Merle Travis was a country and western musician from Rosewood, Kentucky. Many of his songs centered on the life of coal miners, including two of his best-known songs “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon”.
He mastered what has become known as “Travis Picking”, a style of finger picking where the player uses their thumb to pick the bass notes while the index and middle fingers alternate between two treble notes. This syncopated style of playing has been utilized by many artists, including Chet Atkins and Tommy Emmanuel. In 1970, Travis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1977, six years before his passing, he was entered into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Growing up in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, Merle was heavily influenced by Arnold Shultz, an African-American musician who was a major influence on Merle’s finger picking technique. This style of guitar playing was prominent in West Kentucky, with many local musicians, including Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, and Ike Everly, favoring this approach. Merle started playing guitar on one built by his brother until he saved enough money to purchase his own. At the age of 18, he performed on a local radio amateur show in Indiana. This proved to be a key moment in his life and lead to offers from some local bands.
In 1938, Merle started performing on Cincinnati’s major country music station, WLW. It was while on WLW that Merle was first heard by Chet Atkins, who would be greatly influenced by Merle’s playing style, leading Atkins to say that he went in a musical direction “never dreamt about” by those before him. Shortly after the creation of King Records (who would eventually come to put out James Brown’s records) in 1943, Merle and Grandpa Jones, an “old time” singer and banjo player, provided some recordings for the upcoming record company. These recordings were done under the pseudonym of The Sheppard Brothers, and their rendition of “You’ll be Lonesome Too” was the first release on King Records.
Travis achieved his first widespread success after his move to Hollywood in 1944. There he worked in radio and live shows as a session musician. He also performed in many Westerns in small parts and singing roles. In 1946, he was signed to Capitol Records where he gained prominence for hits such as “Cincinnati Lou”, “No Vacancy”, “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed” and “Three Times Seven”. In 1946 he released Folk Songs of the Hills, an album with a mix of traditional and original songs with Merle’s guitar being the sole accompaniment. His two most well known songs, the aforementioned “Sixteen Tons” and “Dark as a Dungeon”, were both featured on this record and showed the influence living in coal mining country had on his song writing. The song “Dark as a Dungeon” was famously covered by Johnny Cash on his live album, At Folsom Prison.
Merle commissioned Paul Bigsby to build a guitar of his own design, which is thought to have influenced the Fender Telecaster (or Broadcaster, as it was known upon its release in 1950). He would predominately play with a thumb pick and his fingers, as he was able to flat pick with the thumb pick as if it were a normal plectrum.
Merle died of a heart attack in 1983 in his home in Oklahoma. If you include his eight posthumous albums, he has released over 30 recorded albums spanning almost five decades.