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Merle Travis is one of the great country guitar players of the middle part of the 20th century. He also is noteworthy for writing Sixteen Tons, which was a big hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford and now is a standard. He sings it in the clip above after telling a cute story about Chet Atkins. The music starts at about the 2:50 mark. Lost John is below.

Here is the beginning of Travis' bio at NNDB:

Son of a tobacco farmer-turned-coal-miner, Merle Travis spent most of his childhood in the small town of Ebenezer, living amongst conditions of extreme poverty. His father played the five-string banjo and for a while Merle also took up the instrument, but by the age of 12 he switched over to guitar after being presented a nondescript model by his brother. From some of his coal mining neighbors (one of whom was the father of two boys that later became known as The Everly Brothers) he learned a picking technique that used the thumb and two fingers to play bass and melody lines simultaneously - a technique that was responsible for much of his later fame, due to both the incredible technical prowess he achieved through its use and the varety of musical styles to which it could be applied. By his late teens Travis hit the road, busking around the country and eventually landing a job with The Tennessee Tomcats, followed by a period with the higher-profile group Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats beginning in 1937. A year later he had secured a regular spot on WLW in Cincinnati as part of The Drifting Pioneers - an opportunity brought to an end by the outbreak of World War II, but as a result of which he managed to broaden his exposure to a national audience. Continue Reading...

Originally posted to cweinsch on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 06:15 AM PST.

Also republished by An Ear for Music.

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Comment Preferences

  •  A huge influence on American music. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buckstop, stlsophos, tardis10, RobbyMcP

    Merle wrote serious songs, funny songs, played beautiful instrumentals, and made Travis picking synonymous with finger-style folk guitar. i remember the first time I heard one of his recordings, and I said out loud "that's what I've been trying to sound like all this time!"("all this time" turned out to be a blink of an eye, but I still play some of his style, 40 years down the road.)

    It's said he played the original guitar break on the Hank Thompson classic "One Six Pack to go" bringing his style into the western swing realm. Doc Watson was a fan, played some in that style, named his son Merle. And, as you can tell from the story he told about Chet, Merle never took himself too seriously.

    Thanks for the reminder. I think I'll do a little pickin' right now in honor of old Merle.

    •  Thanks... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      tardis10, The grouch

      ...you don't seem like a grouch. I really enjoyed the Chet Atkins story on the clip. I am sure you are aware of the great "Chester and Lester (or is it Lester and Chester?)" album. One of the funny things about the older guys is that the structure in those days kept the solos very short and controlled. They didn't really "rock out" until later on...

      Please visit The Daily Music Break for some good music.

      by cweinsch on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 07:18:17 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Chester and Lester did two. (0+ / 0-)

        The second one was called "Guitar Monsters". It wasn't as good, to my ear, as the first, but still had some great moments.

        Yes, back then songs were kept tight, of course the 45 rpm/radio format was a big influence. Also, the melody was important. Chet always said, if you can't think of something interesting, there's nothing like the melody.

        The name. Well, I was once a bicycle road racer, if not a very fast one. There was a type of person who liked the classic gear, steel framed bikes, Campagnolo components, etc. They were known as retrogrouches. I always loved that portmanteau word. I like to think, I'm not always retro, but I'm always a grouch. I fear I may have that backwards.

  •  Thanks for the diary, cweinsch. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tardis10

    A very large presence in mid-20th century country and pop music.  You most often hear Mose Rager's name coupled with Ike Everly as local pickers from whom Travis learned that distinctive Muhlenberg County style of guitar.  

    He should also be credited with one of the first "concept" albums in 1947 with Folk Songs of the Hills, which included "Sixteen Tons", "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Dark as a Dungeon"

    Also, give co-writing credit on a number of Merle's songs, including Smoke, Smoke, Smoke, Capitol Records' first million seller, to Cliffie Stone.

    My wife's late father used to sing "I Used to Work in Chicago" around the house and she thought he had made up the song.  Travis recorded it under the name "Tin Ear Tanner".

    A petty criminal is someone with predatory instincts but insufficient capital to form a corporation. --Clarence Darrow

    by stlsophos on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 07:06:58 AM PST

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