MERLE TRAVIS REMEMBERED
by RAY CAMPI
As originally printed in Now Dig This. Used by permission of Ray Campi.
Rollin' Rock records was founded by Rockin' Ronny Weiser with the purpose of keeping alive traditional forms of rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and country music. "I'm sick and tired of all this scumbag hippie crap," Ronnie would say. "I'll start my own label to record people like you," he would rant, and he did just that in 1971. "People like me" turned out to be the likes of Jimmie Lee Maslon (the second person to record for Ron - Gene Vincent was the first), Chuck Higgins, Mac Curtis, Jack Waukeen Cochran, Tony Conn, Rip Masters, Cort Murray, the Blasters and many others.
Ronnie Weiser was raised in Europe where our American roots music is revered, and he was shocked when coming to the US to discover that it had become obsolete, replaced by the hippie-folkies and heavy-metal freaks. He was quite knowledgeable about rock 'n' roll and with the artists who created it, but I felt that he should be aware of the "pre-rockabilly" country musicians that people my age were raised on: artists like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Johnny & Jack, Kitty Wells, Eddy Arnold, the Delmore Brothers, Moon Mullican, Ernest Tubb, Tommy Scott and, of course, the guitar giants like Arthur Smith, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland and the great Merle Travis. They all had a large influence on my generation who grew up in the 1940s and '50s. "These people made some great records that in ways helped to create rockabilly music," I'd say to Ron. Soon he was getting more familiar with tunes like "I'm Movin' On" by Hank Snow, "That's How Much I Love You," an Eddy Arnold favorite, Ernest Tubb's "You Nearly Lose Your Mind," "Move It On Over" by Hank Williams, Ramblin' Tommy Smith's memorable "Rosebuds And You" on the Macy label, "Pipeliner Blues" on King by Moon Mullican, "No Help Wanted" by the Carlisles, and of course many songs by Merle Travis, including "Merle's Boogie Woogie."
"I could record many songs by these people in a pure rockabilly style if you'd agree," I would say, and Ronny let me put them on record over the years. I must have recorded more Jimmie Skinner tunes than anyone except Jimmie himself.
"Come Along And Ride This Train" was an important part of of "The Johnny Cash Show" on ABC television in the late 1960s. It was a segment of the program that featured Johnny narrating a story related to the history of railroad life in the US. This "train theme" in country music was originated by singers like Jimmie Rodgers and carried on by artists like Hank Snow, the Delmore Brothers and, in the late 1950s, expertly by Johnny Cash. Behind Johnny would be flashed film of trains in action to accompany his story.
To help create this portion of the show, Merle Travis moved to Nashville, for it was Merle who wrote the dialogue for this program segment - and great writing it was, too. It was after "The Johnny Cash Show" went off the air that Merle Travis returned to California. I knew that it was time for us to meet again.
I made contact with Merle's daughter, Merline, and she gave me Merle's new address and phone number and I got in touch with him. "Merle Travis is back in town!" I related with excitement to Ronny. "Let's see if he'll record with us at Rollin' Rock!" After talking with Merle, he agreed to do it, but at the same time he was not too well and it would be a few weeks before he could come to the studio, but he would enjoy doing so. I began to prepare for the session and recorded the rhythm guitar, acoustic bass and vocal tracks of songs written by Merle for the upcoming evening. Merle could then add his guitar with little trouble.
Finally the big night arived! I drove my yellow 1966 Cadillac convertible to Merle's house. When I drove up, Merle's wife let me in, I met Merle again and we then walked to the driveway. When Merle saw my car he got excited and called his wife to come have a look at it. "Back in 1954 we had a yellow Cadillac convertible!" he exclaimed. "This one is just like it!" A great guitarist inspired by Merle called Thom Bresh, who, it transpired, was Merle's biological son, was visiting at the time and he joined us and rode to the studio also.
We arrived at Ron Weiser's house in about 15 minutes. I introduced Thom and Merle to Ron, who had the recorder humming, and immediately Merle got out of the case his beautiful Gibson with his name on the neck and soon set himself to work. The first song he played on was "Guitar Rag." We did 12 tunes in total, including a blues instrumental with no vocal.
I always liked the way Merle used the "speeded up" recording technique on his version of "Merle's Boogie Woogie," released in 1951, a few years before the famous "Les Paul Sound," and I asked Merle to record it for me the same way, which he did. (Later I also recorded this way on the Jimmie Skinner song "Don't Give Your Heart To A Rambler.")
After finishing the tunes around 11 p.m., Merle and myself took some photos together and he, Thom, Ron and I went to a nearby restaurant for a bite to eat. Ron and I were enthralled that we had just put on tape the great Merle Travis, a hero in our eyes, but in his own, a simple Kentucky boy with some talent and lots of good luck.
In a few weeks an EP was released (1974 - Rollin' Rock 45-031) that had on the sleeve the same autographed photo that Merle gave me in 1952. The record featured the songs "Merle's Boogie Woogie," "Sweet Temptation," "Guitar Rag" and "Missouri," written by Hank Penny.
In recent years I used these same guitar licks by Merle with new backing on my LP on the Bear Family label in Europe and on the Flying Fish label in the US, "Ray Campi - With Friends In Texas," which features, as the title suggests, duets with friends. Del Shannon sang on "Guitar Rag," the legendary Rose Maddox on "Sweet Temptation" and the great Bonnie Raitt on "Merle's Boogie Woogie." Some of the other tracks we recorded back in 1974 were "Fat Girl," "Kentucky Means Paradise" and "Merle's Blue Guitar." These will be reissued sometime in the future on my own Real Music label. (This label is dedicated to releasing 45s and CDs of authentic, traditional American roots music.)
Merle Travis remained in southern California for several more years and made some great albums on Martin Hearle's CMH label. He performed live at times and I would make a point to see him. It was always a thrill to be in his company and to hear him play in front of a live audience. He would tell anecdotal stories between songs that the audiences loved. He told about designing the solid body guitar which Leo Fender "borrowed" one weekend a few years before he put them on the market as the Stratocaster. He had stories about his friends Grandpa Jones, Tex Ritter, Les Paul and Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, as well as his greatest admirer, Chester Atkins.
Merle Travis was a composer, singer and entertainer-musician beyond comparison, but most importantly he was a simple guy with a heart twice as big as Kentucky.
Now Dig This
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