Merle Travis: Picking Pioneer

Given the later arrival of Merle Haggard and all manner of country music Travises, younger people could almost be forgiven for assuming the name Merle Travis (1917-1983) was a sort of made-up joke, but it’s the other way ’round. I first heard about him from a cousin of my mother’s, a country musician and enthusiast, who told me about “Travis picking”, the style of playing still called by that name. I’m sure he shared the information not just because it’s my first name but because the style was influential, and probably also because Travis had recently died at that point, in the mid ’80s.

Travis was from Kentucky coal country, the same region as the Everly Brothers. Their dad, Ike Everly, and Travis both learned the same finger picking style from an older black player with the unlikely named of Arnold Shultz. Blind Blake was another early influence on Travis. In his early days, Travis often teamed up with Grandpa Jones, later best known as a regular cast member on Hee Haw. Travis’s best known tunes were “Sixteen Tons” (later recorded in more successful versions by The Weavers and Tennessee Ernie Ford), and “Dark as a Dungeon”, memorably covered by Johnny Cash on Live from Folsom Prison. In 1953 he played his “Re-Enlistment Blues” in the movie From Here to Eternity. Travis was a major influence on Chet Atkins, and in 1972 enjoyed renewed exposure when he played with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on their album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. His music was used in the 1976 documentary Harlan County USA, and he appeared in Clint Eastwood’s movie Honky Tonk Man in 1982 shortly before his death.