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. 'I got the idea from a steel guitar,' he said, 'I wanted the same sustainability of notes, and I came up with a solid-body electric guitar with the keys all on one side.' 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'. Travis died in October 1983, a year after appearing as one of the Texas Playboys in the Clint Eastwood movie Honkytonk Man. A posthumous album of blues songs played on 12-string guitar, Rough, Rowdy And Blue, included a tune from his mentor, Mose Reger, 'Merry Christmas, Pretty Baby'. His friend and fellow guitarist Joe Maphis wrote a tribute, 'Me And Ol' Merle', which concluded, 'We liked good whiskey and we loved the pretty girls, And we loved them guitars - Me and Ol' Merle.'
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