Deke Dickerson

Making Merle’s Memoir
Deke Dickerson
Deke Dickerson photo courtesy of D. Dickerson.

From the day he first picked up a guitar at 13, Deke Dickerson honed in on guitarists like Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup, and Duane Eddy. His fancy expanded thanks to garage-sale vinyl.

“I discovered country and blues albums that really hit me – Jimmy Bryant and Freddie King opened my narrow world view,” he chuckled. But his mind was truly blown the day he crossed paths with The Merle Travis Guitar.

“It was a master class in fingerstyle; guitar has never been played with that much soul and expertise,” he said. “It’s one of the top five guitar albums ever recorded.”

It also set the stage for events decades later, when he began writing the newly released biography, Sixteen Tons: The Merle Travis Story. We asked him how it came together.

What about Merle’s playing made the biggest impression on you?
The soul and humor in it. There were elements of blues, hillbilly, jazz, pop, and old standards. You could tell he had been a huge influence on players like Scotty Moore.

What were the first steps toward the book?
Merle’s two living daughters, Merlene and Cindy, both live near me in Southern California, and I began to run into them at events. I’d been thinking about writing a proper Merle biography, so I started talking to them about it.

Were they receptive?
They’ve long thought there should be a Merle movie, and I told them the best way to make that happen was a proper biography. They’ve been super helpful.

They had Merle’s belongings in storage…
Yeah, it was like King Tut’s tomb. There was a ton of stuff. Cindy organized it and discovered 100 pages of autobiographical writings. We took that to BMG Books along with some background I’d written, and Scott Bomar agreed it was an important project.

Why had you considered writing a full bio?
It bothered me that Travis didn’t have a book. There’s one on virtually every other member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and he did so many things – perfected a guitar style, invented important guitar innovations, wrote hit songs, etc. He was the most-eloquent country-music star in history – he was a great narrative writer, cartoonist, and storyteller. It made no sense that he didn’t have a biography. He made attempts at an autobiography in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but never came close to finishing. There were random chapters and stories, but nothing went past 1955. It was great, but woefully incomplete.

What sort of “Merleabilia” did you gather?
In the storage unit were guitars like the Gibson L-10 used on his earliest records and his Bigsby steel guitar. There were stage outfits, boots, thousands of photos, letters, posters, scraps of paper…

One of the challenges was figuring out where it all belonged. Every scrap of paper took on great meaning once I realized Merle had saved it for a reason. I had a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Biographies involve a lot of talking, usually some travel…
I made trips all over the country to interview people, scan photos, and see guitars and amps. I spent three days interviewing Merle’s son, Thom Bresh, in Nashville, and several days with his ex-stepson in the Nevada desert. I drove to the wilds of Arkansas to track down a 1948 photo of Merle and his girlfriend, cornet player Ginny Cushman, because it showed Merle’s Bigsby guitar when it had its first headstock and before it had a cutaway. I interviewed Merle’s best friend, Jack Rogers, in Ohio. I spent a week in Kentucky, meeting folks who knew him. I interviewed more than 70 people.

Which other high-profile players are part of it?
I talked to Jimmy Capps, the Grand Ole Opry guitarist who played with the Louvin Brothers in the ’50s, and Larry Collins, who spent a lot of time with Merle on the “Town Hall Party” TV show in the ’50s. Chris Hillman, from the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, told me about seeing Merle on TV when he was a child, and how influential “Sixteen Tons” was to kids in the ’50s. John McEuen, from Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, worked with Merle in the ’70s on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Thom had the best quotes, though, because he spent so much time around Merle. He’d tell me things Merle had told him, and could sound just like his dad! Thom’s passing a few months before the book was released really broke my heart.

How did your appreciation for Merle deepen?
After speaking with guys like Hillman, David Lindley, and McEuen, and hearing a story about Bob Dylan being a Merle fan, I realized that all of the ’60s folk and folk-rock artists had first been exposed to that type of music by the mainstream success of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s 1955 cover of “Sixteen Tons.” It was the #1 song that year, and the first mainstream hit about the struggles of working-class people. You don’t realize how that can influence children to create music as they get older. Every one of the folk and country-rock guys talked about hearing it when they were six or seven years old.

What was your biggest takeaway?
Merle’s list of achievements. He performed at a genius level and people loved him for that. But he also fought alcoholism, which probably masked bipolar disorder or manic depression. The fact he achieved so much despite his addiction was nothing short of incredible. Merle led nine lives, and each was fascinating.

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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