I SAW BY HIS OUTFIT
THAT HE WAS A COWBOY
Wherein one poke from Muhlenberg
County, Ky. carouses with a
picker from his homestate.
By MERLE TRAVIS
I was over twenty-one. In fact, I was almost twenty-four. I could go,
legally, to the Old Vienna room in Cincinnati's Netherland Plaza Hotel.
I just hoped they wouldn't embarass me by asking for my identification,
as they usually did in those days, so I went alone. I wanted to see
what Gene Austin looked like. I'd heard him on talking machine records
back when I was young. Ten years ago.
Three young fellers, in fact, were playing along with Austin. A boy
with a mandolin, a bass player and the kid with the guitar.
"We gonna pee on th' fire and turn th' dogs 'loose," Gene
Austin would say, chuckling, "and we gonna turn Roy Lanham and
his Diddlin" Duo 'loose on this ol' gut-bucket, hooked-joint blues
that I wrote back when I needed money..."
Roy Lanham, as he called him, with a little confused expression would
look at his fingers, his eyebrows tilted in a sad slant, like Fred Lasswell's
mountaineer cartoon, Snuffy Smith. His guitar would whine, grumble,
complain and snort as Roy would push the B string halfway under the
A bass to get a bluesy effect. Then he'd stick the flat pick between
his teeth and start grabbing four-string chords played with his thumb
and three fingers. There were four young men at the radio station where
I worked who called themselves the Four Modernaires, who left and went
with a band leader called Glen Miller. Roy's four-string chords sounded
like their four-way singing.
I stayed until closing time. I wanted to meet that Boy. He wasn't a
big guy, but looked sharp as a tack in his tux. His hair was almost
black and slightly wavy. Under his nose was a well trimmed little black
mustache. I figured him out before I went up to talk to him. I just
knew he was a boy from some eastern city, like New York or Philadelphia,
who'd figure me to be a cornball because of my Kentucky coal country
accent. He'd probably talk fancy and have no time for the likes of me.
But I walked up anyway.
"Roy Lanham, my name's Merle Travis, "I stated, Offering
to shake hands. "I play on the radio station here. You sure play
that guitar great."
"Well, dad-blamed, buddy, much oblige'!" he said in a lower
register voice, and spouting an unmistakable East Kentucky dialect,
"That's awful good of you to say that. Where "bouts are you
"I'm from Muhlenburg County Kentucky," I told him. "Me
Too!" said Roy then catching his mistake, "not from there...
I'm from Corbin... Corbin, that's in Kentucky too. East Kentucky."
Many years later that same remark was to get us into a strange predicament,
which is one of the ten thousand fun stories that seem to hang around
waiting for Roy Lanham to make them happen.
I had conidered Roy one of my best friends long before he came to California
for a visit after this world of ours had got into a knock-down drag-out
war for the second time. He had never been that far from kentucky before.
"How fer is it from here to Mexico?" he asked one day when
the southern California sun smiled down from a blue sky that hadn't
yet been introduced to smog. I told him it was a little more than a
"Dad-blame! I'd sure like to go down there," he said with
a slight hint in his voice. "I ain't never been to no foreign country."
"Well, we'll just get Jack to go with us and take a run down to
Mexico," I said, referring to our longtime mutual friend, singer-picker
Jack Rogers, a country boy from Ohio. Roy saw a lot of things of interest
on the way to the Mexican border, just below San Diego. Of the smooth,
rolling hills he said, "Now was them hills born naked, or did somebody
cut off all the timber?" Me and Jack didn't have an answer.
At the Mexican border we were asked the usual questions by the officials.
We wouldn't be staying long. No, we wouldn't be selling the car and
so on. Roy looked a little uneasy. "Fellers with badges shinin'
and guns on make me nervous," he confided as we entered Mexico.
In Tijuana, as in all border towns, things were completely different.
Rattling taxi cabs clanked about on dusty streets, the drivers yelling
at each other in Spanish, stores with the whole front open displayed
such wares as hand-tooled leather belts and purses, there were rings,
rugs and hundreds of cheap guitars. Roy Lanham was amazed. "Just
think, here I am in a foreign country!"
Then came the time to go back across the border. Going out is always
a little more tricky than coming in. If the border patrol has the least
bit of suspicion that you might have something you wouldn't like for
them to know about, like some bennies taped under the dashboard, or
maybe some grass wrapped in toilet paper in the hub caps, you'll be
When we pulled up the stern-faced man with the badge strolled to our
car looking very grim. Jack was driving, I sat in the middle and Roy
was on the far side. The man hit us with the usual questions.
"Where were you born?" he boomed to Jack Rogers.
"Ohio, sir," Jack answered.
"Where were you born?" he blazed at me.
"Kentucky" I said.
"And where were you born?" he asked a tense Roy Lanham.
"Corbin ... " Roy croaked.
"Corbin...you know, Corbin...That's east of..."
"Ok, out of the car, All three of you..." he commanded.
We were searched. Thoroughly.
When Roy came to California to live, he had organized a group called
the "Whippoorwills." One of the finest organizations I've
ever heard. There was Dusty Rhoads, bass, Doug Dalton, mandolin, Gene
Monbeck, rhythm guitar and Roy. Georgia Brown, their singer, was great.
They had arrangements on dozens of jazz tunes, as well as old pop stuff
and country. They sang four-way harmony something fantastic. They knocked
just about everybody that heard them for a loop. They did a lot of recording
sessions, some film work, a gang of transcriptions and personal appearances.
One of these was with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, touring all over Europe.
Roy Rogers had staged a little scene for the benefit of the kids
in the audience. Lanham was to be the bad guy, with a red bandana tied
over his face like Jesse James. Rogers would ride his horse, Trigger,
onstage. One cue the big horse would stand on his hind feet with Rogers
in the saddle. Then would come a shoot-out with the bad man from Corbin.
Of course blank cartridges were used and the kids ate it up, like they
did when Dale threw bright colored Christmas tree balls in the air and
Rogers shot them to pieces, with his trusty six shooter.
The kids were not told, but this was done by loading a cartridge with
tiny little lead shot about one fourth the size of a pin head. They're
called "mustard seed" shot and are fairly harmless. In fact
it's almost impossible to miss the ornament with the tiny shot. But
they were not used when Roy Rogers would ride his beautifull Palomino
stallion on stage for the shoot-out. One night in Glascow, Scotland,
he rode out, the horse pawed the air six feet above the stage and a
voice with a bit of the Cumberland Plateau in it said, "Now I've
gotcha, Roy Rogers, drop yer guns!"
Rogers did no such thing. Instead, like in his movies, he started shooting
at the bad guy. The bad guy shot back. Then the kids were suprised to
hear The King of the Cowboys yell, "Hold your fire, Lanham!"
--then go off stage.
Roy Lanham went to see what on earth had happened.
Tiny little specks of blood were on the famous face of the eternally
youthful Roy Rogers. "We got the shells mixed up, Lanham,"
he said, "you were firing mustard seed shot at me!"
"Dad-blame, buddy," Lanham said to his boss, "I'm
"Oh, don't worry about it," said a smiling Roy Rogers. "You
got ol" Trigger and a couple of stage hands with the same shot!"
Before Roy married Marianne LeGlise, a
diminutive powerhouse mistress of ceremonies-singer who held forth in
some of the country's top night spots, he talked her into coming to
California for a visit.
I was living at a little place called the McCadden Hotel, just off
Hollywood Boulevard. Marianne rented a room, and so did Roy (things
were different in '49). Later we got together for a visit.
I was working in a little western movie at the time, at Columbia studios.
I asked if they'd like to go with me the next day and watch what went
on. I explained that it was mostly just sitting around with makeup on
your face until late afternoon just to say one line. Marianne wasn't
interested, but her soon-to-be-husband, Roy, was all for it.
The next morning we were on the western street at Columbia. A man put
brown mud-like makeup on me, and we sat around and ate dust. When the
day ended I took Roy to meet some musician friends of mine.
The night was short and dawn came early, but Roy was right there
to observe some more cinema lore. He said he'd sure enjoyed my friends
and had been pickin' all night. Again he spent the dusty day with me.
When we got back to the McCadden Hotel he went to his room and I went
to mine. In a short time there was a frantic knock on my door. it was
Roy, the flash with the mustache.
"Murray Ann's gone," he said, pronouncing her name exactly
as he does today.
Marianne had left a note saying, in effect that Roy should make up
his mind as to whether he wanted her or some cheap budget western movie
and Merle Travis thrown in. Her note said she'd gone to see her sister
in San Francisco. Roy looked very bewildered and moaned, "Dad-blame,
buddy... that's awful."
Marianne, true to her word returned in a few days. Straightway she
went to Roy's door. Roy pledged his love and told her how true he'd
always be (just like songs from his native Appalachia). They sat beside
each other on the bed. The perky young lady from New Jersey spied a
drinking glass. Upon the drinking glass was lipstick. Marianne bounced
to her feet demanding an explanation. Roy Lanham had one.
"Now, Murry Ann, don't get all excited," he suggested, "That
come from someboy that was to wear makeup to make western movies. Merle
Travis got that on there!"
After Roy and Marianne had been married long enough to have been father
and mother to five childern things were more placid. Or were they?
One night all was well, it seemed. Roy pulled up in front of the Carriage
Inn, tooted his horn and his wife came out to find Roy calmly sitting
at the steering wheel smoking his pipe while blazes were coming from
under the hood of their shiny new Cadillac. She rushed up, yanked the
door open and yelled, "Get out, Roy! the car's afire!"
Roy walked over to the sidewalk, lit his pipe and weaved a little as
he watched the gathering crowd. Then Marianne thought of something.
His expensive guitar and amplifier in the trunk.
They were sure to burn if something wasn't done, and that was the Lanham's
bread and butter.
"Quick Roy..." yelped Marianne, "get your guitar and
amp out of the trunk."
Aw, Murray Ann, I don't feel kike playin' right now," he said.
(Marianne told me this story and laughed her head off. So did Roy.)
Roy Lanham is at home singing in a gospel quartet, playing with a jazz
group in Las Vegas, doing comedy a la Archie Campbell, who hired him
when he was in his early teens, or playing and singing with the Sons
of the Pioneers, of which he's a regular member.
If you think the Pioneers are some corny group of hicks singing three-chord
songs like "Red River Valley" and "Home on the Range,"
you'd better think again. Some of the beautiful Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer
(former Pioneers) compositions have complex chord progressions. And
the Sons of the Pioneers are not noted for making a lot of mistakes.
Sometimes I get too fancy myself as a pretty fair guitar picker. Then
I get out a couple of Roy Lanham albums and play them. Then I listen
to some of my recorded efforts and come up with this sort of remark:
"Dad-blame, buddy, that's awful!"