Here's a photo (click to enlarge) of one of the all-time great country guitarists, Merle Travis. I never got to meet Merle but I did meet Thom Bresh, Merle's son. Bresh is an outstanding thumbpicker/fingerpicker like his dad.
Not everyone knows that Merle got his start in the big time with fiddler Clayton McMichen. One of the last albums Merle made was "The Clayton McMichen Story" in 1982, which was a tribute to his mentor McMichen.
Was Clayton McMichen Merle's daddy? He sure was...at least for one day! And Uncle Bert Layne was Merle's wife-to-be's daddy? Alton Delmore is right: truth is stranger than fiction.
Merle tells the story best and when I have time, I'll include here. Juanita McMichen Lynch has a good version. It's also told in the following from an interview in 1960 by Ed Kahn (it's at the end of the excerpt). Ed gets most of the info right but-
Merle's birthdate is Nov. 29, 1917
Both Doc Watson and Chet Atkins named children after Merle but Chet named his daughter Merle.
Merle claims he played guitar, his first recording, on Clayton McMichen's Decca session in NYC. Tony Russell credits Slim Bryant, who was in Pittsburgh in early 1937. Did Slim come back by the summer? Rich Kienzle said he did. I called Slim today and told him the songs and he assured me he was there. Was Merle there? Not according to Slim who said he only met Merle once. This is mystery to me.
Did Merle meet Mac three times before he started playing with him. Maybe so, but I know of two... and the third?
Merle Travis (1917-1983) occupies a unique position in the history of country music. In a career that spanned nearly a half acentury, he participated in the transformation of country music from a regional to a national style and introduced his Western Kentucky style of guitar playing to the whole world. He made a mark for himself as a singer, guitar stylist, song writer, performer,and actor. He also pioneered the design of the solid body guitar, now widely used by electric guitar players of every genre. Few musicians have been so influential.
Both Doc Watson and Chet Atkins credit Merle as their inspiration. *Both men named their sons after Travis. Today, Merle’s style shows up as a main ingredient in pop, rock, and country music. Attesting to his greatness, countless musicians who have never heard of Merle Travis have unknowingly incorporated his influence into their music. His influence has become mainstream. In recognition of his contributionto country music, Merle was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978. But his influence was considerably wider than just country music.
The earliest days of country music were dominated by performers who, for the most part, took their home grown music into the recording studio. They were simply performing into a microphone rather than before a live audience. These musicians provided the foundation upon which a second generation of musicians built their careers. Merle was part of this next generation. He consciously entered into the music business. While there was little precedent for people making their living in this area, Merle never doubted that he could. Merle Travis was born on November 17, 1917.
“I was born in Rosewood, Kentucky, which is...in Muhlenberg County. They raise tobaccer up there. My dad raised tobacco and my older brother, Taylor, he moved to Muhlenberg County and got a job in the mines, so he went back to Rosewood and told dad, said,‘Pappy, you’re crazy raising this tobacco,’ said ‘you could godown to the mines and really make some money.’ So Dad spent the rest of his days after going to the mines in Browder, Kentucky,and then of course eventually to Beach Creek where heworked sixteen years. Dad always said, I wish I’d a stayed on the farm,’ you know, but I think he kind of liked coal mining.”
Merle was the youngest of four children. His father worked outside the mines, never venturing underground. In time, Merle’s next oldest brother, John, took a job in the mine. Merle knewbefore the end of the eighth grade, his last year of school, that he had no intention of working in the mines. Rather, he reasoned,he could make a living with his guitar.
Merle lumped all musical things together: “I was always fascinatedby things about music...our talkin’ machine and...the fiddle and the guitars and things, had a smell all its own—smelled so musical, you know...now we had a neighbor, his name was Maynard Matterley, and they had a guitar hanging on the wall, and I remember that somebody, and I don’t know, maybe Mr. or Mrs. Matterley played the guitar and it smelled so good. You know, it had the round hole and it had a musty sort of smell.”
As a kid, he absorbed the rich musical culture of his region. “There was music in the home, of course...then there was a fellow named Colie Addison who played the fiddle and he played the guitar and the old ‘tater bug’ mandolin, and that just sounded the purtiest that I ever heard, to me. And of course in home, whymy dad was a five string banjer picker. But he didn’t have a banjer and he talked about the old time banjer players...I remember he used to talk about a guy named Jim Winders who was a great banjo player. So finally my dad’s brother, named John, Uncle Johnny Travis, he got a five string banjo and Dad traded him outof it and brought it home and Dad, he’d play... pick it, you know, had two different ways, he called it knockin’ the banjer and then pickin’ the banjer. He’d sing songs...he’d sing ‘Jenny Weaver,’and a song about Jeff Davis swore when the cruel war begun,
I wouldn’t be the Union man and carry the Union gun,
But I’d rather be the Union man and carry the Union gun
than to be the rebel, the rebel had to run.
“That was the words to the song he sung. And of course he sung some little old verses to ‘Ida Red’ and a bunch of stuff. Just a world of things he’d pick on the banjer and sing ‘em. And evenmy mother played a little bit. She played what they call...we call it ‘Hot corn.’ Now you’ve heard ‘Green Corn?’ ‘Green Corn,’Hot Corn,’ I’ve heard it called two or three different things sinceI’ve growed up, but she called it ‘Hot Corn.’ And that’s the first thing I ever learned to play was ‘Hot Corn’ on the banjo.
And of course all kids make instruments. I used to make banjers out of carbide cans, you know, just cut the bottom of the round can off and put a neck on it and strip a screen wire..that’s where I got my strings and oh, I’d just pick it. I wish I had an instrument that would sound as good today...My dad always talked about the banjos without a fret...he lived until the early forties and he always talked about the banjers, you know, he saw some awfully good ones, because I was working on a radio station at the time he passed on, but until his dyin’ day he said ‘No banjer sounds as good as the kind that Jim Winders used to play made out of a hickory rim, and a groundhog hide for the head, and they didn’t have no frets on them.’ Dad said they’d gotten away.”The Travis family had a phonograph in their home. His father loved to order records from the Sears catalog. Each time they put in an order from the catalog, his father would add a record or two to the order. He especially liked Vernon Dalhart’s ballads. In addition to Dalhart’s music, his dad loved to listen to the string band music of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and of Clayton McMichen and his groups.
“And ninetime out of ten, it would be a song that, in the case of my dad, he’d say, ‘I’ve knowed that song all my life.’ So he was meetin’an old friend as well as hearing some awful good fiddlin’ andbanjo pickin’, you know. So that, no doubt, was the appeal.”
At an early age, Merle’s musical interests focused on the guitar. There were lots of excellent guitar pickers in his area. Histwo favorite musicians, however, were Ike Everly — father of the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil — and Mose Rager. These men were strongly influenced by the guitar style of Arnold Shultz, a black itinerant musician from Ohio County, Kentucky. Shultz,who died in 1931, traveled the area and worked along the Green River, which separates Muhlenberg County from Ohio Countyand flows on to the Ohio River. [Paradise by John Prine] Just where he got the style is unclear, but his influence extended not only to these Muhlenberg County musicians, but also to Bill Monroe who recalls seeing Shultz and credits him as being a major influence on his music.
By the time Merle Travis was a teenager, he was already awhiz on the guitar. He hung around all the musicians of his area and credits a number of the young men with influencing the Travissound. Kennedy Jones, Raymond McClellan, and Lester“Plucker” English were names that Travis often mentioned. Traviswas like a sponge. Mose Rager affectionately recalled that wheneverhe would play, young Travis would get up as close as he could and before Mose knew it, Travis would have stolen a chordor lick.
One of the things that set these Muhlenberg County musiciansapart was their interest in a wide range of music. They were fascinated by harmonies and chords. Arnold Shultz not only played blues, but jazz and popular tunes of the day. These Muhlenberg County musicians all loved musical complexity. Merle once commented that he was more interested in learning new chords than new songs.
By the time Merle was fifteen, he was on his way out of town. His first journey away from home was to join the Civilian Conservation Corps. The arrangement was that part of the money earned was given to the youngster and the rest was sent home to the parents. Shortly after his time in the CCC, Merle rode a freight train to Evansville, Indiana, where his brother, John, had gone towork in the Servel Refrigerator plant. Merle asked his mother for the $65 that he had earned in the CCC. He promised that he was going to buy clothing with the money.
John Travis recalls Merle’s trip to Evansville. Merle slipped out on the first day and bought a new guitar. When John questioned Merle about this, Merle replied that he was going to enter a talent contest and win prize money that would pay for the clothing. Merle reasoned that he could make money with the guitar, but not with clothing. Merle entered the contest that night and came in third, behind a little girl who did an acrobatic dance, and a dog who walked a tightrope. When John challenged Merle that he had not won, Merle replied that he had. When John pointed out that the little girl had won, Merle replied that he was the highest ranking musician! Merle recalled another early trip and contest, saying that he had stepped up to the microphone and played “Tiger Rag” as much like Mose Rager as he could.
Merle soon left home for good. He teamed up with a bunch of young musicians and played the local area. Next, he teamed up with the Walt and Bill Brown and Sleepy Marlin to form the Drifting Pioneers, a group that he worked with off and on for years. [fiddler Morris "Sleepy" Marlin still lives in the Louisville area.]
In the middle of his Drifting Pioneers years, in late 1936 or early ’37, old time fiddler Clayton McMichen invited him to join his band. Merle met McMichen three times before he was asked to become a member of the group. He recalls getting a letter from his mother saying that he had a telegram from Clayton McMichen: “I quit the Drifting Pioneers and took off and found a way of catchin’ the boat across the Ohio River at one of themost flooded parts down there and then I caught a freight train down through Kentucky and got home, which is some hundred miles or so and there was the telegram, which said ‘Meet me in Columbus,’ which was about four days from then, so I started gathering up money, you know,...friends that had a dollar or two...and I bought a railroad ticket to Cincinnati and when I got to Cincinnati, why, they hadn’t left yet, so I went on to Columbus, Ohio, and that’s when I joined Clayton McMichen and his Georgia Wildcats. And boy I was in hog heaven then. And we allwore yellow checkered shirts and everything... and that was a great experience, you know, because we had records at home and I’d look at McMichen and think. ‘There is a man who actually made a talking machine record.’ And he sold ‘em too in his day, you know. So I was with them some eight months or something and finally we...the band sort of starved out, you know, and I went back to Evansville and got my job back with the Drifting Pioneers.”
In any case, he joined the band and says that his first recording session was playing guitar on McMichen’s recording of “Farewell Blues.” McMichen named Travis Ridge Runner. Clayton McMichen’s daughter, Juanita, recalled to me that during the time Merle was with McMichen, she would always see him in his room playing the guitar. He practiced constantly. During his stint with McMichen, he married for the first time. His bride was Mary Elizabeth Johnson, his teenage sweetheart. Because neither Merle nor Mary were yet 21 and didn’t havetheir parents’ consent, McMichen posed as Merle’s father while old time fiddler, Bert Layne, posed as Mary’s dad so the young couple could get married.