Singer and songwriter Merle Travis was born in 1923 in Muhlenberg County, in the community of Rosewood. He developed a distinctive thumb-picking style of guitar playing now known as “Travis picking,” where the thumb plays a steady bass pattern.
“Even though he lived away from here most of his life he was pure Kentucky through and through,” said musician Eddie Pennington.
Travis is known for the classic “Sixteen Tons” as well as hits like “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Dark as a Dungeon.”
Travis told musician Thom Bresh that a famous line from “Sixteen Tons” came from his childhood.
“You got all these stories, but from the horse’s mouth, Travis told me, the reason I made that song up is that’s something my mama used to always say. ‘Oh, look, at this bicycle in the catalog,’ you know? And she says, ‘Oh, we owe our soul to the company store. Now honey, we just can’t get that.'”
Ironically, Bresh said Travis didn’t care for the song at first—until Tennessee Ernie Ford had a hit with it. “That might have been the time it became my favorite folk song of all time,” Bresh recalled Travis saying.
His songs about coal mining endure in popular culture. “Merle shined a light back through his songs on these miners and stuff back home,” said Pennington. “The people looked at them different. They saw them just as hard working people, not just a bunch of thugs or roughnecks and all–just people having a hard time making a living, working a dangerous job.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2105 which originally aired on January 30, 2016. Watch the full episode.