In 1937, fiddler Clayton McMichen brought his Georgia Wildcats to Drakesboro to perform in the high school auditorium. The Wildcats had just signed a contract to record for the Decca label and were playing a regular program on WHAS in Louisville. Travis and a friend had heard that the Wildcats’ lead guitarist, Hoyt “Slim” Bryant, had an L-5 Gibson guitar and went down to the schoolhouse to see it. McMichen and Bryant were friendly and obliging, and allowed the 18-year old guitarist to try out Bryant’s guitar. McMichen was impressed enough that when he returned to Drakesboro a short time later, he promised to send for Merle as soon as he found an opening in his band.
Soon after, Travis was playing a radio job in Evansville when he got a letter from his mother saying that there was a telegram waiting for him from Clayton McMichen. Despite the ravages of the 1937 floods, Travis hitched a ride on a rescue boat to get home and read the telegram. It said for him to meet the Wildcats in Columbus, Ohio in a month for a job as the band’s new guitarist.
During the 1920s, Clayton McMichen played fiddle with Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, one of early country music’s most popular string bands. The Skillet Lickers played old time fiddle tunes and hoedowns plus outrageous skits such as the multipart series “A Corn Licker Still in Georgia,” recorded for Columbia in the late 1920s and early 1930s. McMichen, however, was a trained musician whose greatest desire was to play popular and jazz tunes. When he formed the Georgia Wildcats, he not only utilized hoedowns in their repertoire, but also songs such as “Farewell Blues” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On March 1st, Merle Travis arrived in Columbus to join the Wildcats, which at that time included fiddler Carl Cotner (later to become Gene Autry’s musical director), guitarist Blackie Case, and bassist Bucky Yates. The Wildcats played an hour-long radio program during which Travis (nicknamed “Ridgerunner”) would play one featured solo on guitar.
Although McMichen cut his first session for Decca in July 1937, Travis was not present. By the time they recorded again the following August, Travis had moved on. It would have been most interesting to hear Travis as a developing soloist during this time. He was maturing as a performer, expanding his repertoire, and furthering the