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"Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story" Highlights Country Star's Journey from West KY to International Fame

Deke Dickerson's "Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story," available now, highlights the country star's journey from western Kentucky to international fame.
Deke Dickerson
Deke Dickerson's "Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story," available now, highlights the country star's journey from western Kentucky to international fame.

Missouri-born musician, writer, and lover of American roots music Deke Dickerson has just released a new biography on Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis, titled Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story. Dickerson spoke with WKMS News Director Derek Operle about the book, Travis' western Kentucky roots, and his lasting impact on the musical world.

After noticing a lack of available biographical material on Merle Travis, Dickerson decided to write his own. He sought the help of two of Travis' daughters, who gave Dickerson access to a storage unit full of the country star's belongings, including 80 to 100 pages of autobiographical material. With this, he created his semi-autobiographical, semi-biographical account of the musician.

"I'm a country boy myself," Dickerson says. "And I know that country people in Kentucky will relate to this. There are two different kinds of people when it comes to songwriting. There are the kind of people that work on it like a college project, maybe one line at a time; it'll take them a couple of months. But Travis was one of those natural-born talents. He had this stuff coming out of the pores of his skin."

"What's funny," Dickerson continues, "is 16 Tons, which is his biggest hit that he ever wrote, came to him and he wrote it down in a matter of minutes. He'd had a deadline to write some folk songs because the guy at Capitol Records wanted him to record a collection of folk songs. He put it off until the last minute, but then this thing that he dashed off in probably less than half an hour ended up being recorded by hundreds and hundreds of people. He had this natural-born talent that would flow very freely out of him."

This talent, Dickerson explains, was also heavily influenced by the fingerpicking traditions of Muhlenberg County, which he says "became the ground zero for this very advanced style of fingerpicking that they called thumb picking. There were several guys that preceded Merle, guys like Mose Rager, Ike Everly...there was an African American artist named Arnold Schultz who predated all of them that may have been the guy that brought in all these jazz chords and things to the Muhlenberg County guitar style."

"The thing that Merle did was kind of an accident, but he wound up exposing this style of guitar to the whole world. He moved to Hollywood right after WWII, and this was the time when country music was exploding," Dickerson says. "All of a sudden, you've got Merle Travis playing this Muhlenberg Country guitar style for the whole world to hear. Merle Travis was the guy who really brought that style to the world."

Travis' music carried more than technical and harmonic influence, too. His songs like 16 Tons and Dark as a Dungeon shed a light on the inhumane working conditions of the Kentucky coal mines. "The United Mine Workers, they loved Merle. When I was going through all the memorabilia, there were dozens of articles over the years where they would do these features on Merle and how much awareness he bought to working conditioning in the mine."

"People in Kentucky will really like this book because it's such a big chapter of Kentucky music. Another thing I should point out is Muhlenberg County is just one county over from where Bill Monroe is from. You've got these two huge parts of the American music legacy that came from this small amount of land in western Kentucky."

Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story is available at most major retailers, including Amazon. You can learn more about the book and its author by visiting Deke Dickerson's website.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
Melanie Davis-McAfee graduated from Murray State University in 2018 with a BA in Music Business. She has been working for WKMS as a Music and Operations Assistant since 2017. Melanie hosts the late-night alternative show Alien Lanes, Fridays at 11 pm with co-host Tim Peyton. She also produces Rick Nance's Kitchen Sink and Datebook and writes Sounds Good stories for the web.