MERLE ROBERT TRAVIS (November 29, 1917 – October 20, 1983) was an
American country and western singer, songwriter, and guitarist born in
Rosewood, Kentucky . His song's lyrics often discussed both the lives
and the economic exploitation of American coal miners. Among his many
well-known songs are "
Sixteen Tons ," "Re-Enlistment Blues," "I am a
Pilgrim," and "
Dark as a Dungeon ." However, it is his unique guitar
style, still called Travis Picking by guitarists, as well as his
interpretations of the rich musical traditions of his native
Muhlenberg County, Kentucky , for which he is best known today.
"Travis Picking " is a syncopated style of guitar fingerpicking rooted
in ragtime music in which alternating chords and bass notes are
plucked by the thumb while melodies are simultaneously plucked by the
index finger. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of
Fame in 1970 and elected to the
Country Music Hall of Fame
Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.
* 1 Biography
* 1.1 Early years
* 1.2 Career peak
* 1.3 Guitar style
* 1.4 Late career
* 2 Legacy
* 3 Discography
* 3.1 Albums
* 3.2 Posthumous albums
* 3.3 Selected compilations and reissues
* 3.4 Notes on the recordings
* 3.5 Singles
* 4 Music DVDs
* 5 Music films
* 6 Film appearances as musical performer
* 7 Other film appearances
* 8 Original film music
* 9 References
* 10 Bibliography
* 11 External links
Merle Travis was born and raised in
Muhlenberg County , Kentucky, a
place which would inspire many of Travis's original songs. (This is
the same coal mining county mentioned in the
John Prine song
"Paradise") He became interested in the guitar early in life and
originally played one made by his brother. Travis reportedly saved his
money to buy a guitar that he had window-shopped for some time.
Merle's guitar playing style was developed out of a native tradition
of fingerpicking in Western Kentucky. Among its early practitioners
was the black country blues guitarist
Arnold Shultz . Shultz taught
his style to several local musicians, including Kennedy Jones , who
passed it on to other guitarists, notably
Mose Rager , a part-time
barber and coal miner, and
Ike Everly , the father of The Everly
Brothers . Their thumb and index fingerpicking method created a solo
style that blended lead lines picked by the finger and rhythmic bass
patterns picked or strummed by the thumbpick. This technique
captivated many guitarists in the region and provided the main
inspiration to young Travis. Travis acknowledged his debt to both
Rager and Everly, and appears with Rager on the DVD Legends of
Country Guitar (Vestapol, 2002).
At the age of 18, Travis performed "Tiger Rag" on a local radio
amateur show in
Evansville, Indiana , leading to offers of work with
local bands. In 1937 Travis was hired by fiddler
Clayton McMichen as
guitarist in his Georgia Wildcats. He later joined the Drifting
Pioneers , a Chicago-area gospel quartet that moved to WLW radio in
Cincinnati, the major country music station north of Nashville.
Travis's style amazed everyone at WLW and he became a popular member
of their barn dance radio show the "Boone County Jamboree" when it
began in 1938. He performed on various weekday programs, often working
with other WLW acts including Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones , the
Delmore Brothers ,(In Alton Delmores Book "Truth is Stranger Than
Publicity" on pages 274–275 Alton describes how he taught Merle
Travis how to read and write music)
Hank Penny and
Joe Maphis , all
of whom became lifelong friends.
In 1943, he and
Grandpa Jones recorded for Cincinnati used-record
Syd Nathan , who had founded a new label, King Records .
Because WLW barred their staff musicians from recording, Travis and
Jones used the pseudonym The Sheppard Brothers. Their recording of
"You'll Be Lonesome Too" was the first to be released by King Records,
subsequently known for its country recordings by the Delmore Brothers
and Stanley Brothers as well as R Travis himself acknowledged the
influence of black guitarists such as
Blind Blake , the foremost
ragtime and blues guitarist of the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Travis's style is explained and exemplified by
Marcel Dadi on the DVD
The Guitar of Merle Travis, which includes live video performances by
Travis of classics such as "John Henry" and "Nine Pound Hammer" as
well as transcriptions of Travis solos in tablature .
After a career dip during which he struggled to overcome alcohol and
drug abuse, Travis put his career back on track in the 1970s. He
appeared frequently on such country music TV shows as The Porter
Wagoner Show, The
Johnny Cash Show, Austin City Limits, Grand Old
Country, and Nashville Swing; and his featured performances on the
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken
introduced him to a new generation of roots music enthusiasts. His
1974 album of duets with Chet Atkins, The Atkins - Travis Traveling
Show , won a
Grammy award in the category "Best Country Instrumental,"
and a later album
Travis Pickin' received another nomination. In 1976,
he contributed to the musical score of the
Academy Award -winning
Harlan County, USA . Toward the end of the 1970s he signed
a new contract with the Los-Angeles-based country music label CMH ,
which launched one of the most prolific recording periods in his
career. The many titles that followed included new guitar solo albums,
Joe Maphis , a blues album, and a double LP tribute to the
legendary country fiddler Clayton McMichen, with whom he had played in
In 1983, Travis died of a heart attack at his Tahlequah, Oklahoma
home. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered around a memorial
erected to him near
Drakesboro, Kentucky .
Although many of his original LP albums are still unissued on CD,
Travis' posthumous discography continues to grow, due in large part to
the efforts of independent labels. A live concert album Merle Travis
in Boston 1959 released by
Rounder Records in 1993 documents Travis'
singing and guitar work still at its peak. A major retrospective of
Travis' work and career (Guitar Rags and a Too Fast Past, five CDs
with an 80-page booklet authored by Rich Kienzle, who interviewed many
of Travis's contemporaries) was produced by
Bear Family Records in
1994, and includes much previously unreleased material. The Country
Routes label has issued several transcriptions of his radio broadcasts
of the 1940s and 1950s. Several recent DVDs published by Vestapol and
Bear Family have collected many of his music videos and television
appearances. He was an honoree of the two-hour television special An
Evening of Country Greats: A Hall of Fame Celebration in 1996, and two
classic Travis performances were included in the four-part PBS
television documentary American Roots Music in 2001, available in CD
and DVD formats.
Folk Songs of the Hills
The Merle Travis Guitar (Instrumental Album)
Back Home (LP reissue of
Folk Songs of the Hills plus some songs
not released before)
Walkin\' the Strings (Acoustic instrumentals and songs recorded in
the 1940s and 50s)
Travis (Compilation of songs recorded in the 1940s and 50s)
Songs of the Coal Mines
Merle Travis and Joe Maphis
The Best of Merle Travis
Our Man from Kentucky
Strictly Guitar (Instrumental Album)
Great Songs of the
Delmore Brothers (with
Johnny Bond )
Boogie Woogie + 3 (with
Ray Campi )
The Atkins - Travis Traveling Show (with
Chet Atkins )
Country Guitar Giants (with
Joe Maphis )
Merle Travis Story: 24 Greatest Hits
Light Singin' and Heavy Pickin
Travis Pickin\' (Instrumental Album)
Rough, Rowdy and Blue
Country Guitar Thunder (1977–1981) (with Joe Maphis)
Clayton McMichen Story (with
Mac Wiseman )
Farm and Home Hour (with
Grandpa Jones ) (includes the 1981
re-recording of the instrumental "Rose Time")
Merle Travis Unreleased Radio Transcriptions 1944–1949
Guitar Rags and a Too Fast Past (5 CD-Set)
Country Hoedown Shows & Films
Unissued Radio Shows (1944–1948)
Turn Your Radio On (1944–1965)
The Very Best of Merle Travis
Boogie Woogie Cowboy 1944–1956
In Boston 1959
SELECTED COMPILATIONS AND REISSUES
The Best of
Folk Songs of the Hills: Back Home/Songs of the Coalminers
Guitar Retrospective (instrumental compilation album)
The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation 1946–1953
Razor the 1996 remastered CD reissue of this album, which reverts
to the original title, adds a further unreleased track.
* The 1960 Capitol album consists of unaccompanied acoustic guitar
solos with a few vocals.
* The Capitol albums Back Home,
Walkin' the Strings and The Best of
Merle Travis were awarded the top (five-star) ranking in the Rolling
Stone Record Guide
* The 1974 album with
Chet Atkins received a
Grammy Award for Best
* The 1979 CMH CD consists of late-period recordings, tracked over
two days in New Mexico four years before Travis's death
* The 1981 LP "Travis Pickin'" is an acoustic solo guitar album
* On the 1981 CMH LP "Rough, Rowdy and Blue" Travis accompanies
himself on 12-string acoustic guitar
* The 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2003 Country Routes CDs contain
remastered radio transcriptions
* The 1993 Bear Family double reissue contains remasterings of all
tracks from Back Home (1957) and Songs of the Coalmines (1963)
* The 1993 Bear Family 5-CD collection contains Capitol singles from
1946 to 1955 as well as early singles recorded for small labels such
as King and Bel-Tone as well as comprehensive notes by country music
historian and Travis authority Rich Kienzle.
* The 2002 Varese Sarabande CD is a collection of remastered mid-50s
live recordings, taken from appearances on Jimmy Wakely's radio show
* The 2003 Proper Records 2-CD album is a compilation of remastered
recordings from 1943 to 1952 accompanied by a 15-page booklet listing
recording dates and personnel. Includes rare Sheppard Brothers and
Browns Ferry Four tracks.
* The 2003
Rounder Records CD is a concert recording of songs
accompanied on acoustic guitar
* The 2008 2-CD Delta Leisure Group album is a digitally remastered
compilation of recordings from the 1940s and 1950s.
Divorce Me C.O.D. "
So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed "
"Steel Guitar Rag"
"Three Times Seven"
"What a Shame"
Wildwood Flower " (w/ Hank Thompson )
"John Henry, Jr."
* 1994 Rare Performances 1946–1981, Vestapol (with 36-page
* 2002 Legends of Country Guitar, Vestapol (with Chet Atkins, Doc
Watson and Mose Rager)
* 2003 More Rare Performances 1946–1981, Vestapol (with 21-page
* 2005 At Town Hall Party, Bear Family
Soundies Distributing Corporation (1946)
* "Night Train to Memphis"
* "Silver Spurs"
* "Texas Home"
* "Old Chisholm Trail"
* "Catalogue Cowboy"
* "Why'd I Fall for Abner" (with Carolina Cotton)
* "No Vacancy" (with the Bronco Busters and Betty Devere)
2. Snader Transcriptions (1951)
* "Spoonin' Moon" (with the Westerners and Judy Hayden)
* "Too Much Sugar for a Dime" (with the Westerners and Judy Hayden)
* "I'm a Natural Born Gamblin' Man" (with the Westerners)
* "Petticoat Fever" (with the Westerners)
* "Sweet Temptation" (with the Westerners)
* "Nine Pound Hammer" (with acoustic guitar)
* "Lost John" (with acoustic guitar)
* "Muskrat" (with acoustic guitar)
* "John Henry" (with acoustic guitar)
* "Dark as a Dungeon" (with acoustic guitar)
FILM APPEARANCES AS MUSICAL PERFORMER
* 1944 The Old Texas Trail (U.K. title: Old Stagecoach Line)
* 1945 When the Bloom is on the Sage
* 1945 Montana Plains
* 1945 Why Did I Fall for Abner?
* 1945 Texas Home (with Carolina Cotton)
* 1946 Roaring Rangers (U.K. title False Hero) (with the Bronco
* 1946 Lone Star Moonlight (U.K. title Amongst the Thieves) (with
Merle Travis Trio)
* 1946 Galloping Thunder (U.K. title On Boot Hill) (with the Bronco
* 1947 Old Chisholm Trail
* 1947 Silver Spurs
* 1951 Cyclone Fury (with the Bronco Busters)
From Here to Eternity
From Here to Eternity (vocal with acoustic guitar)
* 1966 That Tennessee Beat
OTHER FILM APPEARANCES
* 1961 Door-to-Door Maniac (U.S. video title Last Blood)
* 1962 The Night Rider (TV film)
* 1982 Honky Tonk Man
ORIGINAL FILM MUSIC
Harlan County, USA
* ^ "I Am A Pilgrim (Merle Travis) ‒ Guitar- and Ukulele chords".
GuitarParty.com. Retrieved 2016-07-07.
* ^ Lightfoot, William E. 1990. "A regional musical style: The
legacy of Arnold Shultz," in Sense of place: American regional
cultures, edited by Barbara Allen and Thomas J. Schlereth, 120–137.
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky; Kienzle, Rich. "The evolution
of country fingerpicking"
* ^ A B
Merle Travis interviewed on the
Pop Chronicles (1969)
* ^ The Drifting Pioneers
* ^ Truth is Stranger Than Publicity 1995 ed.
* ^ Rich Kienzle, The
Merle Travis Story This link is dead.
Archived September 26, 2007, at the
Wayback Machine .
* ^ An interview with
Merle Travis Yesteryear in Nashville,
retrieved July 2010 Check date values in: access-date= (help )
* ^ by William E. Lightfoot, 2003. The Three Doc(k)s: White Blues
in Appalachia, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1/2, pp.
167–193; see also "Brown\'s Ferry Four" by Bruce Eder, Allmusic
* ^ http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0871419/
* ^ Liberation sets \'Soundies\' free
* ^ "The Ford Show. Season Five. 1960-\'61". ernieford.com.
Retrieved February 11, 2015.
* ^ A B Chet Atkins, liner notes to 1996 reissue of the album
Walkin' the Strings
* ^ Gold 2006.
* ^ Ferris, William R., Michael K. Honey and Pete Seeger,"Pete
Seeger, San Francisco, 1989", Southern Cultures Volume 13.3, Fall
2007, pp. 5–38
* ^ Gérard Herzhaft et al., 1997. Encyclopedia of the Blues,
University of Arkansas Press, p. 14
* ^ Available from Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop GW 918, 1993
* ^ Points of Interest – Central City, KY
* Travis, Merle. 1976. Foreword to Country Roots: the Origins of
Country Music by Douglas B. Green. New York : Hawthorn Books. ISBN
0-8015-1781-8 , ISBN 0-8015-1778-8 pbk
* Travis, Merle. 1979. "Recollections of Merle Travis: 1944–1955"
(Parts 1 135–143.
* Travis, Merle. 1955. "The Saga of Sixteen Tons", United Mine
Workers Journal, December 1, 1955.
Merle Travis on Home Ground", Interview with Hedy West in Sing
Out, Vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 20–26.
Merle Travis Talking with Mark Humphrey" (Parts 1 to
4). 1981–1982. Old Time Music nos. 36–39, pp. 6–10; 20–24;
* Kienzle, Rich, 2004. "Merle Travis". In Paul Kingsbury, ed., The
Encyclopedia of Country Music: the Ultimate Guide to the Music. New
York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-517608-7 , ISBN
* Gold, Jude. 2006. "The secrets of Travis picking: Thom Bresh
passes on the lessons of his legendary father, Merle Travis," Guitar
Player, April 1, 2006.
* Eatherly, Pat Travis. 1987. In Search of My Father. Broadman
Press. # ISBN 0-8054-5727-5 , # ISBN 978-0-8054-5727-8
* Dicaire, David. 2007. The First Generation of Country Music Stars:
Biographies of 50 Artists Born Before 1940. Jefferson, North Carolina:
Country Music Hall of Fame
Country Music Hall of Fame 1970s
Carter Family (1970)
Bill Monroe (1970)
Art Satherley (1971)
Jimmie Davis (1972)
Chet Atkins (1973)
Patsy Cline (1973)
Owen Bradley (1974)
Pee Wee King (1974)
Minnie Pearl (1975)
* Paul Cohen (1976)
Kitty Wells (1976)
Merle Travis (1977)
Grandpa Jones (1978)
* Hubert Long (1979)
Hank Snow (1979)
* WorldCat Identities
* VIAF : 33145971352032331561
* LCCN : n86109519
* ISNI : 0000 0000 5955 1457
* GND : 134542061
* BNF : cb13900549v (data)
MusicBrainz : 13da4ed2-7344-49aa-aa73-004826896c5c
* NLA : 49284026
* NKC : js20030331011
* BNE : XX940094