Pickin’ paragons: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Mississippi John Hurt

Pickin’: v. vernacular for plucking or strumming a folk instrument, like a guitar, banjo or mandolin.

Paragon: n. a model of excellence or perfection

— From the pathetic (John Thain and Rod Blagojevich) to the pinnacle —

Last night I fell into the YouTube rabbit hole and got lost for a couple of hours in music videos. It’s one thing to hear a recording, but it’s ever so much better when you can also see the musician or musicians actually create the sounds. Live music beats all, but some videos do a pretty good job of bringing the music to life.

Anyway, eventually I found myself watching my guitar-pickin’ hero Merle Travis. Travis managed to make the guitar sound like two instruments in one – one playing bass and the other a jazzy treble melody – kind of like a hillbilly version of  the stride piano style of James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.  His finger-style pickin’ has been imitated ever since – the apotheosis perhaps being Chet Atkins. Other well known Travis heirs are Jerry Reed, Doc Watson (whose named his first son Merle), Tommy Emmanuel, Mark Knopfler, the late great French picker Marcel Dadi, and Pat Donahue of Praire Home Companion fame.

Here are some Travis clips going back to the 1940s assembled by his son Thom Bresh (note misspelling of IMATATORS):

This duet with Chet and Jerry Reed totally knocks me out:

YouTube being what it is, that song led me to two guys playing the same Jerry Reed tune on ONE guitar, nicely demonstrating how the Travis technique really does separate into bass and treble:

Travis came from the coal-mining region of Kentucky. My other early pickin’ hero comes from the Piedmont region of Mississippi.  Mississippi John Hurt’s style is simpler but the beat is irresistible.  Here he is in the early 60s interviewed by Pete Seeger. He gets going about 2 minutes in, playing Spike Driver Blues:

Maybe another day I’ll share my fiddlin’ heroes. Another rabbit hole.

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2 responses to “Pickin’ paragons: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Mississippi John Hurt

  1. A delightful interlude – must get my son to see these. He’s doing similar things with his guitar but needs to realise that not only rock musicians have talent.

  2. No kidding. I was steeped in bluegrass music after college and some of those pickers and fiddlers were as technically skillful as any classical virtuoso.

    They practiced for hours every day, which is what it takes, no matter the genre.