigsby; it may have inspired Travis’s friend, Leo Fender, to build the Fender Telecaster,  a primary element in early rock and roll. That same year, on November 22, 1948, the Mutual Broadcasting Company presented a Thanksgiving program, “Your Ballad Man,” hosted by Alan Lomax, exploring the history of the holiday and America’s spiritual traditions. It featured Merle Travis, who sang eight songs, including “The Prodigal Son,” “I Am a Pilgrim,” “I Am Bound for the Promised Land,” “That Shepherd Boy,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” “Ezekial Saw the Wheels A’Rolling,” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” The program can be heard in the Lomax Radio Archives.

Travis spent the 1950s in and around California, appearing on local TV and stage, recording, and touring. In 1953, he appeared in one of the biggest films of the year, Fred Zinnemann’s classic 1953 World War II film, From Here to Eternity, based on James Jones’s novel. It starred Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, and Deborah Kerr. In it, Travis portrayed a guitar-picking soldier, performing "Re-Enlistment Blues," which was used as the movie’s leitmotif.

Then, in 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford made his crossover multimillion hit, “Sixteen Tons,” which became a standard and spurred renewed interest in Travis. The grateful Travis even started singing “I owe my soul to Tennessee Ernie Ford” instead of “to the company store” on some of his later recordings of the song. He began to play on all of his longtime friend Hank Thompson's records. But although he was highly regarded, he never quite got back to the top of the Hit Parade. Personal problems dogged him: Alcohol, drunk driving, narcotics, marital disputes: all did their damage. In the mid-60s, he began to recover. He made the album Songs of the Coal Mines, but like its predecessor, it did poorly.

In 1974 his friend and follower Chet Atkins and he received a Grammy award for Best Country Instrumental Performance for their 1973 LP, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show. From time to time, Travis played for appreciative audiences on the college folk circuit. He once again concentrated on his music, perhaps the salutary influence of his fourth wife, Dorothy, who had been married to Hank Thompson. He began to record again, doing tributes to, or working with, former colleagues.

The Country Music Hall of Fame inducted him in 1977; he began to write memoirs for music magazines; the country label CMH recorded him in 1979; once again he was nominated for a Grammy, this time for the 1981 Travis Pickin’. But on October 19, 1983, a massive heart attack and death the following morning cut short his renascence. His ashes were later interred in Ebenezer, Kentucky, under the Merle Travis monument, dedicated in 1956 to honor him and his song “Sixteen Tons.”