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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Merle Travis born 29 November 1917

Merle Robert Travis (November 29, 1917 – October 20, 1983) was an American country and western singer, songwriter, and musician.
Travis was the son of a tobacco farmer but by the time he was four years old, the family had moved to Ebenezer, Kentucky, and his father was working down the mines. Travis’ father often remarked, ‘Another day older and deeper in debt’, a phrase his son used in ‘Sixteen Tons’. His father played the banjo, but Travis preferred the guitar. He befriended two coal miners, Mose Reger and Ike Everly, the father of the Everly Brothers, who demonstrated how to use the thumb for the bass strings while playing the melody on treble strings.
Travis hitched around the country, busking where he could, and in 1935, he joined the Tennessee Tomcats and from there, went to a better-known country group, Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats. In 1937 he became a member of the Drifting Pioneers, who performed on WLW Cincinnati. In 1943 he recorded for the local King Records label, recording a solo as Bob McCarthy and a duet with Grandpa Jones as the Shepherd Brothers. He and Jones did many radio shows together and many years later, recreated that atmosphere for an album. Travis, Jones and the Delmore Brothers also worked as a gospel quartet, the Browns Ferry Four.
After brief war service in the marines, Travis settled in California. Here he played with several bands, becoming one of the first to appreciate that a guitar could be a lead instrument. His arrangement of ‘Muskrat’ for Tex Ritter was later developed into a hit single for the Everly Brothers. Travis enjoyed success as a solo artist for the newly formed Capitol Records with ‘Cincinnati Lou’, ‘No Vacancy’, ‘Missouri’ and two US country number ones, ‘Divorce Me C.O.D.’ and ‘So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed’. He co-wrote Capitol’s first million-seller, ‘Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)’ with Tex Williams, who recorded it.

Burl Ives and Josh White were spearheading a craze for folk music, so Capitol producer Lee Gillette asked Travis for a 78 rpm album set of Kentucky folk songs. His eight-song debut, Folk Songs Of Our Hills, included ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ (a rewritten folk song), ‘Dark As A Dungeon’ and ‘Sixteen Tons’, with spoken introductions about the coal mining locale. Although Travis maintained that ‘Sixteen Tons’ was a ‘fun song’, it dealt with the exploitation of miners in the company store. It won a gold record for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955 and was parodied by Spike Jones as ‘Sixteen Tacos’ and by Max Bygraves as ‘Seventeen Tons’. Travis himself was also enjoying a country hit with a revival of ‘Wildwood Flower’ with Hank Thompson, and he won acclaim for his portrayal of a young GI in the 1954 movie From Here To Eternity, in which he sang ‘Re-enlistment Blues’.
In 1948 Travis devised a solid-body electric guitar, which was built for him by Paul Bigsby and developed by Leo Fender. Travis had an entertaining stage act in which he would mimic animals on his guitars, but his 1960 collection Walkin’ The Strings is a highly regarded album of acoustic guitar solos. His style influenced Doc Watson, who named his son after him, and Chet Atkins, who did the same with his daughter. Travis was also a good cartoonist and he worked as a scriptwriter on Johnny Cash’s television shows. He was less active during the 70s, but took part in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s tribute to country music, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, received a Grammy for his acclaimed collaboration with Chet Atkins, and recorded several albums for CMH Records.
Travis was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1977 but his drug addiction and alcoholism made him unreliable and wrecked his private life. Says Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Merle Travis was one of the most talented men I ever met. He could write songs that would knock your hat off, but he was a chronic alcoholic and when those binges would come, there was nothing we could do about it.’ In October 1983, Travis died of a heart attack at his Tahlequah, Oklahoma home; a year after appearing as one of the Texas Playboys in the Clint Eastwood movie Honkytonk Man.

 His body was cremated and his ashes scattered around a memorial erected to him near Drakesboro, Kentucky. (Info mainly from The Encyclopaedia of Popular Music)

1 comment:

boppinbob said...

For Merle Travis – Sixteen Tons: His 30 Finest go here:

1. Sixteen Tons
2. No Vacancy
3. Nine Pound Hammer
4. Cincinnati Lou
5. Dark As A Dungeon
6. What A Shame
7. Over By Number Nine
8. Missouri
9. That’s All
10. Divorce Me C.O.D.
11. John Henry
12. So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed!
13. I Am A Pilgrim
14. Three Times Seven
15. Muskrat
16. Steel Guitar Rag
17. Merle’s Boogie Woogie
18. Sioux City Sue
19. Crazy Boogie
20. Fat Gal
21. Cannonball Stomp *
22. Blues, Stay Away From Me
23. Wildwood Flower *
24. Start Even
25. Walkin’ The Strings *
26. Lost John Boogie
27. Saturday Night Shuffle *
28. Deep South
29. Blue Bell *
30. Done Rovin’

• Top Forties country star Merle Travis, singer, songwriter and guitarist extraordinary, has his finest work summed up on one great Retrospective album. Travis (1917-1983) was quite simply one of most accomplished and versatile figures in the history of country music, rated among the most talented men ever to enter the business. He was a singer and songwriter of major proportions, as well as actor, author, and cartoonist. Above all, his distinctive style of guitar playing was a monumental influence. Numbered among the top ten most successful country artists of the 40s, he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977.

• Sixteen Tons (the title of Merle’s most famous composition) is a strong addition to Retrospective’s country roster, offering no fewer than 30 examples of Merle Travis’ best work, 20 of them his own songs. Included, naturally, are the two gigantic hits Divorce Me C.O.D. (No.1 for 14 weeks in 1946) and So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed (No.1 for 14 weeks in 1947), as are all his other Country hits.

• There’s plenty of “Travis-style pickin’” to be savoured on such as Merle’s Boogie Woogie, Steel Guitar Rag, and five classic instrumentals (Cannonball Stomp, Walkin’ The Strings). While the majority of tracks are accompanied by his seven- or eight-piece western swing band with trumpet etc., the selection is also notable for including his complete 1947 album of “Folk Songs From The Hills”, introduced and sung with just to his own terrific guitar for backing (Sixteen Tons, Dark As A Dungeon, Nine Pound Hammer, John Henry).