Merle Robert Travis was born on the November 29th, 1917 in the small town of Rosewood, KY. His father was a career coal miner, and Travis lived on the brink of poverty. Young Merle became interested in music at an early age, getting his hands on a guitar when he was still a kid. He was heavily influenced by Arnold Shultz, a popular blues guitar player, who helped Travis develop his offbeat style, which would become known as "Travis picking." Strangely, Travis lived in the same neighborhood as Ike Everly, the father of Don and Phil, who would grow up to become the Everly Brothers.
He got his first taste of the stage in 1935, while visiting his brother in Evansville, IN. His performance at a town dance won him many admirers, and an avenue into the local music scene. He played in a number of bands over the next few years, most notably the Drifting Pioneers. The Pioneers, who many believe are the greatest white gospel band in history, gained a national fan base, and Travis looked set for a legitimate music career. But, upon the start of World War II, the Pioneers broke up and Travis decided to join the Marines.
In 1944, after a brief stint in the service, he headed out to Los Angeles to play with Ray Whitley's Western Swing Band. By 1947, he had released his debut LP, Folk Songs of the Hills, which told stories about life on the railroad and in the coal mines. The album's first track, "Nine Pound Hammer," would become one of his most famous songs, and the album remains one of the greatest country and western/folk LP's of all-time.
Though it took him nine years to release a sophomore effort, he recorded over twenty more LP's in a roughly 35 year career. He had the reputation of being a transcendent performer, but through the years, like many of his musical colleagues, he developed a nasty drug and alcohol problem. By the early '70s, the religious guitarist had quit his bad habits, and enjoyed one of the most prolific periods of his career. Most consider his 1974 collaboration with Chet Atkins, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, to be one of his finest releases.
Travis continued to record until he succumbed to a heart attack on October 20th, 1983 in Tahlequah, OK. His legacy and influence remains strong, and he continues to inspire and confound young guitarists to this day.