Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music
(b 29 November 1917, Rosewood KY; d 20 October 1983, Tahlequah OK) Country singer, guitarist, songwriter, actor. His father was a tobacco farmer asnd a coal miner. He learned guitar from Mose Rager, Ike Everly's mentor, becoming one of the best guitarists in country music and one of the most influential. He joined the Tennessee Tomcats, Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, Brown's Ferry Four; then the U.S. Marines in WWII. He first recorded for King with Grandpa Jones as the Sheppard Brothers; moved to the West Coast, appeared in many minor film roles, worked with bands led by Cliffie Stone, Jimmy Wakely, Tex Ritter etc. Signed to Capitol, hits in '40s including 'Divorce Me C.O.D.', 'So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed' '46-7. Asked to make an album of folk songs, he wrote some: his set of 78s Folk Songs From The Hills included 'Nine-Pound Hammer', 'I Am A Pilgrim', 'Dark As A Dungeon', 'Sixteen Tons'; the latter later one of the biggest hits of all time for Ernie Ford '55. He co-wrote 'No Vacancy' with Stone, 'Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)' with Tex Williams, whose recording sold over two million '47; more songs included 'Petal From A Faded Rose', 'Cincinatti Lou', 'Information Please', many more.
A regular on Pasadena's Hometown Jamboree Town Hall Party show, backstage in the late '40s he drew a diagram on the back of a programme, had the first solid-body guitar built, reasoning that with an electric pickup the hollow body wasn't necessary and sustainability would be better. He had a memorable film cameo singing 'Re-enlistment Blues' in From Here To Eternity '53; continued in films through Honky Tonk Man '82. His only hit single in later years was 'John Henry Jr' '66; albums late '50s-early '60s incl. Back Home, Walkin' The Strings (reissued on CD '96), Songs Of The Coal Miners. He never lost his attachment to the coal-mining country where he grew up: Back Home included a lovely version of 'Barbara Allen', as well as spoken reminiscence, and an imitation of the coal miners' cage coming above ground at the end of the day. In the '70s he appeared on Nitty Gritty Dirt Band set Will The Circle Be Unbroken; teamed with Chet Atkins (whom he greatly influenced) on The Atkins/Travis Travelling Show. More CDs included Folk Songs Of The Hills on Capitol (later on Bear Family), Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration Of Merle Travis, The Man And His Music on Shanachie, Best Of on Rhino; Guitar Retrospective and Merle Travis Story on Country Music Heritage; LPs and cassettes on CMH included Country Guitar Giants with Joe Maphis, Merle And Grandpa's Farm And Home Hour with Grandpa Jones, The Clayton McMichen Story with Mac Wiseman; five-CD Guitar Rags And A Too Fast Past on Bear Family.