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versions of “Smoke!” by Travis as well as Williams, an unusual occurrence since rarely did a label release more than one version of a song at a time for the fear of competing with itself.

In 1946, Travis was asked by Capitol’s head of artists and repertoire, Cliffie Stone, to record an album of folk songs. The folk music craze was heating up at the time, with artists such as Burl Ives and Josh White gaining in popularity. Travis told Stone that all of the popular folk songs had already been recorded, to which Stone responded, “Well then, write some.” An exasperated Travis sputtered, “You can’t write folk songs!” But Stone prevailed and the result was the landmark 4-pocket 78rpm set “Folk Songs from the Hills,” which included some of Merle Travis’ best-loved compositions: “Sixteen Tons,” “Dark as A Dungeon,” and “I Am A Pilgrim” in addition to a few traditional tunes Travis had learned in Kentucky.

During this period, Travis was playing a Gibson Super 400 guitar, which required a lot of maneuvering to reach around to the back end of the neck to tune the three higher strings. After thinking about how convenient it would be to have all of the tuning keys on the near side of the guitar, he drew a prototype, brought it to a friend of his named Paul Bigsby, and asked him to build it. Travis also wanted the guitar to have a solid body like those of steel guitars, the reasoning being that the pickup was the source of the sustaining sound and not the resonating hollowed-out body


Photo by David Gahr

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