Singer and guitarist Merle Travis (1917-1983) was one of the most prolific and influential country stars of the post-WWII era. Equally at ease with blues, jazz and hillbilly material, Travis emerged as one of the key players in the early King Records stable, backing Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers, as well as recording numerous hits and setting new standards for musical virtuosity in the booming country market. In the 1950s he became a key studio session player for the Capitol label, notably on many of Hank Thompson's classic albums. It was as a flatpicking stylist that Travis really made his mark -- his sweet, deceptively smooth style is credited as an influence on an entire generation of pickers, including master guitarists such as Chet Atkins and Doc Watson. Travis's warmth and glowing good humor comes through on all his records, and at every stage in his career he was a consistently strong performer. Here's a quick look at his legacy...
Merle Travis "Sweet Temptation: The Best Of Merle Travis" (Razor & Tie, 2000)
A dandy 20-track collection of one of the post-war country scene's biggest stars... Travis invented a unique guitar picking style (known, oddly enough, as "Travis picking") that influenced the sound of Chet Atkins (and all country lead guitarists that came after him). Travis also perfected a showmanship that brought country's vaudeville tradition into an urbane, cosmopolitan mainstream, singing with a suave easiness that mirrored that of Bing Crosby, in the pop world. Travis had several huge postwar hits -- all of which are on here -- and a witty, warm delivery that can later be heard in the bouncy honkytonk of his friend, Hank Thompson. This is a pretty nice collection -- a notch or two above a similar set put out about a decade ago by Rhino Records.
Merle Travis "Guitar Rags And A Too Fast Past" (Bear Family, 1994)
Alakazam! Here is the Merle Travis motherlode... a gigantic, 5-CD box set, packed with ace bunny killer material from his prime years in the wartime and post-WWII era. Includes hits such as "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "Sweet Temptation," "Sioux City Sue" and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," along with a slew of instrumental boogies and blues, as well as topical songs such as "When Mussolini Laid His Pistol Down" and "Reinlistment Blues." There's ample opportunity to soak up Travis' genius on the guitar, as well as his jovial persona. There are also a fair number of alternate takes -- the bane of completist collections, but also an interesting glimpse at the creative process. All in all, a real stunner of a retrospective, pure catnip for his fans!
Merle Travis "The Best Of Merle Travis" (Rhino, 1990)
One of the first standard-issue best-ofs from the early CD era... I suppose this has been superseded by numerous other Travis sets (plus it's out of print), but it's still a nice collection of his most famous tracks. Good introduction to his work, worth picking up if you see it around.
Merle Travis "Hot Pickin' " (Proper, 2003)
A generously programmed, budget-priced 2-CD set that came out as WWII-era copyright claims came to a close in Europe... I haven't heard this set yet, so I dunno about the sound quality, etc., but if you just want a chance to hear some of Travis' older stuff, this is a pretty affordable option.
Merle Travis "Unreleased Radio Transcriptions: 1944-1949" (Country Routes, 1991)
Cool and calm, guitarist Merle Travis picks out a smooth blues riff, as he eases his way into the comedy song, "That's All..." This playful opening track is a good indicator for the high level of musicianship and breadth of styles that Travis tackled in his postwar heyday. The album also includes various hick hits of the day, mainly a bunch of hillbilly boogie tunes and the sweet instrumental guitar numbers that Travis was famous for. The tracks on this disc are drawn from radio appearances Travis did while working as one of LA's most popular Hollywood hillbillies, while helping to revamp the sound of postwar country music. The sound quality is very good, and the snippets of dialog and live asides are a great glimpse into what live entertainment was like before TV was king... especially the rare, charming flubs and the constant tripping over each other's lines. They don't let the human factor into show biz like that anymore! Highly recommended.
Merle Travis "Unissued Radio Shows: 1944-1948" (Country Routes)
More great live performances from a variety of '40s shows, including the Hollywood Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry. It's a gas to get a sense of Merle's rapport with the audience, and to hear one of the last vestiges of the vaudeville tradition as it played out, with all its corny, raunchy humor and bouncy good nature. Fuzzy sound, but fun music.
Merle Travis "Turn Your Radio On: 1944-1965" (Country Routes, 1998)
Merle Travis "Country Hoedown Shows And Films" (Country Routes, 1995)
The Coonhunters "...Featuring Merle Travis" (BACM, 2005)
Merle Travis "Dapper Dan" (BACM, 2005)
Merle Travis "Folk Songs Of The Hills: Back Home/Songs Of The Coal Miners" (Capitol/Bear Family, 1947)
This deluxe disc combines Travis' first album, the traditionally-themed 1947 record Folk Songs Of The Hills, which features old-school folk tunes like "Barbara Allen" and "John Henry," and his hits classic "Dark As A Dungeon" and "Sixteen Tons," along with another Appalachian-themed set, his coal mining epic from the 1960s , Songs Of The Coal Mines, which genuinely reflects the culture and history of his native Kentucky. In some ways, the set is a bit staid, but it oozes authenticity and assurance, and placed Travis well at the forefront of the American folk revival. Definitely worth checking out!
Merle Travis "Walkin' The Strings" (Capitol, 1960)
The Travis guitar magic is on full display in this bouncy all-instrumental set... Although it's a little on the slick side, this is a longtime favorite of fans of fancy pickin'.
Merle Travis "Strictly Guitar" (Capitol, 1969)
Merle Travis "The Very Best" (Varese Sarabande, 2002)
The wellspring of Travis picking performances runs deep, as heard in this fine "new" set of airchecks from cowboy icon Jimmy Wakely's old show. Familiar songs, but in loose, bluesy versions that make this disc worth checking out.
Merle Travis "The Merle Travis Story - 24 Greatest Hits" (CMH Records, 1989)
Decades after his '40s/'50s heyday, Merle Travis was still going strong, and throughout the 1980s, CMH Records captured him in a series of double-LPs which, unlikely as it seems, are now minor classics, and this CD distills the best of these latter-day recordings. Like the numerous post-war era radio transcription discs that are bubbling to the surface these days, this captures a slick, confident show-biz professional, a guy going through a well-set repertoire, but still able to infuse every performance with humor and warmth. The difference is that here Travis has an added aura of maturity -- he always projected the air of a master musician, but recording in his golden years added a philosophical glow to these old chestnuts. Perhaps you've looked at these old CMH albums and thought, "Yeah, sure... the old guy must have lost his edge by then...!" If so, you'd be very, very surprised at how sharp and vital these recordings are. Recommended!
Merle Travis & Joe Maphis "Country Guitar Giants" (CMH, 1979)
Two legendary pickers, with a strong artistic rapport and plenty of talent to burn... Cool stuff from some mega-talented old geezers. (Also check out my Joe Maphis discography...)
Merle Travis & Joe Maphis "Country Guitar Thunder: 1977-1981" (CMH, 1983)
Merle Travis "Guitar Retrospective" (CMH, 1995)
Merle Travis "In Boston: 1959" (Rounder, 2003)
Imagine the rapture of concert organizers and show-goers during the early years of the nascent folk revival to have Merle Travis to draw on, emerging fully formed from three decades of hillbilly showbiz experience, with an endless supply of heart songs, traditional Appalachian folk tunes and fancy pickin' to dazzle the crowds. This is a great live set, with fine sound quality and Merle's endless abundance of good cheer and real country roots. His showmanship is obviously a bit calculated and polished, but he still sounds super-personable and intimate, and the songs are all a delight. A very listenable and enjoyable record... recommended!
Various Artists "SATURDAY NIGHT SHUFFLE: A CELEBRATION OF MERLE TRAVIS" (Shanachie, 1993)
Among others, this includes Merle Travis' son, Thom Bresh. Also on board are pickin' and plunkin' luminaries such as Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas, Buddy Emmons and John Hartford.
Hick Music Index