September 15, 2017
By Chrissy Mauck
Canadian rockabilly master Cousin Harley is paying homage to influential guitarist, singer and songwriter Merle Travis in a rollicking new CD, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis, due out Nov. 25 on Little Pig Records.
A special CD release event honoring Travis’ 100th Birthday will be held on the release date in Cousin Harley’s hometown of Vancouver, BC, at The Rickshaw Theatre.
Recorded at Heavy-o-Sonic Studio in Vancouver, BC, Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis marks Cousin Harley’s sixth studio album and features the trio of Paul Pigat – guitar and lead vocals, Keith Picot – upright bass, and Jesse Cahill – drums. Marc L’Esperance engineered the project and also contributed harmony vocals.
On the CD, 11 Merle Travis classics have been given Cousin Harley’s hallmark rockabilly and western swing attitude, including “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette), “Sixteen Tons,” “Divorce Me C.O.D.”, “Deep South,” “Blue Smoke,” and “Cincinnati Lou.” Pigat also penned original song, “Rosewood, Kentucky,” as a tribute to Travis’ birthplace.
“I was in the process of recording another solo record and happened to be reading up on Merle online,” explained Pigat on how the idea came together. “When I discovered his birthday was November 29, 1917, and this is the 100th anniversary, I decided to put my solo record on hold and do a Cousin Harley album instead. This tribute is important because he is such a huge influence on me. I’m also a firm believer that most guitar players are somehow influenced by Merle Travis, they just don’t realize it. Merle influenced Chet Atkins and Scotty Moore for starters; so I rest my case.”
Pigat’s affection and respect for Travis are best summed up in the CD’s liner notes: “Merle’s swinging finger style playing, driving backbeat, and wry sense of humor are cornerstones of the Cousin Harley sound. Always has been; always will be. And, although we’ve taken some liberties and added a bit of the trademark Cousin Harley flair to Merle’s original recordings, we didn’t veer too far off track. Our goal was to pay homage and respect to this inspirational American music icon. Why mess with the best?”
Cousin Harley’s Travis Tribute CD is sponsored by Bigsby Guitars & Vibratos, whose founder, Paul Bigsby, worked with Merle Travis in 1948 to build the first modern solid-body electric guitar. In 1951, Travis challenged Bigsby to design a guitar vibrato unit that would work and keep his guitar in tune. The result was the innovative Bigsby True Vibrato.
Fred Gretsch, president of the Gretsch Company, which owns Bigsby today, said, “Dinah and I are delighted to sponsor Cousin Harley’s Merle Travis Tribute CD. There’s a historic connection between Bigsby and Merle Travis, just like there’s a historic connection between Bigsby Vibratos and Gretsch guitars.”
Pigat, an official Gretsch endorser, primarily used his custom-made, Bigsby-equipped Gretsch Synchro-Club prototype on the CD. Designed with Stephen Stern, the head of the Gretsch Custom Shop, the Synchro-Club is a fusion of a thin-bodied early 1960s Gretsch Country Club and a 1939 Gretsch Synchromatic guitar. It features a blonde top, cats-eye soundholes, block inlays and custom TV Jones pickups.
Blue Smoke: The Music of Merle Travis will be available from numerous online partners, including iTunes and CD Baby, and you can get an advanced taste of the album with the video clip below of “Deep South.”