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'Travis': A Fine Tribute to Merle

September 10, 1993|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Be sure to either read the album credits carefully or save the receipt if you buy "Saturday Night Shuffle," the Shanachie Records collection with the photo of Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Travis on the cover. It might not be all that you think it is.

Subtitled "A Celebration of Merle Travis: The Man & His Music," the 19-song package features more than a dozen notable country musicians, including guitarist Chet Atkins, steel guitarist Buddy Emmons and fiddle players Vassar Clements and Mark O'Connor.

What you may not discover until you examine the album's liner notes and copyright date, however, is that Travis isn't on the album.

"Saturday Night Shuffle," a phone call to the label's New Jersey office determined, was recorded this year by some of Travis' longtime friends and musical partners as a tribute to the singer-songwriter-guitarist, who died in 1983 at age 65.

While it is a warm and affectionate work and fine for a longtime Travis fan, it is not the starting place in building a Travis collection.

The album's main value, in fact, may be as a promo for Rhino Records' "The Best of Merle Travis," an 18-song CD featuring such classic '40s and '50s Travis tracks as "No Vacancy," "Divorce Me C.O.D.," "Sixteen Tons" and "Dark as a Dungeon," as well as far more extensive liner notes than the Shanachie collection.

Though there was an underlying edge to some of Travis' compositions--including 1946's "No Vacancy," which complained about the housing shortage faced by returning World War II veterans--much of his music was laced with humor, as evidenced by such numbers as "I Like My Chicken Fryin' Size" and "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed (That's My Gal)."

In the end, however, Travis may be best remembered for his appealing guitar style, which he learned in his native Kentucky from such musicians as Ike Everly, the father of the Everly Brothers.

"It involved picking melody on the treble strings with the right index finger while plucking a syncopated bass accompaniment with the right thumb," Rich Kienzle says in the Rhino liner notes, discussing the style that has come to be known as "Travis picking."

Among the countless musicians who have cited Travis' influence on their own work are Atkins, arguably the most famous Nashville guitarist of the last 30 years, and Scotty Moore, who played guitar on Elvis Presley's early, landmark Sun Records recordings.

Summarizing the richly talented and influential Travis, Kienzle declares, "Merle Travis was an American original, one of those rare individuals born to create."

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