‘Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story’ highlights musician’s incredible life

Deke Dickerson kept wondering why nobody had written a comprehensive biography of Merle Travis. Dickerson is a gifted musician, guitar expert, and music historian. Merle Travis was an influential guitarist and songwriter who was a visionary designer of guitars. Dickerson admired Travis so much he decided to write one himself.

His exhaustive study is “Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story.” Travis died nearly four decades ago-almost all of his contemporaries are gone now, too. But Dickerson was lucky. He got in touch with the two surviving daughters of Merle Travis and they offered him access to a treasure trove of material about their dad.

They let him examine the contents of a storage locker containing ephemera that had miraculously survived the vicissitudes of their father’s tumultuous career. Opening that locker must have felt like stumbling into King Tut’s tomb.

He describes that revelation: “hundreds of short stories, poems, song lyrics, love letters, family letters, fan letters, and miscellaneous notes. There were literally thousands of photographs. There were scrapbooks full of posters, newspaper articles, and promotional materials. There were reel-to-reel tapes with interviews and unreleased performances. There were vintage Nudie suits and boots and guitars and amps.”

Best of all, Dickerson found about 100 pages of an autobiography Travis had started but never finished. That’s how he was able to bill this book as having been written with his co-author Merle Travis, because he found this incredible document written by the man himself.

Dickerson just had to fill in the gaps. Merle Travis was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, in 1917. In 1966 as he was looking back at his life Travis wrote: “Happiness is a friend who has usually been around, but heartbreak and sorrow are old acquaintances of mine. I’ve tasted success and gorged on failure. I’ve walked on red carpets and waded in mud.”

He developed a style of playing guitar that remains vastly influential today. While living in California he sketched a picture of a solid body guitar and had a designer build one for him. That brilliant prototype became the original model upon which solid body electric guitars were developed.

He wrote great songs. The most famous one, “Sixteen Tons,” became a massive hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford. He recorded extraordinary record albums during a career of stratospheric highs and ground scraping lows. Dickerson doesn’t whitewash it, the blemishes remain.

His love life was complicated. When he was in California he could cross over to Mexico for quickie marriages that ended just as fast. Some dalliances produced children. One adult son eventually found out Travis was his dad when someone mentioned it at a party. Late in life Merle finally found true love with his last wife.

He drank heavily most of his life. He was probably an alcoholic by the time he was 14. He discovered pills. He and Johnny Cash became pill popping pals. Dickerson visited a place where Travis had lived, the bullet holes are still visible. Merle Travis would surely appreciate this book.

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/programs/book-nook. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.