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									 Legends of
 Chet Atkins
 Merle Travis
  Doc Watson
  Mose Rager
   featuring Chet Atkins, Merle Travis,
        Doc Watson & Mose Rager
                      by Cary Ginell

                                                                   Chet Atkins & Merle Travis
                                                                   Photo courtesy of Chet Atkins
     In 1894 Sears-Roebuck began offering several guitar
models in its mail order catalogue for the first time. Up
until then, the banjo and fiddle had been the favored folk
instr uments among rural Americans. But with new
traditions developing from a variety of sources: Mexican
music from the southwest, ragtime from southern Blacks
and the romantic, sweeping sounds of Hawaiian guitars,
the guitar soon enveloped the United States, with styles
and stylists established in every region.
     In country music, white musicians did not start playing
the guitar with any regularity until the early 1920s. In joining
the fiddle and banjo in forming the modern country string
band, the guitar quickly became an intricate part of
American culture. Early stylists ranged from the simple
rhythm accompaniment of cowboy singers from the
southwestern plains to the intricate fingerpicking of
musicians in the eastern mountains.
     Mose Rager is acknowledged as being one of the
founding fathers of the Kentucky-born style known as the
“Muhlenberg Sound.” Rhythmic and lively, Rager’s sound
was a direct predecessor to that of his disciple, Merle Travis,
whose own adaptation of the style became identified as
“Travis picking.” The elegant fingerstyle playing of
Tennessean Chet Atkins was inspired by a variety of factors,
not the least of which was Travis’s playing, but that also
included classical and jazz influences. Finally, there is Doc
Watson, a blind man from North Carolina whose voracious
appetite for hillbilly phonograph records resulted in him
becoming a virtual walking museum of early country guitar
styles. In particular, Watson championed the sounds of
flatpickingers such as Riley Puckett and Alton Delmore
along with a variety of other influences including Maybelle
Carter, Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi John Hurt, Merle
Travis and Chet Atkins.
     This tape showcases these four performers in rarely
seen footage. Together, these are some of the most
influential guitarists in country music history, and although
they are guitarists whose styles differ greatly from one
another, have shared a kind of “mutual admiration society”
for one another through their artistry.

                                                            Chet Atkins & Merle Travis
                                                            Photo courtesy of the Merle Travis Estate

                         MOSE RAGER
     The key disseminator of the style of music now known
as “Travis Picking” was a Kentuckian named Mose Rager
(1911-1985). Although neither the creator of the style nor
its most famous ambassador, Rager was the chief influence
on Merle Travis, who popularized it throughout the world.
Rager was born on April 2, 1911 in Smallhous, located in
Ohio County in western Kentucky. Rager learned to play
banjo and guitar when he was seven. In interviews given
later, Rager credited two men for introducing him to the
     The first was Arnold Shultz (1886-1931), a black coal
miner from the Cromwell precinct of Ohio County. Shultz’s
reputation as a guitarist was such that he was welcomed
in white homes as well as black. In addition to his work in
the mines, Shultz played guitar and fiddle at local house
dances. In bands numbering as many as five pieces, Shultz
was often the only black member. It was recalled that he
would teach the other musicians chords in addition to the
standard G, C, and D. On one such occasion, Forrest
“Boots” Faught, who played with Shultz, recalled him
adding an “A” chord to the pop standard “I’ll See You in
My Dreams.” (The song later became a staple in Merle
Travis’s own repertoire.)
     During the mid-1920s, Shultz abandoned playing at
house dances and would entertain his fellow coal miners
o n p a y d a y. H e a r i n g t h e m u s i c , t h e m i n e r s w o u l d
automatically walk up and throw money at him. Soon,
young musicians began following Shultz around, picking
up whatever they could from him. One of these youngsters
was 12-year-old Bill Monroe, the future father of bluegrass.
Monroe would later marvel at Shultz’s ability to make
smooth transitions between chords and also his ability to
play blues. Another guitarist who learned to play chords
from Shultz was Kennedy Jones of Cleaton. Born around
the turn of the century, Jones, who was white, became
acquainted with Shultz through Shultz’s earning money by
meeting passenger trains and playing for the disembarking
passengers. It was Jones who was the chief direct influence
on Mose Rager.
     Although Mose Rager never met Arnold Shultz, he
learned Shultz’s style through Jones, who he met in 1925
when Rager was 14 years old. Jones adapted Shultz’s style
Mose Rager       Photo courtesy of the Mose Rager Estate
to fit his own, which involved playing rhythm on the bass
strings of the guitar with a thumb pick. Jones’s innovation
was the key development that led to the uniqueness of the
Muhlenberg Sound, which was basically an adaptation for
guitar of the stride and ragtime piano styles.
     Stride got its name from the striding left hand playing
what was known as a vamping bass, alternating between
the strong notes on the downbeat and chords on the upbeat.
The rapidity of the movements of the left hand brought the
comparison to walking with long steps, or striding. With
its emphasis on the downbeat and a propulsive rhythm,
the stride style was useful in that one instrument could
provide the rhythm necessary for dancing while still leaving
room for the right hand (on piano) or index finger (on
guitar) to play the melody.
     In the 1920s, stride was, if you will, just hitting its stride
in New York’s Harlem, where jazz pianist James P. Johnson,
its progenitor, was passing it on to disciples such as Fats
Waller and Duke Ellington just as Kennedy Jones was
passing it on to Mose Rager. It was a fascinating musical
development in American music in that usually, when a
group needed to adapt its style for dancing, it would simply
add more instruments. In the case of western Kentucky,
this was not necessarily the case. The modification of the
guitar style proved to be a revolutionary advancement in
guitar playing.

 Chet Atkins, Mose Rager & Merle Travis       Photo courtesy of Mose Rager Estate
                                                              Mose Rager & The Everly Brothers
     It was Rager’s brother-in-law who told Mose about a
man who could play chords “all up and down the neck of a
guitar.” After learning of this, Mose decided to seek the
man out. Cleaton was about four miles from Rager’s home,
and when Mose and Kennedy Jones finally met, Rager
noticed that Jones was playing his guitar with a thumb
pick, the first he had ever seen. Rager recalled that Jones
was playing the Tin Pan Alley standard “Tuck Me to Sleep
in My Old ‘Tucky Home.” He was hooked.
     In time, other guitarists in the area picked up the
Kennedy Jones style, including Lester “Plucker” English
and Ike Everly, the latter the father of Don and Phil, the
Everly Brothers. Rager would often team up with either
English or Everly and play dances. By the mid-1930s,
Rager had settled in Drakesboro in Muhlenberg County.
He had curtailed his work in the coal mines and took up
barbering, continuing to play music as a sidelight. It was
at this time, around 1934 or 1935, that he met Merle Travis
(Charles Wolfe reports that Travis may have learned Rager
and Everly’s style as early as 1932).
     In 1943, Rager quit mining, determined to make it in
the music business. He worked for Grandpa Jones on the
Grand Ole Opry in the late 1940s, and was often featured
playing the show-stopper, “Tiger Rag.” In 1947, he joined
fiddler Curley Fox’s band, and made his first recordings as
a sideman on “Black Mountain Rag,” recorded for the King
label (KI-710). Rager’s lightning fast solo on the record
was played on an electric guitar. “Black Mountain Rag”
became the biggest selling country instrumental of the
decade, copied by aspiring fiddlers across the country.
    By the 1950s, Mose Rager’s fling with being a
professional entertainer was over, and he returned to
Drakesboro where he gave guitar lessons, did some playing
with local groups, and took delight in the success of his
disciple, Merle Travis. Rager died on May 14, 1985 at the
age of 74.

                  MERLE TRAVIS

                                                          Merle Travis
                                                          Photo courtesy of the Merle Travis Estate

    If it had not been for Merle Travis, the innovations of
Arnold Shultz, Kennedy Jones, Mose Rager, and Ike Everly
may have been swallowed up by the dank coal mines of
Kentucky. However, when Travis left Muhlenberg County
in 1936 to play with Clayton McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats,
he was ensuring that the Muhlenberg Sound would be
preserved for all time as one of the most popular guitar
styles of the twentieth century.
    Merle Robert Travis was born on November 29, 1917
in Rosewood in Kentucky’s Muhlenberg County. The
Travises were a musical family. Merle was raised in the
town of Ebenezer, and took up the five-string banjo at the
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.
     In 1937, fiddler Clayton McMichen brought his Georgia
Wildcats to Drakesboro to perform in the high school
auditorium. The Wildcats had just signed a contract to
record for the Decca label and were playing a regular
program on WHAS in Louisville. Travis and a friend had
heard that the Wildcats’ lead guitarist, Hoyt “Slim” Bryant,
had an L-5 Gibson guitar and went down to the schoolhouse
to see it. McMichen and Bryant were friendly and obliging,
and allowed the 18-year old guitarist to try out Bryant’s
guitar. McMichen was impressed enough that when he
returned to Drakesboro a short time later, he promised to
send for Merle as soon as he found an opening in his band.
     Soon after, Travis was playing a radio job in Evansville
when he got a letter from his mother saying that there was
a telegram waiting for him from Clayton McMichen. Despite
the ravages of the 1937 floods, Travis hitched a ride on a
rescue boat to get home and read the telegram. It said for
him to meet the Wildcats in Columbus, Ohio in a month
for a job as the band’s new guitarist.
     During the 1920s, Clayton McMichen played fiddle with
Gid Tanner & his Skillet Lickers, one of early country
music’s most popular string bands. The Skillet Lickers
played old time fiddle tunes and hoedowns plus outrageous
skits such as the multipart series “A Corn Licker Still in
Georgia,” recorded for Columbia in the late 1920s and early
1930s. McMichen, however, was a trained musician whose
greatest desire was to play popular and jazz tunes. When
he formed the Georgia Wildcats, he not only utilized
hoedowns in their repertoire, but also songs such as
“Farewell Blues” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” On
March 1st, Merle Travis arrived in Columbus to join the
Wildcats, which at that time included fiddler Carl Cotner
(later to become Gene Autry’s musical director), guitarist
Blackie Case, and bassist Bucky Yates. The Wildcats played
a n h o u r- l o n g r a d i o p r o g r a m d u r i n g w h i c h Tr a v i s
(nicknamed “Ridgerunner”) would play one featured solo
on guitar.
     Although McMichen cut his first session for Decca in
July 1937, Travis was not present. By the time they
recorded again the following August, Travis had moved
on. It would have been most interesting to hear Travis as a
developing soloist during this time. He was maturing as a
performer, expanding his repertoire, and furthering the
Photo by David Gahr
                                                                 Merle Travis
                                                                 Photo courtesy of the Merle Travis Estate
Kentucky fingerpicking style he had learned from Mose
Rager and Ike Everly. In 1938, he joined another group,
the Drifting Pioneers, at WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio.
      The Pioneers was a pre-bluegrass string band that
included mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass. Walter
Brown was the emcee of the group and played mandolin.
His older brother Bill played bass. Morris “Sleepy” Marlin
was a champion fiddler and handled most of the vocals. In
his three years with the Pioneers, Travis learned much about
performing and expanded his repertoire, playing banjo and
guitar with the group. He learned gospel tunes and sang
bass in the group’s regular gospel quartet feature. He was
also featured as a solo performer and even helped out with
the group’s comedy routines. In those days, radio groups
would often supplement their income by traveling on local
circuits, playing a stage show that would include comedy
and skits in addition to music. The Pioneers was one of the
more adept at this variety, and their show was beamed
across the nation from WLW, billed as “The Nation’s
Station.” WLW was a 50,000 watt powerhouse with
affiliations with both of NBC’s networks (Red and Blue) as
well as with Mutual.
      After three years, the Drifting Pioneers began to break
up after the United States entered World War II. The Brown
brothers took factory jobs and Sleepy Marlin, a flier, taught
flying to recruits in the Air Force. Travis, in the meanwhile,
stayed at WLW. When WLW’s program director, George
Biggar, decided to start another gospel segment, Travis
teamed up with three WLW other staff members to form
the Brown’s Ferry Four.
     The other members of this group were the Delmore
Brothers (Alton and Rabon) and Louis Marshall “Grandpa”
Jones. The Alabama-born Delmores had been making
records since 1931. Their style was typical of brother acts
during the 1930s: close harmonies with guitar accom-
paniment, except the Delmores had a profound blues
influence in their music. Alton would play lead, usually
playing boogie-influenced picking on the bass strings while
Rabon provided the accompaniment on the higher four-
string tenor guitar. Alton Delmore had taught gospel singing
and with his help, Merle Travis learned how to read the
shape note notation in gospel hymnals. The name of the
group was the subject of some irony since it came from
the Delmore Brothers’ 1933 hit recording, “Brown’s Ferry
Blues,” a bawdy country blues, hardly the type of song
that could be associated with a straitlaced, god-fearing
gospel quartet. (Note the lyrics: Two old maids layin’ in
the sand, each one wishin’ that the other was a man.” But
the name stuck and the quartet had a popular program on
     In Alton Delmore, Merle Travis found a willing tutor,
who not only taught him to read shape note notation, but
spent many evenings talking to him about music and how
it was written, often until after midnight. Before long, Travis
was writing and arranging songs for another WLW group,
the Williams Brothers (which included an adolescent Andy
     In order to play a half-hour program of gospel tunes
on a continuing basis, Travis, the Delmores, and Jones
had to learn many songs that included not just gospel, but
also hymns and spirituals. In the black part of Cincinnati,
on Central Avenue, was a record store owned by a volatile,
cigar-chomping entrepreneur named Syd Nathan. The shop
advertised spiritual recordings and Travis and Grandpa
Jones would go down there often to listen to the records.
When Nathan found out that the two were performers on
WLW, he suggested that they make records of their own
for his new company called King Records. Since they were
under contract to WLW, Travis and Jones decided to record
for King under an assumed name, the Sheppard Brothers,
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
     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 vir tually 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
r ecorded 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

                                                               Photo by David Gahr
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
of an acoustic guitar. Bigsby’s creation was eventually
manufactured and marketed by guitar maker Leo Fender.
The design revolutionized the guitar industry.
     Another revolution that Merle Travis had a hand in was
multitrack recording. As the advent of recording tape came
into usage, replacing discs, it became possible to “bounce”
tracks from one machine to another. By utilizing the
machine’s different speeds, Travis was able to speed up
the sound of his guitar. It was first used on the 1946 Capitol
release of “Merle’s Boogie Woogie,” in which Travis took
blues couplets from a variety of sources (including one
that he lear ned from blues singer Leadbelly) and
interspersed them with eight-bar breaks of his “lightning
guitar” sound. Although used initially as a novelty,
multitrack multispeed recording techniques became
familiarly associated with Les Paul and Mary Ford, who
overdubbed voices and guitars, varied speeds, and created
unusual effects for dozens of recordings in the late 1940s
and early 1950s
     In 1953, Merle Travis was featured as a singing enlisted
man in the Academy Award-winning motion picture “From
Here to Eternity.” The song, “Re-enlistment Blues,” which
was written especially for the picture, was featured
throughout the film as a background musical motif. But in
one scene, Travis appeared, playing guitar and singing the
     For Merle Travis, the decade from 1945 to 1955 was
his most successful as a songwriter. His hit compositions
landed him appearances on radio and television shows
throughout the country. He became a regular, familiar
presence on Los Angeles programs like “Hometown
Jamboree” and “Town Hall Party.” His busy recording
career had him making dozens of bestselling discs for
Capitol Records in addition to working as a sideman for
Hank Thompson, Ernie Ford, and others. In 1955, Ford
recorded Travis’ “Sixteen Tons,” which had been included
on the 1946 “Folk Songs from the Hills” album. With a
new, sophisticated instrumental backing arranged by
musical director Jack Fascinato, Ford turned the wry lyrics
of the dreary existence of a coal miner into a finger-
snapping million seller. It brought Merle Travis new fame
and introduced his other songs to an even wider audience
than ever before.
     In addition, his heretofore revolutionary guitar style,
which had taken a back seat to his novelty vocal hits, now
began to be recognized as well. This started with the 1956
Capitol album, “The Merle Travis Guitar.” It is interesting
that in light of the fact that Travis had written and recorded
so many hit songs, from “No Vacancy” to “Three Times
Seven,” etc., that his first long-playing album would be
entirely instrumental. Country musicians were already
admirers of the “Travis style” of guitar playing, as it was
called even then. Now, with Ernie Ford’s recording of
“Sixteen Tons” zooming up the charts and breaking sales
records, Capitol decided to exploit Travis’ new-found fame
and test the market by releasing the instrumental album.
The record included five original Travis compositions, “
Blue Smoke,” “Walkin’ the Strings,” “Rockabye Rag,” Black
Diamond Blues,” and “Saturday Night Shuffle.” It also
showcased his expertise in mastering the style he learned
from Mose Rager and Ike Everly in songs like “Tuck Me To
Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” and “The Waltz You Saved
for Me.” The album has since become a primer for
fingerstyle guitar picking, and probably the most revered
instrumental album in country history.
     In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Merle Travis’ career
went on a downward spiral, due in part to the threat on
country music’s young fans by rock and roll and also by
Travis’ own personal problems with alcohol and pills. He
joined the Grand Ole Opry for a brief period and appeared
in a movie, “That Tennessee Beat.” During this period,
Travis continued recording for Capitol, but the hit songs
had ceased, and he eventually settled for the role of elder
statesman and idol for budding guitar players. With his good
friend Johnny Bond, he paid tribute to his old partners the
Delmore Brothers on a 1969 Capitol album. He participated
in several history-making album projects, including the
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1971 “Will the Circle be Unbroken,”
which honored Travis, Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl
Scruggs, and Doc Watson. He also teamed up for the first
time with Chet Atkins, who had patterned his own style
after Merle’s. Their 1975 album for RCA, “The Atkins-Travis
Traveling Show” won a Grammy for the two ranking legends
of country guitar, an honor that was followed two years
later by Travis’ election to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    Merle Travis’ declining years were spent in eastern
Oklahoma, where he moved in the late 1970s. He continued
touring, playing festivals and making television
appearances as well as making records for his friend Martin
Haerle’s Los Angeles-based CMH record label. In October
20, 1983, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of
    Merle Travis was country music’s Renaissance man.
His many talents seemed without end: guitarist, singer,
songwriter, actor, storyteller, journalist, historian, teacher,
cartoonist, and, as Chet Atkins once said, if that wasn’t
enough, he could also fix your watch.

                    CHET ATKINS

                                                                  Photo by David A. Wolfram

      In speaking about Chet Atkins, Merle Travis once told
journalist Mark Humphrey, “I don’t ever think that there
will ever be a chance for any other guitar player to be as
great as Chet. He was born at a time when turn-of-the-
century music, the songs of the 1920s and big bands were
still around and not laughed at. He knows it all, from that
music to commercial stuff to what was recorded this
afternoon in Nashville. He is the greatest guitar player that
has ever been on this earth, in my opinion. I don’t think
there will ever be anyone greater.” Strong words, coming

from a man who Chet Atkins idolized and tried to imitate
when he was living in Georgia in 1938. The two men share
many attributes in addition to their pioneering work on the
guitar. They were both unassuming and quiet, with sharp
senses of humor. They loved per forming with other
guitarists (including each other) and were generous in
imparting skills and techniques they had learned.
      They were also two of the most frustratingly modest
musicians one could ever meet. Where Travis would shake
his head while listening to one of his records and give an
“aw-shucks, t’weren’t nothin’” response, Atkins would
absolutely refuse to listen to anything he had ever recorded.
As early as in the liner notes to his first album, the 10"
collector’s item “Chet Atkins’ Gallopin’ Guitar,” issued in
1952 on RCA Victor, Atkins professed this reluctance for
self-analysis: “I don’t like any of my records, nor do I like
to hear them. It hurts me to hear them, I notice so many
little things I think I could have done better.” Remember
that this was in 1952, his recording career only just begun,
with over a hundred record albums to come during the next
45 years.
      Chester Burton Atkins was born on June 20, 1924 in
the small town of Luttrell, Tennessee, located in Union
County, about 20 miles northeast of Knoxville. As a child,
Chester’s interest in music was piqued by several
influences. His father was a music teacher who played old-
time fiddle, tuned pianos, and sang with gospel groups.
Chester’s older half-brother Jim was a guitarist who left
home when Chester was a boy to be a performer on radio.
Eventually, Jim would join Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians,
where he would meet guitar innovator Les Paul. Jim Atkins
would sing on records as a member of the Les Paul Trio in
      During the Depression, the Atkins clan had their own
family band with young Chester playing a fiddle brought
to him by an uncle. The fiddle bow had no hair on it so
Chester went out to his barn and “borrowed” some from
the tail of his horse, Ol’ Bob. Within two weeks, he had
learned a few tunes, including “Red Wing” and played it at
a dance. Eventually, he began to learn to play guitar, trading
a .32 caliber pistol for his first instrument. The guitar was
missing some strings, so Chester took some wire from an
old screen door and began practicing.
                                                                Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed
                                                                Photo courtesy of Chet Atkins
    The Atkins family suffered greatly during the
Depression. Farm life was difficult and luxuries were scarce.
Since his family did not own a radio or a record player,
Chester would learn music from anyone who came to their
house to perform or at his aunt’s house, where there was a
windup Victrola and 78s by such artists as Jimmie Rodgers
and Blind Lemon Jefferson. According to Atkins, friends
would come over to their house and bring a ukulele and
sing popular songs of the day, such as “My Blue Heaven”
and “Painting the House with Sunshine.” Atkins also
recalled favoring music by Jimmie Rodgers, the legendary
Blue Yodeler. Songs such as “Waiting for a Train” and “T
for Texas” became favorites. One of Atkins’ most vivid
memories involved a friend dropping some Jimmie Rodgers
78s on some railroad tracks, smashing them to
smithereens. Atkins mourned the loss since records were
so valued during the Depression by families who had little
other entertainment.
    While Atkins was still a boy, his father left home and
moved to Hampton, Georgia. His stepfather played guitar
as well, playing finger style. He used to fashion thumbpicks
from old toothbrush handles which he would whittle down
and shape into a pick. Chester also took occasional trips
to New York to visit his brother Jim and absorb everything
he could about playing guitar.
    Atkins suffered from asthma as a boy, and as a result,
his mother sent him to live with his father and stepmother
when he was eleven in hopes that the change in climate
would help his health. Life in Georgia was lonely for Chester,
and he turned more and more to the guitar for comfort. He
listened to the radio incessantly, and around 1938, picked
up a radio broadcast from WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio and
was knocked out by a guitar player he heard playing with
the Drifting Pioneers. The guitarist was Merle Travis.
     Merle Travis provided Chet Atkins with the style from
which he forged his own unique way of playing (Chet
honored his idol in later years by naming his daughter Merle
after him.). Initially trying to copy everything Travis played,
Atkins soon began incorporating other stylistic elements
of his other heroes, namely George Barnes, Les Paul, and
Django Reinhardt. One can hear all of these readily in one
of the first selections Atkins cut for RCA Victor in 1947, an
instrumental called “Bug Dance.” Atkins distinguished his
own style from that of Travis as follows: both styles
emphasize using the thumb (played with a pick) to provide
rhythm on the bass strings, and the forefinger to play the
melody on the treble strings. Atkins noted that Travis used
to play more on top of the beat and rush his tempo, which
made it more exciting, whereas his own style was more
similar to that of a stride piano, where the offbeat is
emphasized. Another difference is that although Travis
occasionally played tunes using his middle and ring finger;
the Travis style most often utilizes just two fingers. By
incorporating more than just Travis’ style into his own,
Atkins used complex fingerings and rhythms requiring all
of his fingers.
     When he was fifteen, Atkins got a job working for the
NYA (National Youth Administration), which was the
juvenile equivalent of the CCC. The NYA put teens to work
building gymnasiums, baseball diamonds, and whatever
was needed for school-age children. With the money he
earned, Atkins bought an amplifier and pickup from Allied
Radio in Chicago. He later called this a stupid idea because
the house where he had lived in Georgia didn’t have any
electricity. As a result, when Atkins’ father drove into
Columbus to teach classical music, Chester would go along,
taking his guitar with him. He’d stop at a church, plug in,
and practice all day until his father was ready to take him

Photo by David A. Wolfram
     In July, 1941, the seventeen-year-old Atkins got his
first job on the radio. It was on WRBL, a small 1200 watt
radio station in Columbus, Georgia. Chester would sing
hymns during a program hosted by a radio minister. He
remembered his first song as being “Where is My Wandering
Boy Tonight.”
     When World War II struck, Chester’s father went to
Cincinnati to work for a railroad. Chester quit high school
and moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. He moved back home
with his mother and stepfather and got a job playing fiddle
with comedian Archie Campbell and Bill Carlisle (of the
Carlisle Brothers) on WNOX. As soon as station manager
Lowell Blanchard heard Chester play guitar, he gave him
his own solo spot on the “Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round.”
(Another young performer on the program in 1943 was
singer Kitty Wells.)
     In 1945, Chester Atkins moved on to WLW, the station
where he had first heard his idol, Merle Travis (this coming
after he auditioned unsuccessfully for a position with Roy
Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys). Travis had moved to
California by then, but had returned to Cincinnati to visit
friends when he heard Atkins on the air. Travis was driving
in a snowstorm at the time, but when he heard Atkins play
guitar, he had to pull over to the side of the highway, so
astounded was he at the technique exhibited by his young
disciple. The two eventually met and Travis complemented
Atkins on his performance. Although closely bonded
because of their similar styles and respect for one another’s
playing, Travis and Atkins did not record together until
thirty years had passed from their first meeting.
     On Christmas Eve, 1945, Atkins was fired from his
job at WLW, thus beginning a nomadic existence hopping
from one radio station to the next that would last for five
years. It has been theorized that Chet failed to keep his
radio jobs because he was working mainly as a sideman
for other groups. His ambition and perfectionism apparently
did not sit well with his bandmates, and he never lasted
longer than a few months at any one station.
     In 1946, he worked on WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina
before he was fired. He then auditioned for Red Foley, then
a star on WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance. Foley was
preparing to accede to the exalted role of host of WSM
Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry,” and when he did, Atkins went
with him in his band. While in Nashville, he made his first
records for the tiny Bullet record label. Billed as “Chester
Atkins and his All Star Hillbillies,” he recorded an
instrumental called “Guitar Blues,” which showed not only
his Travis-influenced style, but an amazingly sophisticated
sound for one just 21 years old. Later that year, he quit the
Opry when an ad agency forced Red Foley to drop a solo
spot given to Atkins. He moved on to WRVA’s Old Dominion
Barn Dance and then to KWTO in Springfield, Missouri.
     Atkins’ next move was to Colorado, where he was
playing on KOA in Denver. Through booking agent Si
Siman (who was the first person to start calling him Chet),
RCA Victor’s Steve Sholes heard a transcription of Atkins
performing and tracked him down in Denver. Sholes was
looking for RCA’s answer to Capitol’s Merle Travis; a
fingerstyle guitar player who could also sing novelty songs.
Atkins was hired, beginning a career with RCA that would
last for 35 years. On his first session, on August 11, 1947,
Chet was surprised to see one of his idols, George Barnes,
playing rhythm guitar on his recording session. Chet always
loved living in Colorado, and in the state’s honor, named
his band the Colorado Mountain Boys.
     Chet’s success on records was slow in coming, and
the budding recording artist returned to Knoxville where
he teamed up with Homer (Henry Haynes) and Jethro
(Kenneth Burns). As the bumpkins-cum-parodists Homer
and Jethro, the duo were uproarious comedians, but when
they weren’t using their alter egos, they proved to be

  Photo by David A. Wolfram
extraordinarily talented musicians, with Haynes playing
Django Reinhardt-inspired rhythm guitar and Burns on
takeoff mandolin. Along with fiddler Dale Potter and steel
guitarist Jerry Byrd, Atkins, Haynes and Burns would form
the nucleus for the hot studio string band the Country All-
Stars, which would record for RCA Victor in the early 1950s.
     In addition to broadcasting with Homer and Jethro,
Chet Atkins also began an association with Maybelle Carter
and her three daughters, June, Helen, and Anita. In 1950,
Chet returned to the Grand Ole Opry, working as a sideman
for Hank Williams and the Louvin Brothers in addition to
cultivating his own reputation as a stand-out soloist. Two
years later, he became Steve Sholes’ assistant, supervising
recording sessions for many of RCA Victor’s country artists.
When Sholes and RCA practically stole Elvis Presley from
the Memphis-based Sun label, Atkins was promoted to head
RCA’s studios on 17th Avenue in Nashville. He became
director of A&R in 1960.
     It is at Chet Atkins’ feet that many people lay the credit
and/or the blame for the musical trend known as “The
Nashville Sound.” Typified by the removal of traditional
country instruments such as the fiddle and steel guitar and
replacing them with pianos, orchestras and background
vocals, Atkins sought to expand country music’s audience,
which was shrinking due to its appropriation by rock and
roll. In smoothing out the sound of country music, Atkins
accepted the responsibility, but in later years regretted his
decision. Still, without the Nashville Sound, artists such as
Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, and Eddy Arnold might never
have been as successful as they were. The success of the
Nashville Sound enabled country music to survive and
Atkins was rewarded by being promoted to vice-president
of RCA in 1968.
     As a recording artist, Chet Atkins became one of RCA
Victor’s most prolific and successful acts. His albums
transversed the music spectrum. From his first ten-inch
LP, “Chet Atkins’ Gallopin’ Guitar” (1954) on, Atkins
displayed an eclectic knowledge of songs ranging from
popular standards and jazz to movie music, show tunes,
and even classical melodies. Aware from the beginning that
he was no great singer, Atkins eliminated that part of his
performance and utilized his easygoing, laconic voice only
for effect, as when he sang duets or novelty songs.
     Over the years, some of Chet Atkins’ most acclaimed
records were his duets with other guitarists, including Hank
Snow, Jerry Reed, and Doc Watson. In addition, he finally
got to record with two of his idols, Merle Travis and Les
Paul. These recordings combined the vir tuosity and
distinctive styles of each artist with an often uproarious
sense of humor and spontaneity.
     After leaving RCA in 1982, Chet Atkins signed with
Columbia Records. His recording efforts had been curtailed
significantly because of his duties with RCA, but with
Columbia, he returned to his roots, awarded himself the
honorary degree of Certified Guitar Player (C.G.P.), and
recorded a series of well-received albums of stripped-down
guitar albums. Now celebrating his 50th year as a recording
artist, Chet Atkins continues as one of the most respected
and honored musicians in popular music. He was elected
to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. On the plaque,
it states that Chet Atkins is “a musician’s musician and a
gentleman’s gentleman.” But no title could be more
appropriate for Chet Atkins than the one pinned on him in
the 1950s: “Mister Guitar.”

                     DOC WATSON
                                                                    Photo by David Gahr

      If not for the investigations of two traveling folklorists,
it is possible that Doc Watson would have spent the rest of
his life playing guitar and singing in the towns of the
southern Appalachian Mountains. But since 1960, Watson
has become a walking museum of songs and styles from
the earliest days of Anglo-American folk song. Part of his
fame is due to his ability to adapt with the times without
submitting to compromising his style or his sensibilities. A
good example is his 1995 Sugar Hill CD, “Docabilly,” in
which Watson adapts his flatpicking guitar to rockabilly
classics such as “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and “Bird Dog.”
Recognizing the fact that no music exists today in a
vacuum, Doc Watson has allowed himself to be influenced
by the changing musical landscape, much as Chet Atkins
did, with each influence enhancing rather than detracting
from his own personal style.
     Arthel “Doc” Watson was born on March 23, 1923 in
Stoney Fork, North Carolina. When he was an infant, he
was blinded by an eye disease. As with many similarly
afflicted people, this only sharpened his keen ear, and Doc
showed a musical aptitude at an early age. The Watson
household always seemed to have music playing. Doc’s
father, General Dixon Watson, played banjo and jaw harp
and was also a song leader in church. When Doc was six
or seven, his father acquired a phonograph and a supply
of hillbilly 78s. Doc was exposed to records in both black
and white tradition, favoring records by Jimmie Rodgers,
The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Hutchison,
the Delmore Brothers, and Buell Kazee, among others. The
exposur e to commercial phonograph records only
enhanced Doc’s sense of Appalachian folk song tradition;
he would apply this sound to the new ones he heard on
     Doc’s first instrument was a homemade fretless banjo
with a head made from the hide of his grandmother’s old
cat. At thirteen, he got his first guitar, a Stella his father
purchased for twelve dollars. His performing began a few
years later when he teamed up with his brother Linny as a
duo. In 1940, he acquired a Martin D-28 and started singing
on the streets of Lenore, South Carolina. He also played
occasional fiddlers’ conventions and contests. When he
married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947, he found a mentor of
inestimable influence, Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton.
An accomplished old-time fiddler, Carlton introduced Doc
to many traditional mountain tunes and folk songs that
helped Doc expand his repertoire even further.
                                                                Fred Price, Clint Howard & Doc Watson
                                                                Photo by David Gahr
     By 1953, Doc had improved enough that he was able
to play music professionally. He performed with a number
of groups in towns such as Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport,
and Blowing Rock. The music he per formed was
contemporary country music, the hit songs performed on
the radio by the likes of Carl Smith, Hank Williams, and
Kitty Wells. He learned many different styles on guitar, from
the rapid-fire flatpicking of Alton Delmore to the thumbpick
and finger style of Merle Travis.
     In September, 1960, folklorists Ralph Rinzler and
Eugene Earle, searching for folk musicians to record in
the Blue Ridge Mountains, heard about Doc Watson through
Clarence Tom Ashley, an old-time fiddler who had made
records in the 1920s and 1930s When they finally met
Watson at his home, Doc was holding a 1950s model Gold
Top Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in his hands. Not exactly
what you would expect from a mountain-style guitarist,
but in short order, the folklorists found that they had
discovered a musician who was not only uncommonly
talented, but who was also a repository of American folk
music. Encouraged by Rinzler and Earle, Watson returned
to his roots, and joined Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred
Price to form a group for recording and for live
performances. At the height of the urban folk music revival,
Doc Watson instantaneously became an icon for the new
school rediscovering America’s musical roots.
     Doc Watson’s first albums were recorded for Folkways
and included both the Ashley group as well as members of
his family. By the end of 1962, he was appearing at the
noted Greenwich Village club, Gerde’s Folk City. A year
later, he was presented in a double bill with Bill Monroe
and his Bluegrass Boys at New York’s Town Hall. Watson’s
successful appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963
earned him a record deal with Vanguard, where he recorded
a series of highly popular albums during the 1960s.
     In 1964, Doc was joined on his records by his 15-year-
old son, Merle. Born Eddy Merle Watson, Doc’s only son
was named for Eddy Arnold, the Tennessee Plowboy, and
one of Doc’s idols, the legendary Merle Travis. Merle Watson
proved to be an accomplished guitarist, a quick learner,
and his father’s accompanist, road manager, and chauffeur.
He also added the slide guitar to his musical arsenal,
becoming proficient in many styles, from Hawaiian to
bluegrass to Western swing.
     Doc Watson’s recordings and concert appearances
encompass an astounding diversity of music history and
styles. From ancient fiddle tunes translated to his crisp
flatpicking guitar (“Double File & Salt Creek”) to rousing
blues (“You Don’t Know My Mind”), Jimmie Rodgers tunes
(“In the Jailhouse Now”), and Gershwin (“Summertime”),
there seemed to be no kind of American music Doc Watson
couldn’t play. His voice: warm, rich, and expressive was
capable of exquisite emotion, especially on Jimmie
Rodgers ballads such as “Miss the Mississippi and You”
and “Treasures Untold.”

 Doc & Merle Watson                     Photo courtesy of Doc Watson
     Even after over thirty years of performing before the
public, Doc has changed little since 1960. He still sits
straight up against the microphone, mouth harp at the
ready, guitar poised perpendicular to his body. One doesn’t
see much emotion in his face or in his playing, but it can
be heard in his voice and in his guitar.
     A tragedy of monumental proportions occurred in 1985
when Merle Watson was killed in a tractor accident at his
North Carolina home. He was only 36. Merle had been
destined to be his father’s successor, the one to carry on
the musical tradition represented by three preceding
generations of Watson family musicians. But despite the
devastating loss of his only son, Doc Watson could no more
cease playing music than he could draw a breath, and he
has continued to this day, although he curtailed his touring
when he reached his 1970s
     Doc Watson has never had a commercial hit in the
music business, but his records have sold steadily and his
concert performances have been consistently attended and
enthusiastically received. If he had had even one hit on
the country charts, he would have been a shoo-in for the
Country Music Hall of Fame, as were his predecessors,
Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. But Doc Watson’s influence
on country and folk music styles is no less important than
those of Travis and Atkins and he continues in his role as a
living monument to American folk music.

 Doc & Merle Watson with T. Michael Coleman
              THE PERFORMANCES

                                                                  Chet Atkins, Merle Travis & Mose Rager
                                                                  Photo courtesy of Mose Rager Estate
     Legends of Country Guitar includes selected live
performances, both in concert settings as well as informal
ones by the four guitarists profiled above. Since Mose Rager
made few public appearances, film of him performing the
classic “Muhlenberg Sound” on guitar are scarce. One
illuminating segment leads off our retrospective featuring
Rager, in prime form, playing Merle Travis’ “I Am A Pilgrim.”
The mild-mannered interviewer who is comfortably seated
in the chair next to Rager is none other than D.K. Wilgus
(1918-1989), one of the century’s preeminent folklorists
and a champion of old-time music. A performer himself,
Wilgus hailed from West Mansfield Ohio, and while a student
on the campus of Ohio State University in 1936, became
one of the nation’s first campus folksingers, playing hillbilly
and folk tunes. Wilgus would found the Kentucky Folklore
Record in 1955 and later became a professor of folklore at
UCLA, where he inaugurated the UCLA Folk Festival. He
asks Rager about where he learned the thumb-and-finger
style of playing guitar and Rager speaks of another
Muhlenberg County guitarist named Levi Foster, who lived
in the town of Depoy. Foster, who was a black man, played
the style without a thumbpick. According to Charles Wolfe
                                                                  Photo by David A. Wolfram
in his book “Kentucky Country” (Lexington: University of
Kentucky Press, 1982, p. 110), Foster “played in an open
tuning and experimented with sliding a knife up and down
his strings to get a steel guitar effect.”
     The segments featuring Chet Atkins are drawn from
two sources: the syndicated television programs “Pop Goes
the Country” and PBS’ “Austin City Limits.” In Atkins’
hands, Scott Joplin’s rag, “The Entertainer,” made famous
by Marvin Hamlisch in the 1973 motion picture “The Sting,”
is played softly and gently, totally unlike the sprightly piano
version. Chet hunches lovingly over his guitar, watching
his fingers work the strings as if they belonged to someone
else. It’s a beautiful performance that emphasizes the
sweetness of the melody as opposed to the walking ragtime
rhythm inherent in the genre. The accompanist is Paul
Yandell. (The viewer is asked to ignore Chet’s garishly wide-
lapeled polka-dot shirt. This is, after all, the 1970s.)
     Next comes a duet with one of Chet Atkins’ favorite
pickin’ par tners, the irrepressible Jerr y Reed. The
chemistry between these two Merle Travis disciples is
delicious to watch: Atkins craning his head to watch Reed
play and Reed laughing, joking, and mugging while picking
with all five fingers. Theirs is clearly a symbiotic
relationship. The normally taciturn Atkins is ignited by
Reed’s exhortations to “do it, son!” and Reed seems to
amaze himself with his furious, lightning-fast picking. The
song is a Reed original, entitled “Jerry’s Breakdown,” which
appears on the pair’s 1972 duet album, “Me and Chet”
(RCA LSP-4707).
     Chet Atkins has always had a soft spot for the music
of the Beatles; his album “Chet Atkins Picks on the Beatles”
(RCA Victor LSP-3531) was issued in 1966. In interviews,
Chet prides himself in giving the public something different
in his performances; the compositions of Paul McCartney
and John Lennon, with their melodic and chordal
complexity, certainly satisfies that credo. Atkins performs
a medley of three Beatles tunes: “For No One,”
“Something,” and “Lady Madonna.”
     Merle Travis can be given partial credit for translating
the fiddle tune “Black Mountain Rag” to the guitar. Here,
Chet Atkins plays it with as much gentility as a rag can be
     Written in 1965 by the Cree Indian/activist Buffy
Sainte-Marie, “Until It’s Time for You to Go” is given a lyrical
treatment by Atkins, who is backed this time by a small
     Cy Coben was a Nashville-based songwriter who often
wrote witty, clever tunes. His 1953 song, “Eddy’s Tune,”
was written for Eddy Arnold and consisted chiefly of song
titles of many of his previous hits. Coben’s 1967 “Chet’s
Tune,” with artist credit to “Some of Chet Friends” is a

 Merle Travis & Jerry Reed           Photo courtesy of the Merle Travis Estate
tribute to Atkins by 21 RCA Victor country artists, with
each line delivered by one performer. “This String,” which
names and defines each of the six strings on a guitar, is
custom-written for Atkins’ laconic, lazy, half-spoken, half-
sung delivery. Chet never fancied himself much of a singer,
which is OK, because his all-too infrequent vocals are thus
entirely natural and unpretentious. Some of the melodies
Chet incorporates into the song include “El Rancho
Grande,” “Grandfather’s Clock,” and, as a coda, “Yakety
      Chet Atkins has always been fond of pretty melodies
such as Percy Wenrich’s “Rainbow,” written in 1908. Here
he plays an acoustic version of the song, which has also
become a staple in fiddlers’ repertoires.
      Atkins was never as exciting as Doc Watson or Merle
Travis as a guitarist, but he was clearly smoother in his
performances. In many instances, such as the performance
of Bill and Earl Bolick’s (The Blue Sky Boys) “Kentucky,”
his style resembles that of a classical rather than a country
guitarist, as evidenced by the variation of dynamics and
even his physical posture in playing the instrument.
      One of Merle Travis’s biggest fans is his son Thom
Bresh. Born in Hollywood, California, Bresh began playing
guitar and acting when he was seven. He performed with
Hank Penny in the early 1960s. In addition to copying
Travis’s guitar style, Bresh also does a fair vocal impression
of his father (his version of “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! That
Cigarette” made the country charts in 1978). “Nashville
Swing” was a Canadian-based variety show that Bresh
hosted. The 1979 appearance by Merle Travis was a
highlight for him. The show was loose and freewheeling,
with Bresh keeping up with his dad on every song. On the
first track, we see Travis and Bresh trading licks and lyrics
in a medley of Travis’s hit songs that includes “Nine Pound
Hammer,” “Fat Gal,” “Sweet Temptation,” “So Round, So
Firm, So Fully Packed,” “Divorce Me, C.O.D.,” and “16
      The second song is “Mutual Admiration,” a tune that
Travis recorded with Chet Atkins on their landmark LP, “The
Atkins-Travis Traveling Show.” It was written by cartoonist/
cum country songwriter Shel Silverstein, who penned the
s o n g i n t h e t a lki ng b l u es trad i ti o n that m ade h i s
composition “A Boy Named Sue” a smash for a guy named
                                                                 Photo by Peter Figen
Cash. “Mutual Admiration” sums up the good-natured
relationship between Travis and Bresh.
    The segments featuring Doc Watson are from an
appearance on Iowa Public Television in 1987. Watson is
joined by bassist T. Michael Coleman and guitarist Jeff
Alexander, replacing the late Merle Watson, who had died
two years earlier. In the first song, the Delmore Brothers’
“Freight Train Boogie,” Watson picks in the rapid-fire flat
picking style of Alton Delmore. The art of playing guitar
and harmonica simultaneously is not an easy one, and as
a result, has not been mastered by many artists. Doc
learned it by listening to recording artists such as Bill Cox,
who made records for the ARC (American Record
Corporation) labels in the 1930s.
    “I Don’t Love Nobody” is a traditional fiddle tune that
was given lyrics in the 1930s, becoming “She’s Killing Me,”
performed by Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys and other
western swing groups. Doc Watson played a lot of fiddle
tunes on the guitar such as this one; there is some great
close-up work of Doc’s left hand in action.
    On John D. Loudermilk’s “Windy and Warm,” Doc puts
on the thumb pick and does a little Travis picking. After
“Travelin’ Man,” Doc introduces Roy Acuff’s “Streamlined
                                                                   Mose Rager
                                                                   Photo courtesy of the Mose Rager Estate
Cannonball,” mentioning lighthear tedly the inappro-
priateness of Acuff’s original waltz-time version (“a train
doesn’t waltz down the tracks, it moves”). He then zips
into a driving flatpicking version of the tune.
     Returning momentarily to Mose Rager, we find the
Kentucky guitarist retired and looking as if more time had
passed than just thirteen years since the footage that opens
this tape. The segment is taken from a 1975 documentary
on the Everly Brothers, who returned to Drakesboro to visit
with Rager, an old friend of their late father, Ike. Rager plays
the old Bessie Smith floodwater lament, “Back Water
Blues,” and then “Cannonball Rag.”
     The final segment is some home video footage of a
relaxed Merle Travis playing “Muskrat” (from the “Folk
Songs from the Hills” album), “Dapper Dan,” a chestnut
written by Tin Pan Alley composers Albert Von Tilzer and
Lew Brown and recorded by Travis in 1948, and “Guitar
Rag,” which Travis wrote in honor of his idol, Mose Rager.
In retrospect, the song is also autobiographical, since Merle
Travis became almost single-handedly responsible for
spreading the infectious, rhythmic music from Muhlenberg
County, Kentucky to the rest of the world.
     And finally, a bit of foolishness on the farm from Merle
Travis - a smashing way to end this retrospective on country
guitar pickin’.

              Mose Rager

                                                                                           Mose Rager
               I Am A Pilgrim   (1962)
              Chet Atkins
               The Entertainer (1975)
               Jerry's Breakdown (1975)
               Beatles’ Medley: For No
                 One, Something,
                 Lady Madonna (1977)
               Black Mountain Rag (1978)
               This String (1979)
               Rainbows (1980)
               Kentucky (1987)
               Until It's Time For
                 You To Go (1978)
              Merle Travis
               Medley: Nine Pound
                Hammer, Fat Gal,
                Sweet Temptation,
                So Round, So Firm, So

                                                                                          Doc Watson Photo by Axel Kustner
                Fully Packed, Divorce Me,
                C.O.D. & 16 Tons (1979)
               Mutual Admiration (1979)
              Doc Watson
               Freight Train Boogie (1987)
               I Don't Love Nobody (1987)
               Windy And Warm (1987)
               Streamline Train (1987)
               Travellin' Man (1987)
              Mose Rager
               Backwater Blues (1984)
               Cannonball Rag (1984)
              Merle Travis
               Mus'krat (1981)
               Dapper Dan From Dixieland        (1981)
               Guitar Rag (1981)                   Vestapol 13070
                                                     Running Time: 58 minutes
                                                           Color and B&W
                                             Nationally distributed by Rounder Records,
                                              One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140
                                                 Representation to Music Stores by
                                                        Mel Bay Publications
                                                   ® 2002 Vestapol Productions
                                                             A division of
                                              Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop Inc.
                                             ISBN: 1-57940-924-5
Chet Atkins

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