which came from a caricature Jones was fond of drawing that he named “Mr. Sheppard.” Travis estimated this to have occurred in 1940 or 1941, but most likely it was in late 1943. As “Bob McCarthy,” Travis recorded his first solo record for King, “When Mussolini Laid His Pistol Down.”
The Brown’s Ferry Four had only been playing for six months when Merle Travis joined the Marine Corps. Grandpa Jones went into the Army, Alton Delmore joined the Navy, and Rabon Delmore stayed on at WLW.
When Travis got out of the army in late 1944, he decided to move west to California at the urging of friends including Smiley Burnette and Hank Penny. He continued recording for King, playing electric lead guitar for Grandpa Jones and recording a series of sides with Jones and the Delmores as the Brown’s Ferry Four. He also got work as a session man in Los Angeles, backing up artists such as Gene Autry and Tennessee Ernie Ford, and obtaining a contract as a solo artist with Capitol Records.
It was with Capitol that Merle Travis’ songwriting talents began to blossom. The succession of hits that he had during his first few years for Capitol virtually defined the burgeoning west coast country music scene, which had drawn other musicians from other parts of the United States after the conclusion of World War II. Western swing was all the rage in Los Angeles, with Bob Wills, Tex Williams, and Spade Cooley fronting the most popular bands. Travis’ songs were mostly lighthearted, humorous novelties based on popular catch phrases that he wrote songs around. These include records such as “No Vacancy,” “So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed,” and “Divorce Me C.O.D.” He got the idea for “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That Cigarette” while painting a fence. The song became a huge hit for Tex Williams and his Western Caravan and was also recorded by Travis. Not only was Travis adept at songwriting, but he was able to customize songs for specific artists. “Smoke!” was one such song, written to fit Tex Williams’ bass voice and knack for “talking” his lyrics, a la Phil Harris’ “Darktown Poker Club.” It was specifically this song that Travis had in mind when he wrote “Smoke!” for Tex. One sign that points to the popularity Merle Travis enjoyed in the late 1940s is the fact that Capitol released