Forgotten Artists: Merle Travis (1917-83)

Paul W. Dennis | December 22nd, 2010

It troubles me no end that the artistry of Merle Travis has been lost in the sands of time. It troubles me, but does not surprise me, as Travis–the victim of changing tastes and a lifelong battle with John Barleycorn–had largely disappeared from the airwaves by the time I started really following country music in the mid-60s. Although the general public lost sight of Merle’s genius, he has fared better in the esteem of Nashville’s pickers and singers and has been cited as a primary influence by many of the world’s best pickers, including Chet Atkins, Doc Watson, Earl Hooker, Scotty Moore and Marcel Dadi.

Chet Atkins admired and initially tried to emulate the Travis style, once commenting that it was fortunate that he did not have as much opportunity to hear Travis growing up as he would have liked or his own style might have become a clone. The great Arthel “Doc” Watson thought so much of Travis that he named his son Merle after him. Glen Campbell’s parents were such big fans that they reportedly gave their son the middle name “Travis.” The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had him as a featured performer on their classic Will the Circle Be Unbroken album issued in 1972.

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, a coal mining center that would prove to be the source of inspiration for many of his finest musical compositions. In the hard and bleak life of a coal mining town, he found escape in the guitar–an instrument played by his brother Jim, who was also believed to have made Merle’s first guitar.

Merle TravisMusic was one of the few recreations available in the area of western Kentucky, particularly during the heights of the Great Depression. There were many guitar players in the vicinity of Muhlenberg and Travis freely acknowledged his debt to such earlier players as black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz, and more directly to guitarists Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of Don & Phil Everly. The Travis style eventually evolved into the ‘Travis Pickin’ style of playing a steady bass pattern with the thumb and filling out some syncopated rhythms with the fingers of the right hand. Meanwhile, he developed a “talking bluesman” style of singing that was instantly recognizable by the perpetual smile in his voice.

At the age of 18 Travis started appearing on radio shows in Evansville, Indiana, and landed a position as lead guitarist for Clayton McMichen’s Wildcats. While continuing radio work, he eventually moved on to WLW in Cincinnati. During this period he became friends with Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Joe Maphis, among others.

Travis’ recording career swung into gear in 1943 when he and Grandpa Jones began recording for Cincinnati used-record dealer Syd Nathan, who had founded a new record label named King Records. Because WLW barred their staff musicians from recording, Travis and Jones recorded under the name of the Sheppard Brothers, with Travis issuing solo recordings for King under the name of Bob McCarthy. During this period they joined forces with the Delmore Brothers to perform gospel music under the name Browns Ferry Four. The group made few personal appearances, mostly performing on radio. During WWII, they had many fill-in performers as Travis, Jones and Alton Delmore all served in the military at various times. After reuniting in 1946, the group went on to record several dozen songs together. By 1947, Travis had relocated to California and signed a recording contract with Capitol. The group continued until 1952, but mostly without Travis’ involvement.

As a solo artist, Travis charted heavily from June 1946 to April 1948 with nine Top 10 singles. Two of the singles, “Divorce Me C.O.D.” and “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” reached #1 for 14 weeks apiece. Travis’ recordings were styled as western numbers, similar to the songs in cowboy films, with his smiling voice, and lead guitar playing accompanied by small bands that often included accordion and muted trumpet or cornet. He continued to hit the Top 15 through early 1949, but after that would only chart twice more: as a featured guitarist on Hank Thompson’s #5 hit in 1955, “Wildwood Flower,” and in 1966 with a recording titled “John Henry, Jr.”

For Merle Travis, it was never really about hit records anyway. He considered himself a guitarist first, a songwriter second and a performer third. After 1949, he continued to record and perform as a session musician for many years (he played lead guitar on virtually every track Hank Thompson recorded for Capitol and also on Thompson’s first album for Warner Brothers). He remained a highly visible presence on California television, and appeared in the movie From Here To Eternity. His performance of “Re-enlistment Blues” (a song he did not write) was sung twice in the movie soundtrack. He made a number of movie appearances, the last was Honky Tonk Man in 1982.

Travis was quite a proficient songwriter. In 1947 he issued perhaps Country Music’s first concept album, Folk Songs of The Hills, which centered around the life of the coal miner and yielded such classics as “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” “Sixteen Tons” and “I Am A Pilgrim.” Travis wrote much of his own material, particularly during his early days, and had hundreds of his songs recorded. Probably his biggest copyrights were “Sixteen Tons” (a huge hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford), “Smoke Smoke Smoke” (a huge hit for Tex Williams) and “Dark As A Dungeon,” which has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dolly Parton, Cisco Houston, Guy Clark and dozens of other folk and country artists (the most notable recent recording was by Kathy Mattea on her acclaimed album Coal). The last verse of “Dark As A Dungeon” is as stark as anything anyone has ever written:

“I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.”

Merle Travis was elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.

Discography

Vinyl
As always, all vinyl albums are out of print. They are all worth picking up, although those interested mostly in his picking should really like the Columbia albums Merle Travis Guitar, Walkin’ The Strings, and Merle Travis & Joe Maphis. All of Travis’ biggest hits and most influential recordings occurred before the advent of the long playing album, so many of his Capitol albums are simply collections of older recordings and were not originally conceived of as albums.

After Travis was put out to pasture by Capitol, he signed with CMH. Although some of the CMH albums feature remakes of his earlier hits, many will prefer the CMH albums as they place more emphasis on his guitar playing than did the Capitol versions. The Merle Travis Story reprises 22 of his vocal hits, including “Re-enlistment Blues” which was the Travis song featured in the movie From Here To Eternity. I would recommend any of the CHM albums, although Farm and Home Hour (with Grandpa Jones) might not be to everyone’s taste. Titles to look out for include Light Singin’ Heavy Pickin’, Guitar Standards, Travis Pickin’ and a duet album with Joe Maphis titled Guitar Country Giants. While on the CMH label, he appeared on multi-artist projects such as the Clayton McMichen Story and made appearances on albums by Grandpa Jones and Mac Wiseman.

Travis cut one album for RCA, a 1974 effort titled The Atkins – Travis Traveling Show. This amiable romp through eleven tunes features Chet Atkins paired with Merle Travis, one of Chet’s boyhood idols, as they run through some vocals, some banter and lots of good guitar work. The session was produced by Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed and also features Reed playing rhythm guitar on several of the tracks. Atkins and Travis received a well-deserved Grammy for this album.

The King recordings from the early and mid 1940s are available on a five-CD set issued by Bear Family and a two-CD set issued by Proper (see below).

CD
The Ernest Tubb Record Shop currently has 12 titles available including Walkin’ The Strings, available as part of a two-fer with Merle Travis Guitar, a live recording on Rounder titled In Boston 1959 and Folk Songs of The Hills, available on Bear Family in an extended version.

Collectors Choice Music has the same titles available along with a five CD Bear Family boxed set titled Merle Travis – Guitar Rags & A Too Fast Past. Disc one of the set covers the King years, including his Bob McCarthy recordings such as “When Mussolini Laid His Pistol Down” and Sheppard Brothers recordings such as “The Steppin’ Out Kind,” which became a signature song for Grandpa Jones. The sound quality of the first five tracks on disc one is iffy (apparently the masters are no longer available, possibly melted down for use in making munitions in WWII), but the remaining sound is up to Bear’s usual standards. The remainder of the set covers Travis’ work on Capitol.

The British reissue label Proper issued a two CD set in 2003, compiling remastered recordings from 1943-52 accompanied by a 15-page booklet listing recording dates and personnel. This set includes some rare Sheppard Brothers and Browns Ferry Four tracks.

It’s out of print now, but in 1990 Rhino issued the collection titled The Best of Merle Travis. While I think it is a mistake to want only one Merle Travis CD, if you were to buy only one disc, this would be the one, covering as it does the best of the Capitol recordings. The titles alone hint at the diversity of Travis’ output: “Cincinnati Lou,” “No Vacancy,” “Divorce Me COD,” “Dark As A Dungeon,” “I Am A Pilgrim,” “So Round So Rirm So Fully Packed,” “Sweet Temptation,” “Steel Guitar Rag” (vocal version) , “Three Times Seven,” “Lawdy What A Gal,” “Fat Gal,” “I Like My Chicken Fryin’ Size,” “Re-enlistment Blues,” “Sixteen Tons,” “When My Baby Double Talks To Me,” “Trouble Trouble,” “Kinfolks In Carolina,” and “Cannonball Rag” (instrumental). These songs range from tongue-in-cheek to deadly serious. This disc can be found with a little effort.

Various independent labels have issued radio transcriptions of Merle Travis performing. There are also some performance DVDs available.

Although it is now out of print, Travis’ son, Thom Bresh, organized a tribute album titled Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis. Bresh put together an all-star band which included Vassar Clements, Buddy Emmons and Kenny Malone, and featured guests Lane Brody, Marcel Dadi, Chet Atkins John Hartford, Jerry Douglas, Grandpa Jones, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Josh Graves and Marty Stuart. A terrific album, well worth the search. Bresh is a pretty formidable guitar player himself, so you might want to try a few of his solo albums as well. There is a hilarious video on YouTube of his appearance on the Barbara Mandrell Show, where Bresh shows off his skill as a vocal impressionist.

  1. Paul W Dennis
    December 22, 2010 at 7:35 am

    My thanks to Brady for the nice set of YouTube videos he placed with this article:

    16 Tons
    Nine PoundHammer
    Mutual Admiration (w/ Chet Atkins)
    Cannonball Rag
    Lost John
    Anything Better Than This (w/ Chet Atkins)
    Muskrat Ramble (w/ Chet Atkins)
    Too Much Sugar For A Time (w/ Judy Hayden)

    There also is a string of songs Merle Travis tribute performed by Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, Buddy Spicher (fiddle), Johnny Gimble (mandolin) & Charlie McCoy (harmonica) with Tennessee Ernie Ford singing on “16 Tons”

  2. Ollie
    December 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

    I heard Guy Clark say once in concert that “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Nine Pound Hammer” were written by Merle Travis and his brother on a deadline within a two week period; to quote Guy Clark–“a hot two weeks.”

  3. Jon
    December 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Merle Travis did much to popularize, but most certainly did not write “Nine Pound Hammer.”

  4. Barry Mazor
    December 22, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Well, Jon, he did more or less formalize the popular version of “9 Lb Hammer,” right? Certainly “Roll on Buddy” was older. People have traced it back to the origins of really old songs like “Take This Hammer” and even “John Henry,” in fact.

    Still–the song most people know now would be the Travis version.

  5. Ollie
    December 22, 2010 at 11:06 am

    Also, FWIW, I strongly disagree that because an artist or his songs aren’t played on commercial Country radio, they’ve been “lost in the sands of time.” For example, within the last ten years, I’ve heard Doc Watson and David Holt, Guy Clark, Kathy Mattea, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and John Cowan perform “Dark as a Dungeon” at different concerts or festivals and all of them mentioned that the song was composed by Merle Travis. In addition, in May of this year, I heard two other Merle Travis songs performed at the Music Saves Mountains benefit at The Ryman.

  6. Barry Mazor
    December 22, 2010 at 11:10 am

    Mr. Davis has formally suggested to the Country Music Hall of Fame that they change their name to The Country Music Hall of the Forgotten.

  7. M.C.
    December 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I appreciate Paul writing about artists from the past. But I agree with Ollie, it’s hard to say someone is lost to time if their songs are regularly performed and their names regularly mentioned–or, as in this case, numerous collections of their own recordings are still available and easily attained. You can’t be lost when your music isn’t hard to find. But I suppose all of us can be prone to overstatement from time to time.

    To me, being in a hall of fame, especially a fairly significant one, is a promise that the artist won’t be forgotten or lost. That’s sort of one of the primary points of having halls of fame, isn’t it?

  8. Jon
    December 22, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I think it was pretty much standardized before Travis got around to recording it, Barry. Tony Russell’s discography shows a number of versions, including some recorded by a couple of well-known artists like Grayson & Whitter – it was the flip side of their “Short Life Of Trouble” – and the Monroe Brothers recorded a version at their first session in 1936 that was the flip side of “My Long Journey Home.” I don’t have the Grayson & Whitter version handy, but the Monroe Brothers one is pretty much the “standard” song.

  9. Jon
    December 22, 2010 at 11:53 am

    ‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”’

  10. Rick
    December 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Its not surprising the people here reading this article and commenting are well aware of Merle Travis and his music, and therefore is not “forgotten” to them personally.

    I’ve never had Sirius/XM satellite radio but can tell you that Merle is almost never played on commercial country radio stations, even the so called “Classic Country” stations. That alone means he is truly forgotten or in most cases a complete unknown to the vast majority of mainstream country fans alive today. I guess that’s not surprising for an artist who’s career peaked in the late 1940’s. Heck, how often do you hear him played by Eddie Stubbs on WSM for that matter?

    When Merle moved to California in 1947 he lived for awhile in Redondo Beach, right next to the city I live in. At that time locally based artists like Hank Penny, Spade Cooley, and Tex Williams made Los Angeles one of the great hotspots of western swing music and Merle was part of that scene. Its a shame that this heritage has also been almost completely lost to the sands of time as LA has only one true western swing band “The Lucky Stars” and they only get booked for gigs a handful of times per year. Tsk tsk.

    One last comment: “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed” was an advertising tag line for a brand of cigarettes at the time Merle was inspired to write that song. In fact almost all of the lyrics in that song are based upon popular advertising slogans at the time! They may not mean much to us today and I’m sure Obamavoter gals consider Merle’s application of the song title “sexist” and demeaning! Go Merle! (lol)

  11. M.C.
    December 22, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    Rick–Amazon lists 33 Merle Travis albums as available for order. If you say he is “truly forgotten or in most cases a complete unknown…,” who’s keeping those CDs in print? A few commenters on blogs?
    Not being played on commercial country stations, or classic country stations, hardly qualifies someone as forgotten, unless you want to add people like Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins and Jimmie Rodgers to your list.

  12. Paul W Dennis
    December 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    Given that copyrights expire after 50 years in Europe, much of the Merle Travis catalog is out of copyright protection and can be reproduced without payment of performer royalties. There are quite a few European-issued Travis recordings – they can be produced quite cheaply and they don’t need to be big sellers for the reissue label to turn a profit. Cross-check against the DUke Ellington or Johnny Cash titles available on Amazon. THe total of 33, of whatever origin, is not a tremendous number

    I’ve got older recordings of “Nine Pound Hammer” and did not state that it was written by Travis, just that it was on the FOLK SONGS OF THE HILLS album. Travis does have a copyright on the song

    As I’ve mentioned in prior articles, I have an operating definition of “Forgotten Artist” that I use and I truly don’t care if the reader agrees or disagrees with the term ‘Forgotten Artist’. No need to discuss substantive things when you can nitpick instead, so go ahead and quibble away …

  13. M.C.
    December 22, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    If Ellington and Cash are where you draw the line, Paul, you should have plenty of material for forgotten artists in the future.

  14. Jon
    December 22, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    It’s not nitpicking to point out that many of these allegedly “forgotten” artists are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, sources regularly memorialzed by those who are performing their material, or living, breathing artists who are making personal appearances, sometimes on a pretty extensive basis. But that’s a great Humpty Dumpty imitation you’ve done, Paul!

  15. luckyoldsun
    December 22, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    I think we can stipulate that the title “Forgotten Artists” no longer defines this series and that the author still intends to use it.

    I would suggest that readers ignore the title and enjoy or not enjoy the articles based on how good they are.

    I look forward to future articles in this series on Jimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, Buck Owens, Eddie Rabbit, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill and Brooks & Dunn . I trust Mr. Dennis will have something illuminating to tell us about them.

  16. Paul W Dennis
    December 23, 2010 at 5:52 am

    LUCKYOLDSON – Ernest Tubb & Eddie Rabbit have already been done.

    http://www.the9513.com/forgotten-artists-eddie-rabbitt-1941-1998/

    http://www.the9513.com/forgotten-artists-ernest-tubb/

    Governor Jimmie Davis really is a good suggestion and I’ll get to work on him sometime in the near future. Buck Owens is definitely not forgotten, thanks to HEE HAW reruns, if nothing else. Tritt, Gill and B&D I have no intention of doing for at least another ten years, assuming this blog and I both last that long.

    Hank Snow was my Dad’s favorite artist (along with George Hamilton IV) and led such an interesting life that I doubt I can do him justice. There is a very active website devoted to his memory that is worth checking out

    http://www.hanksnow.com/

    Hank’s autobiography is one of the best I’ve read and is available at Hank’s website and through other sources

    Next up will be the Andersons (Lynn, Liz & Casey). After that I’m open to suggestions but I’ve been mulling over such stars as Jack Greene George Morgan, Cowboy Copas, Jimmie Skinner, Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, Justin Tubb, Melba Montgomery and Wilma Burgess, plus a few more 80s artists. I think I’ll leave the forgotten or half-remembered bluegrass artists for Jon W to tackle since he personally knew all of them and has so much venom in his soul that he needs to vent

  17. Leeann Ward
    December 23, 2010 at 7:55 am

    All I can say is that I understand the spirit and intention of this series. It’s likely that most of these artists are “forgotten” or at least out of the majorty’s consciousness on most given days. So, it’s nice for a spotlight to be put on them, which is something that’s not happening most other places at this point.

  18. Lewis
    December 23, 2010 at 8:47 am

    I think that some kudos go out to Paul about mentioning Merle’s son Thom Bresh. Some folks possibly may not know and this story could be checked out is that Bresh didn’t learn about his parentage until he was a teenager and puts in mind what happened to Jett Williams and her search for her parentage to Hank Williams Sr. Thom did have some success during the mid and late 1970’s as Tom Bresh with his biggest hit being the Top 10 “Homemade Love” and several albums one of which contains a very funny version of “Smoke Smoke Smoke” in which he does several impressions including Archie and Edith Bunker among others. I think that Thom and Lane Brody were together for a long while during the 1980’s and did a duet together which was his last charted single (“When It Comes To Love”). I do remember the Barbara Mandrell episode with him guesting very well. I’m sure that Thom is as spirited to the legend of Merle Travis much so as Jett Williams is to the legend of Hank Sr. Definitely a great read here.

  19. numberonecountryfan
    December 23, 2010 at 11:33 am

    I ALWAYS enjoy these series. Whether you decide the artist is truly forgotten is subjective at best. To see this kind of response is heart warming for the fans of these artists. I ALWAYS learn something from these and kudos go to Paul Dennis for providing a lot of insight on the artist and songs.

  20. Lewis
    December 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Another fact worth mentioning is that one of Merle’s ex-wives married Hank Thompson or was it the other way around?

  21. Jon
    December 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    For the answer to that, visit the Country Music Hall Of The Forgotten, where you’ll find an informative, well-written biographical entry on Merle Travis, along with other informative, well-written entries on other forgotten artists like Ernest Tubb, Grandpa Jones, Hank Snow, the Delmore Brothers, Vince Gill and more.

  22. Brady Vercher
    December 23, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Do you ever get tired of being a prick?

  23. Emmy
    December 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    Ah, the holiday spirit is alive and well.
    I must mention that I love this series of articles. Not the comments. The articles.

  24. Rick
    December 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    I got to see Thom Bresh perform live at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival this past April and he was pickin’ up a storm. He shared the stage with his friend Nokie Edwards of surf rock Ventures fame and they really got their groove on! Thom was on an acoustic guitar while Nokie was on a solid body electric and the combination sounded great. The only downside was Thom was telling semi-dirty sexually oriented jokes at a family event full of children! Yikes!

    Turns out Thom is doing a bunch of gigs in the LA area in mid-January! I’ll definitely catch him at The Mint for sure and hope Nokie drops by.

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