Merle Travis

The Songs & Guitar of Merle Travis [Video]

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Subtitled "Sixteen Tons: Rare Performances, Vol. Two," the many facets of Merle Travis' career are all present in this second offering of rare and seldom-seen footage spanning his West Coast postwar prime to his last years as a rediscovered legend. This volume begins with six performances ("Silver Spurs," "Texas Home," "Old Chisholm Trail," "Night Train to Memphis," "Catalogue Cowboy," and "Why Did I Fall for Abner") made for the Soundies Distributing Corporation, an early version of the music video combined with the format of a jukebox. These clips, issued as "Merle Travis and His Cowgirls," provide us with the earliest video document of Travis and his guitar. Of special note to historians is that one of the cowgirls in Travis' band is rhythm guitarist Colleen Summers, who would later become Mary Ford and hook up with Les Paul. Next up is Merle's 1951 performance of "Lost John," shown on the syndicated TV show The Old American Barn Dance. This is followed by six selections ( "Sixteen Tons," "Cannonball Rag," "Dark as a Dungeon," "John Henry," "When My Baby Double Talks to Me," "Wildwood Flower," and "John Henry") from 1957's Columbia Pictures-produced Ranch Party television show, itself an outgrowth of the Compton, CA Town Hall Party. Next up are two songs ("Dark as a Dungeon," "Rockabye Rag") from 1961's Five Star Jubilee, which originally started as Ozark Jubilee starring Red Foley. The renewed interest in his music in the '70s is evident in a half-dozen performances from that decade on the Porter Wagoner Show and the syndicated Nashville Swing, which brings us alternate versions of "Wildwood Flower," "Lost John," "Nine Pound Hammer," and "Cannonball Rag," along with "That's All" and a wistful "Who's Sorry Now." A brace of informal duets with his son, Thom Bresh, videotaped toward the end of Travis' life (including a fine romping version of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" and a loose but fun blues workout), provides a moving coda to this varied collection of brilliant country guitar playing leavened with Travis' blend of humor, poetry, and down-home philosophy in his songs. Merle Travis was one of the all-time greats in country music, a true innovator, and this collection -- along with its companion volume -- gives us a chance to enjoy his artistry up close.