Monday, July 22, 2013

DJ Merle Travis

I know all of two songs by Merle Travis but I bet you know them too. "Dark as a Dungeon" and "Sixteen Tons" were both written and recorded by Merle Travis in the mid 1940s. But 10 years before that he made his first forays into radio and that is where we shall begin. There are two versions of the story, but one has him playing the "Tiger Rag" at the age of 18 on 1280 WGBF-AM in Evansville, IN. He was attending a dance in 1936 and his brother talked the DJ into letting Merle play a short tune during the break. That appearance got him invited to play in the band the Tennessee Tomcats. His career would go on to include the Knox County Knockabouts, Whitley's Western Swing Band, the Drifting Pioneers, Clayton McMichen's Georgia Wildcats, Brown's Ferry Four and many others.

A year after his radio debut, he was hired by fiddler Clayton McMichen as guitarist in his Georgia Wildcats. but while the Wildcats were regulars on WAVE-AM in Louisville, KY that was years after Travis left the group in 1939 to join the Drifting Pioneers, a Chicago-area gospel quartet. They became very popular regulars on the Boone County Jamboree program on WLW-AM. The program was later known as Midwestern Hayride. Travis stuck with the station long after the group broke up and fell in playing with other country artists like Grandpa Jones and the Delmore Brothers whom he played with as Brown's Ferry Four.

He went to LA and played on Cliffie Stone's Hometown Jamboree, which aired on both KXLA-AM and KCOP-TV. On KXLA he also played on Town Hall Party and Dinner Bell Roundup, and on AFRS on the Melody Roundup. On KNX he became a regular cast member of The Hollywood Barn Dance. It wasn't until the late 1960s Travis relocated to Nashville and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. More here.

He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1977. In the 1980s CHM records started to reissue his old records while he recorded new material.  He died of a heart attack in 1983. The Country Routes label has since issued several compilations of his radio transcriptions from the 1940s and 1950s