Merle Travis (1917–1983)

Updated: March 01, 2011

Country guitarist, singer, and songwriter.

Although remembered primarily as the chief proponent of what came to be known as the “Travis picking” style of guitar playing, Merle Robert Travis was also an accomplished singer, songwriter, and cartoonist. Born in Rosewood, Kentucky, on November 29, 1917, he learned his thumb-style guitar-playing technique from coal miners in the region, the two most influential being Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil). This style enabled the simultaneous playing of a tune’s melody and rhythmic, harmonic, and bass accompaniment. Travis was largely responsible for this guitar-playing method’s becoming a significant part of the commercial country sound of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also an important influence on several Appalachian guitarists, most notably Doc Watson (who named his son Merle in honor of Travis) and Chet Atkins.

In addition to his instrumental talents, Travis was influential as a singer and songwriter. His repertoire consisted of folk songs such as “John Henry” and “I Am a Pilgrim,” traditional-sounding original songs such as “Dark as a Dungeon” (which has been published in at least one folk song collection), and honky-tonk songs such as “No Vacancy” and “Divorce Me C.O.D.” Many of his own folk-based songs dealt with the lives of Kentucky coal miners during the 1930s. The most commercially successful of these was “Six- teen Tons,” a number one hit on both the pop and country charts for Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955. For several years after World War II, Travis was a fixture on the West Coast country music scene. Later, he moved to Nashville and eventually settled in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where he died October 20, 1983.

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"Merle Travis," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <>

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Merle Travis