Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Magic Merle

I love programming my music when I travel South, as I did recently. I always make sure that I have one of my favorite compilations, Saturday Night Shuffle: A Celebration of Merle Travis, at the ready. I was drawn to this 1993 collection by the players on it: John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Buddy Emmons were the names that popped for me. I also knew that Merle Travis was famous, but I wasn't certain why. Scanning the song list, I recognized "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon". Certainly that was enough background to dive in.

I was immediately impressed not only by the songs, but by the level of musicianship on display. As I later learned, Travis was an innovator on the guitar, and it's quickly evident on this CD: there is some sweet picking here, unlike anything I had in my music collection. Travis was noted for his syncopated style of playing, and you can hear it right away.

Regarding the picking, among the masters regaling your ears here are Thom Bresh, a son of Merle Travis, and Marcel Dadi, who is credited with introducing the French to Merle Travis. Just listen to how smoothly Dadi renders the title track. I never tire of listening to this cut! And let's not forget that this collection also features the great Chet Atkins as a guest artist. He is credited with championing and propagating Travis's unique style.

But it's the singers and the songs that close the deal for me. I did not know that legendary fiddler Vassar Clements had such a fine voice. He kicks off the program with the swinging "There Ain't No Cow in Texas". It's a fun number that has this set structure where you keep throwing in the names of different states and what they're famous for. For example:

There ain't a cotton patch in Mississippi
There ain't a commercial on TV
There's not an orange tree in Florida
Or a guitar in Nashville Tennessee
Now Boston ain't got no more baked beans
And Michigan ain't got no Kalamazoo
There ain't a cow in Texas
Baby if I don't love you

Buddy Emmons takes the lead on this one on his steel guitar, and a delicious sax solo gets the program jumping. This song always gets me in a good mood.

The next song is one that is burned in my memory. I sing it to myself whenever I have the blues. "Me and the Doggone Blues" is just plain comforting. It's not a hoot and holler or a moanin' kind of blues, it's just softly melancholy. Nice to sing as you're just walking along somewhere by yourself.

Me and the doggone blues
We're together all the time
The blues is blue
And I am too
So we get along just fine
Ain't never been apart
So don't never expect to lose
So pal of mine
You'll always find
Me and the doggone blues

I just ride along on this collection. One tune leads naturally to another, and your journey is on clouds of beautifully picked guitars and sweet fiddle playing. The songs themselves are so beautifully written too. Ever hear the song "Nine Pound Hammer"? It's by Merle Travis. So is the wonderful "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)".

Travis was born in coal country (Muhlenberg County, Kentucky) in 1917. After playing on the radio in Cincinnati in the late '30s and early '40s and serving briefly in the Marines, he moved to Los Angeles and signed with Capitol Records. Two of his hits from this time are on the CD in a medley: "Divorce Me C.O.D." and "So Round So Firm". In the 1950s Tennesse Ernie Ford made "Sixteen Tons" a million-seller, and Travis has a TV show, along with appearing in several movies. (He's in From Here to Eternity!)

It's upsetting to learn that Travis had some deep personal problems. He drank too much during this time, and was involved in several violent incidents. He also suffered from crippling stage fright. What a shame! I mean, this guy had such talent: in addition to being a genius as a musician, he was a taxidermist, a photographer, a cartoonist, a prose writer, and an expert at watch repair.

Thanks to Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 collection of roots music, Merle Travis was able to revive his career. His last decade or so was spent recording heavily. He died in 1983 at the age of 66.

By all means take a chance on Merle like I did. I just know that you'll get hooked!

Click here to see and hear Merle Travis perform "Cannonball Rag"

Here's where you'll find Merle performing in a 1951 "soundie". He's doing a duet called "Too Much Sugar for a Dime". (It's also on the CD.)

Finally, here's Travis in a cameo from 1953's From Here to Eternity.

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