Personalities | Merle Travis | West Coast Scene | Country

Merle Travis was both a vital cog in the development of the West Coast country scene and a major influence on a whole generation of guitarists. Highly innovative, he had a style of three-finger playing named after him – ‘Travis picking’ – and the equally skilled Chet Atkins well acknowledged the Travis influence, although the latter modestly shrugged off such compliments, crediting Ike Everly (the father of Don and Phil) and Mose Rager for his own inspiration.

Coal-Miner’s Son

Travis was born on 29 November 1917 in Rosewood, Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The life of his coal-mining father and the family’s frugal lifestyle provided the source for many of the songs that would later secure his reputation. First learning to play the banjo, then given a guitar when he was 12 years old, he joined Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats in 1937. Shortly afterwards he became a member of The Drifting Pioneers, holding down a permanent gig at Chicago’s WLW. He teamed with Grandpa Jones (vocals, banjo, 1913–98) and The Delmore Brothers (Alton: vocals, guitar, 1908–64; Rabon: vocals, guitar, 1916–52) as The Brown’s Ferry Four, a gospel quartet, then later with Jones as The Shepherd Brothers, becoming the first act to record for the newly launched King Records. By 1944 Travis had gained a national reputation and headed west to Hollywood, where he made appearances in several low-budget Charles Starrett westerns and performed with Ray Whitley’s Western Swing Band.

He signed with Capitol Records and achieved success with his first release, the double-sided hit ‘No Vacancy’ b/w ‘Cincinnati Lou’ (1946), which was quickly followed by the No. 1 ‘Divorce Me C.O.D’ (1946). The following year he released the 78-rpm concept album Folk Songs Of The Hills, a collection based upon his childhood years and the coal mines. Although it was a commercial failure at the time, it introduced several Travis originals – including ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon’, both now regarded as classics, while later interest in the album played a role in establishing the following decade’s urban folk movement.

Songwriting Success

As a songwriter he wrote ‘Smoke Smoke Smoke’ (with Tex Williams recording), giving Capitol Records its first million-seller in 1947. It enjoyed lengthy runs at the top of both the country and pop charts. ’Tennessee’ Ernie Ford achieved the same crossover feat eight years later, with ‘Sixteen Tons’. In his own right, Travis scored another No. 1 with ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’ (1947) and, while the chart success of his recordings may have slowed down in the 1950s, he maintained a heavy schedule as a much-sought-after session musician, in particular with longtime friend Hank Thompson. Together they scored a Top 5 hit with ‘Wildwood Flower’ (1955).

A regular on the Hometown Jamboree and Town Hall Party television shows, he displayed dramatic flair and change of direction with a supporting role in the Oscar-winning From Here To Eternity (1953). But alongside his creativity – which also included devising the first...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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