KET’s Kentucky Muse showcases legacy of country music icon Merle Travis
For Release: 01/13/16 1:18 PM
“I was born Nov. 29, 1917, in Rosewood, Ky. Rosewood, by the way, is in Muhlenberg County . . . I never lived in any other county in Kentucky but Muhlenberg.” In this way, country music icon Merle Travis began his life story with a characteristic nod to his Kentucky roots – a heritage that flavored his music throughout his career.
From humble beginnings – raised in the Western Kentucky coalfields during the Great Depression, in a home without running water or electricity – Travis grew to worldwide stardom by the 1940s and 1950s. Today he is one of country music’s most celebrated stylistic pioneers. His life story and his musical legacy are the focus of KET’s latest Kentucky Muse documentary, “Merle Travis: Guitar Man,” airing Monday, Feb. 1 at 9/8 pm on KET.
Perhaps best recognized as the original balladeer of the classic “Sixteen Tons” as well as hits like “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Dark as a Dungeon” – which all drew inspiration from the struggles of coal miners – Travis, who died in 1983, is also celebrated as the developer of a unique thumb-picking guitar-playing style eventually dubbed “Travis pickin.’”
“He was a colorful character and he brought his culture with him to the table of country music, and to the table of American music, and that’s what made it so rich and so beautiful,” said musician Marty Stuart, who, along with several other country music luminaries – including Merle Haggard and Barbara Mandrell – appear in the documentary to credit Travis’s pivotal role in the evolution of American country music. “His chord knowledge up and down the neck of the guitar was not your basic hillbilly player. How he put all of this together and made chords fly and words fly and style fly out all at the same time, it was a sight to behold, and it was a great sound to hear.”
“Travis pickin’ is a real all-inclusive style of guitar picking. You have a thumb playing the base note, and in between that bass note it also plays the chords [while] the fingers on the right hand play the melody,” explained Ben Hall of the Country Music Hall of Fame, who has won both national and international thumbstyle guitar playing contests. “[Travis] figured out a way to play the bass run with his thumb, and had that move along with the [melody] over the top with his other fingers, so it sounded like two guys [playing],” said Merle Haggard.
In creating the new documentary, “I was surprised by the level of entertainment savvy Travis had, even going back to the 1940s, when he produced the equivalent of early music videos for his recordings,” said KET producer Tom Thurman, who shares Travis’s story through family home movies, unreleased songs and interviews, and rare archival materials from the 1940s and 1950s as well as interviews with those who knew him best.
KET’s companion program Travis Pickin’: A Musical Tribute, airing Monday, Feb. 15 at 9/8 pm on KET KY, features modern musicians demonstrating Merle Travis’s signature thumb-picking style as they perform some of his most beloved tunes.
Kentucky Muse and Travis Pickin’: A Musical Tribute are KET productions, produced by Tom Thurman. Teresa Day is executive producer.
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