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Merle Travis Biography

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Merle Robert Travis (November 29, 1917 – October 20, 1983) was an American country and western singer, songwriter, and musician born in Rosewood, Kentucky. Some of the songs he wrote or performed include: "Sixteen Tons", "Dark as a Dungeon", "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed", and "Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette"; however, it is his masterful guitar playing that he is best known for today. "Travis picking", a style of guitar picking, is named after him. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.

Travis was raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, 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.

There were several local guitar players that drew his attention. Mose Rager was his main inspiration. He played a thumb and index finger picking style method which essentially created a solo style that blended lead lines and rhythmic bass plucked by the thumb (equipped with a thumbpick), similar to the style Travis developed. This guitar style captivated many guitarists in the region; most notable was Kennedy Jones, its first great local proponent. A part-time barber and coal miner, Mose Rager was also a disciple of Jones's, as was Ike Everly, the father of The Everly Brothers. Young Travis learned from both.

In 1936, he performed "Tiger Rag" on a local radio amateur show while visiting his older brother in Evansville, Indiana, leading to offers of work with local bands. He then spent a brief period with the better-known Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, before connecting with the Drifting Pioneers who performed on WLW in Cincinnati.

Travis's style amazed everyone at WLW. He became a popular member of their barn dance show the "Boone County Jamboree," and worked on various weekday programs, often working with other WLW acts including Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny and Joe Maphis, all of whom became lifelong friends. In 1943, he and Grandpa Jones recorded for Cincinnati used-record dealer Syd Nathan, who had founded a new label, King Records. Because WLW barred their staff musicians from recording, they used the pseudonym "The Sheppard Brothers." It was the first recording ever released by King,known also for its country recordings by the Delmore Brothers and Stanley Brothers as well as R&B legends Hank Ballard, Wynonie Harris and most notably James Brown.

In 1944, Travis left Cincinnati for Hollywood where his style became even more renowned as he worked on radio, recording sessions and on live stage shows. He recorded for small labels there and in 1946 was signed to Capitol Records. Hits like "Divorce Me C.O.D.," Sweet Temptation," "Steel Guitar Rag" and "Fat Gal" gave him national prominence, although they rarely showcased the guitar work that Travis was renowned for amongst his peers in the music industry. His single "Merle's Boogie Woogie" showed him working with multi-part disc recording at the same time as Les Paul. His design for a solidbody electric guitar, built for him by Paul Bigsby with a single row of tuners, inspired longtime Travis pal Leo Fender's early guitar design. That guitar now resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In 1946, asked to record an album of folk songs or pseudo-folk tunes, Travis combined traditional numbers with originals he wrote recalling his family's days working in the mines, such as "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon", the latter of which went on to become a folk standard during the 1960s folk revival; Dolly Parton also included a cover of it on her 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs album. Travis' personal life was less sanguine. A heavy drinker and at times desperately insecure despite his multitude of talents (prose writing, taxidermy, cartooning and watch repair), he was involved in various violent incidents in California and married several times. He also suffered from serious stage fright, though amazed fellow performers added that once onstage, he was an effective and even charismatic performer.

His unique picking style spawned followers, the most notable of whom was Chet Atkins, who first heard Travis on WLW in 1939 while living with his father in rural Georgia. Travis continued recording for Capitol into the 1950s, finding greater exposure after an appearance in the 1953 movie From Here to Eternity playing "Reenlistment Blues", and when his friend Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded his million-selling rendition of "Sixteen Tons" in 1955. Still plagued by substance abuse issues, he never sustained his popularity, despite the reverence of friends like Johnny Cash, Grandpa Jones and Hank Thompson, with whom he toured in the 1950s. Thompson, who could pick Travis-style, even had Gibson design him a Super 400 hollowbody electric guitar identical to the one Travis began using in 1952; longtime Travis fan Doc Watson named his son, Merle Watson, in Merle Travis' honor. Glen Campbell's country music loving parents named him Glen Travis Campbell in honor of Merle Travis.

Travis enjoyed a brief revival in the late 1970s with some recordings for CMH Records which showcased the guitar work he was renowned for, including Western Swing, re-recordings of his hits, and acoustic playing. He and his songs were also featured on the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. In 1983, Travis died of a massive heart attack at his Tahlequah, Oklahoma home. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered around a memorial erected to him near Drakesboro, Kentucky. Today, his son Thom Bresh continues playing in Travis's style on a custom-made Langejans Dualette.
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