Best known as one of American popular music's most innovative guitar stylists,
Merle Travis was also the writer of numerous classic country songs, including
wry hits "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" and "So
Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed" and serious-minded ballads "I Am a Pilgrim"
and "Dark As a Dungeon." His "Sixteen Tons," a #1 country and pop hit for
Tennessee Ernie Ford, melded humor and working class despair and wound up being
recorded by artists as disparate as Johnny Cash, B. B. King, Stevie Wonder and
Travis grew up in the coal country of western Kentucky, an area rife with
guitar players. With help from influences Ike Everly and Mose Rager, he
developed a syncopated finger-picking style on the guitar that allowed him to
play bass runs with his thumb while exploring melodies on the treble strings.
That guitar style allowed Travis to play with a melodic complexity that served
him well as a songwriter.
He moved to California in 1944, signed to the Capitol label in 1946 and soon
scored Top 10 country hits with "Cincinnati Lou," "No Vacancy" and his first
country chart #1, "Divorce Me C.O.D." His own version of "Sixteen Tons" was
released in 1947, but the song wouldn't be a hit until Tennessee Ernie Ford
recorded it in 1955. In the 1940s, Travis had success as a solo artist but also
by crafting songs popularized by others, such as "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That
Cigarette), a top-charting smash for Tex Williams. His "So Round, So Firm, So
Fully Packed" reached the top five of the Billboard country chart three
separate times in 1946 and 1947, with Travis' #1 version followed by Johnny
Bond's #3 record and Ernest Tubb's #5 single.
"Anybody can write a song, but it takes a great artist to deliver it to the
multitudes and make them love it," Travis once said. "Let's say it this way . .
. . We can all purchase peroxide, but there's only one Marilyn
By the end of the 1940s, Travis was writing fewer songs, but Ford's 1955
version of "Sixteen Tons" renewed interest in Travis' catalog. He moved to
Nashville in 1968, starred on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's landmark 1972 album
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, won a Grammy in 1974 for Best Country
Instrumental Performance and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame