Celebrating a Legend: Merle Travis
On April 18, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Merle Travis with a star-studded benefit concert at the City Winery in Nashville, TN. Sponsored by Bigsby and The GRAMMY Museum®, proceeds will benefit the Music Education Programs of The GRAMMY Museum®. Paying tribute to the legend will be John Knowles, CGP; Steve Wariner, CGP; Pat Bergeson; Thom Bresh; Doyle Dykes; Parker Hastings; Rory Hoffman; Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley; John Jorgenson; Laurence Juber; Andy McKee; Jack Pearson; and Eddie Pennington.
“Country Music Hall of Fame® member and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Merle Travis was an innovative guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, guitar designer, and author. Born in Rosewood, Kentucky, his influence (particularly his unique guitar finger-picking style widely referred to as “Travis Picking”) on many generations of performers—from Chet Atkins to Marty Stuart to Merle’s biological son, entertainer Thom Bresh and many others—is just as evident now as it has ever been.”
And if you’ve read Andy Babiuk’s The Story of Paul Bigsby, you know how important Merle Travis was in the history and development of Bigsby.
Cousin Harley, the musical persona of multi-talented Canadian guitar slinger, songwriter, and vocalist Paul Pigat recently paid tribute to one of his guitar heroes, Merle Travis, with the release of a rollicking CD, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis. The project was sponsored by Bigsby and featured eleven Merle Travis classics that have been given Cousin Harley’s hallmark rockabilly and western swing attitude, and includes “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette), “Sixteen Tons,” “Divorce Me C.O.D.”, “Deep South”, “Blue Smoke,” and “Cincinnati Lou.” Paul also penned one original song, “Rosewood, Kentucky” that’s a tribute to Travis’ birthplace.
As we celebrate Merle Travis, here’s more from Paul Pigat on Merle and what lead up to his special tribute…
On a phone interview from his home in Vancouver, B.C., the “Motorhead of Rockabilly” reflected on the influence of Merle Travis, why his Gretsch Custom Shop Synchro-Club was the perfect guitar for this tribute record, what he learned playing in Toronto bars when he was thirteen.
How did this Merle Travis tribute project come together?
I was in the process of recording another solo record and just happened to be reading up on Merle online. When I discovered his birthday was November 29, 1917 and this is the 100th anniversary, I sent an email to my guys (bass player Keith Picot and drummer Jesse Cahill) saying “I’m putting my solo record on hold. We’re doing a Cousin Harley tribute to Merle Travis instead.”
Why did you choose to honor Merle Travis?
Because he was such a huge influence on me. I’m also a firm believer that a lot of guitar players are somehow influenced by Merle Travis, they just don’t realize it. Without Merle, there’d be no Chet Atkins. Without Chet, there’d be no Scotty Moore, no Beatles, and no rock ‘n’ roll. Merle added syncopation that gave us the essence of the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll in my opinion. Even though Merle’s not as well known as, say, Charlie Christian, I think he’s equally as influential.
It’s ironic that Bigsby is sponsoring this project, given the history between Merle Travis and Paul Bigsby.
Yes, I love the connection. Merle and Paul were friends and, of course, Bigsby worked with Merle to build the first modern solidbody electric guitar in 1948. Then, a few years later, Merle challenged Bigsby to design a guitar vibrato that would work and keep his guitar in tune. That’s when the Bigsby Vibrato was born. Gretsch owns Bigsby today, and Dinah and Fred were very kind to help sponsor the project. They appreciate the historic connections between Paul Bigsby and Merle Travis, and Bigsby Vibratos and Gretsch guitars.
What was your approach to recording these Merle Travis songs?
I didn’t want to just cover the songs verbatim. What’s the point? I always wanted to take these songs and arrange them slightly differently and modernize them a little bit. My electric playing is definitely a little bit more boppin’ than Merle’s. In every song, there’s at least one direct quote of exactly what Merle did, but I always take some liberties and take it somewhere else. Cousin Harley has got a very distinctive sound. I wanted to put the Cousin Harley stamp on every tune.
When did you learn to play fingerstyle?
When I was thirteen, a friend and I played in bars around Toronto. It was the ’80s and you could get away with stuff back then. You can’t do that now. We were playing with a lot of older cats that knew fingerstyle. I’d never seen anybody play a melody and a bass line at the same time before. Then someone started playing some Merle Travis and I was going, “Right, this is obviously where Scotty Moore got his style.” Scotty sounds a little bit like Chet, but Scotty sounds a whole lot more like Merle because it’s got that big backbeat. That’s what got me right away. I heard that swinging backbeat and I thought, “Well, this is the stuff I want to play.”
What Gretsch guitars did you use in the studio?
My Stephen Stern built Gretsch Synchro-Club prototype with a Bigsby was my Gretsch of choice on the CD. It’s a cross between an early ‘60s thin-bodied Country Club and, because I’m a big Django Rheinhardt fan, a 1939 Synchromatic. It has a blonde top, cat’s eye soundholes, and block inlays. It’s a stunning guitar and the best sounding Gretsch that I own.
What’s it like being the only guitar player in your Cousin Harley trio?
When you play in a trio, it can sometimes seem empty when switching from rhythm guitar to lead since the low foundation notes are often gone. Gretsch guitars just seem to fill up that space in the mix and have a wide frequency range that just makes them sound big. They make my job so much easier, and allow me to concentrate on making something new in my solos without having to worry about the sound of the band being thin.
How would you describe Gretsch guitars?
I often describe Gretsch Guitars as performing like a Cadillac drives. They are luxurious, comfortable, and take up a fair amount of space on the musical road. They also translate attitude very well. They can be as polite as a choirboy or as nasty as a trucker on a three-day bender depending on how you play them. That, and of course, there’s also their iconic beauty.
You seem to be pleased with the end results of your tribute CD.
I am. I’ve wanted to do a tribute to Merle Travis for a very long time. I’ve been covering Merle tunes for years because I love a funny song, and the man could write some seriously funny songs. Any time I get to play some Merle, I’m always happy.
Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis is available from several online partners, including iTunes and CD Baby.
For more information, visit paulpigat.com.
Listen to Cousin Harley’s version of “Deep South” from Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis!