Album: Folk Songs of the Hills
Artist: Merle Travis
Genre: Country Folk
Merle Travis was an excellent guitar player. Even though exactly half of the songs on Folk Songs of the Hills are traditional Appalachian ballads, Travis brings them to life with his inventive melodies. He seamlessly intertwines elements of folk, blues, country, ragtime and swing, and every song is filled with catchy hooks and strong production.
Throughout this proto-concept album of railroad songs and coal mining tales, Travis interjects Gospel-tinged verses with biographical spoken word. The overall effect is a little splintered, but each song contains enough musical charisma to mask the staggered structure. For example, just as “Nine Pound Hammer” finishes up its first verse, the music stops for Travis to tell a brief story about Eastern Kentucky coal miners. Even though these brief interludes throughout the album add authenticity to the tunes, we mainly just want to hear the tunes.
Folk Songs of the Hills is a pleasant listen and a good history lesson. Travis is indebted to his heroes and pays homage to the family members and Muhlenberg County townsfolk that came before, but he also knows that he’s lucky enough to have never owed his soul to the company store. As much as the album is a celebration of bygone generations, these folk songs are also recorded with a twinge of tragedy. “John Henry” isn’t just a mythological American figure; rather, he’s a victim of a broken system that no amount of railroad spikes can fix.
Fans of Travis will undoubtedly enjoy this early document of folk music history. So too will folk music historians. It might not be as emotional or detailed as Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads or as raw as Lead Belly’s Work Songs of the U.S.A., but Folk Songs of the Hills is still an entertaining collection featuring some of the best guitar playing of the 1940s. If it wasn’t for the distracting spoken word intervals, the grade would’ve been much higher.