Merle Travis - Biography - Early Years

Early Years

Travis was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky which would inspire many of Travis' own original songs. (This is 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.

Merle's guitar playing style was developed out of a native tradition of finger-picking in Western Kentucky. Among its early practitioners was the black country blues guitarist Arnold Shultz. Shultz taught his style to several local musicians, including Kennedy Jones, who passed it on to other guitarists, notably Mose Rager, a part-time barber and coal miner, and Ike Everly, the father of The Everly Brothers. Their thumb and index finger picking method created a solo style that blended lead lines picked by the finger and rhythmic bass patterns picked or strummed by the thumbpick. This technique captivated many guitarists in the region and provided the main inspiration to the young Travis. Travis acknowledged his debt to both Rager and Everly, and appears with Rager on the DVD Legends of Country Guitar (Vestapol, 2002).

At the age of 18, Travis performed "Tiger Rag" on a local radio amateur show in Evansville, Indiana, leading to offers of work with local bands. In 1937 Travis was hired by fiddler Clayton McMichen as guitarist in his Georgia Wildcats. He later joined the Drifting Pioneers, a Chicago-area gospel quartet that moved to WLW radio in Cincinnati, the major country music station north of Nashville. Travis's style amazed everyone at WLW and he became a popular member of their barn dance radio show the "Boone County Jamboree" when it began in 1938. He performed on various weekday programs, often working with other WLW acts including Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones, the Delmore Brothers,(In Alton Delmores Book "Truth is Stranger Than Publicity" on pages 274-275 Alton describes how he taught Merle Travis how to read and write music) 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, Travis and Jones used the pseudonym The Sheppard Brothers. Their recording of "You'll Be Lonesome Too" was the first to be released by King Records, subsequently known 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.

With World War II and the threat of being drafted, Travis enlisted in the US Marine Corps. His stint as a Marine was very brief, and he returned to Cincinnati. When the Drifting Pioneers left radio station WLW, leaving a half-hour hole in the schedule that needed filling, Merle, Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers formed a gospel group called The Brown's Ferry Four. Performing a repertoire of traditional white and black gospel songs, with Merle singing bass, they became one of the most popular country gospel groups of the time, recording nearly four dozen sides for the King label between 1946 and 1952. The Brown's Ferry Four has been called "possibly the best white gospel group ever."

During this period, Travis appeared in several soundies, an early form of music video intended for visual jukeboxes where customers could view as well as hear the popular performers of the day. His first soundie was "Night Train To Memphis" with the band Jimmy Wakely and his Oklahoma Cowboys and Girls, including Johnny Bond and Wesley Tuttle along with Colleen Summers (who later married Les Paul and became Mary Ford). His performance of "Why'd I Fall For Abner" with Carolina Cotton was chosen for inclusion in the 2007 PBS documentary Soundies. Several years later he recorded a set of Snader Telescriptions, short music videos intended for local television stations needing "filler" programming. His performances included playful duets with his then-wife Judy Hayden as well as several songs from his 1947 album Folk Songs from the Hills (see below).

Read more about this topic:  Merle Travis, Biography

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