No, he’s not Merle Haggard, but he never wanted to be. Merle Travis, who I like to think of as the OTHER Merle, started as a honky tonker back in the ’40s. A Kentucky boy, he’s the genius who wrote Tennessee Ernie Ford’s coal mining anthem, Sixteen Tons.
Sixteen Tons is to me the quintessential workingman’s song, which after heartbreak and being lonesome in jail is one of the top three topics of good country songs. Doesn’t hurt my opinion of the other Merle that my people are from Kentucky as well as Texas so anything coal mining or Appalachian I have a devotion to.
I remember watching Tennessee Ernie on a small black and white TV as a child with my mouth open as he sang, “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” I could have been listening to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech for the spiritual and cultural influence this song had on me. It woke up something timeless in me that connected to folks who came before me in a way I never experienced before.
This other Merle’s song became so embedded in the culture, even Stevie Wonder covered it. That was some influential song, not to mention an influential picker. Because, truth be known, the other Merle could play as well as write. His Kentucky brand of thumb picking had an effect on many folks, including Chet Atkins. Travis was even in the earliest form of music videos called “soundies.” They were viewed on special kinds of juke boxes after WW2. This other Merle had his finger in everything from blues to boogie woogie.
Merle Travis died in 1983 at the age of 65. He finished the second half of that famous chorus with, “St. Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” He may have at one point, but I’ve got a feeling he was able to buy it back before he died. Good night, Merle.