age of eight. His father, a coal miner, had played banjo strictly as a pastime. The banjo style (or “banjer” as Travis called it) he played is now called “frailing,” the predominant method used by hillbilly performers before Earl Scruggs developed the three-finger style associated with bluegrass. When he was twelve, he was given a guitar that his older brother Taylor had built. Taylor Travis was also a coal miner, but left to work in an Indiana factory, leaving the guitar behind for Merle.
Merle met Mose Rager and Ike Everly when the two were working as coal miners in Drakesboro in 1934 or 1935. Other guitarists in the area played the finger-and thumb style Rager and Everly used, and Travis was drawn immediately to the catchy, rhythmic, black-influenced sound and sought to imitate it. Rager and Everly played country tunes from white tradition, just as every other musician in Muhlenberg County did. But in addition, they played a variety of tunes from black tradition as well as ragtime favorites and Tin Pan Alley numbers. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Tiger Rag” was one tune that crossed musical and racial lines alike, played by string bands in addition to horn bands. The two also excelled at popular standards, such as “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” And, since music was less and less learned in a vacuum or solely from oral tradition, they copied songs they heard on the radio by popular network artists such as Paul Whiteman, whose Rhythm Boys included a young singer named Bing Crosby. Travis recalled being fascinated by phonograph records his family owned by artists such as Carson Robison and Vernon Dalhart, records that were ubiquitous in many a country household. But there were also hillbilly and pop guitarists who had a tremendous impact on Travis’ early technique. Specifically, these included Georgia’s Chris Bouchillon (the creator of the talking blues) pop entertainer Nick Lucas, and jazz guitarist Eddie Lang.
Eventually, Travis began playing in amateur shows in and around his home town in Kentucky. He would catch a train to Evansville, Indiana, about sixty miles away, to visit his brother and also to play in contests. It was in Evansville in 1936 that Travis made his first radio appearance, at a dance marathon. This led to his performing regularly on the radio with acts such as the Tennessee Tom Cats and the Knox County Knockabouts.