Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Merle Travis

  • The Best of Merle Travis [Rhino, 1990] A
  • The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation (1946-1953) [Razor & Tie, 2000] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of Merle Travis [Rhino, 1990]
The Kentucky emigre fronted a California band like no other--Western swing gone honky tonk, with trumpet and accordion--and showed Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore how to play guitar. Which is fine for aesthetes--me, I listen to country music for singers and songs, in this case songs. Writing for money, Travis was a man of his class in the homeless "No Vacancy," the now-traditional "Dark as a Dungeon," From Here to Eternity's "Re-Enlistment Blues," and, oh yeah, "Sixteen Tons." He was a man of his gender in the endlessly clever "So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed," "I Like My Chicken Fryin' Size," and on and on. And he was a font of Inspirational Verse. Try "Cincinnati Lou" ("She's got a way of rollin' them eyes/Makes me think of paradise/And I don't mean heaven just a plain old pair o' dice") or "Fat Gal" ("Warm in the winter, shady in the summertime," and also "If things get rough and times get hard/I'll render my gal and sell the lard") or "Lawdy, What a Gal" ("You keep your eyes wide open/Every time I'm kissin' you/The reason that I know you do/Is I keep them open too"). Try just about anything. A

The Best of Merle Travis: Sweet Temptation (1946-1953) [Razor & Tie, 2000]
The two Jimmie Rodgers songs this adds to the Rhino 18-track it supplants are superfluous. He was a fine guitarist, but as a vocalist he wrote novelty songs--so novel they often had class consciousness, like "Sixteen Tons," which Tennessee Ernie Ford owned as soon as he put his tonsils on it. I miss "I Like My Chicken Frying Size," which exemplifies Travis's gustatory candor about human relationships. But then there's the newly added "Kentucky Means Paradise," which does the same for his gustatory candor about food: "You take a chicken and you kill it/And you put him in a skillet." Not many would mention the killing part, or change "it" to the more intimate "him" without flinching. Bet Merle liked his eggs really fresh. A-