Tum-tum-tum-tum goes the bass, the thumb constantly beating the guitar’s top three strings, alternating between first and second, first and third—a complete rhythm section carried in just one finger. Ooom-pah, ooom-pah was how Merle Travis heard it, the life’s work of his thumb, a finger, sometimes three, playing the melody—a one-man trio of bass, rhythm, and melody in just two hands.
It was Travis who first made it famous, the thumb-picking sound that bubbled over from the coal mines of Muhlenberg County, Ky., blossoming on porches and around dinner tables, at mining company stores and Saturday night dance halls until later when it found its way to radio airwaves and the hallowed hall of the Grand Ole Opry. For Travis and others to follow, thumb picking would eventually be a ticket out of the mines, into packed halls and theaters where people would marvel at the skill of the players, the fullness of the sound.
Bobby Anderson, a Muhlenberg County native and lifelong devotee (and historian) of thumb picking, traces its origins as far back as the 1880s, the sound wafting over the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, beginning to take form in the guitar of Alice DeArmand Jones, a local who had improvised a simple three-chord style of picking when playing with her family. She passed on the style to her son, Kennedy Jones, who was already playing dance halls by the time he was 8.
“Kennedy Jones is the acknowledged father of thumb picking,” Anderson says. “He was the man who first brought it into local prominence.”
The early lineage of thumb picking is a tricky thing: Some say Arnold Schultz, a Kentuckian who played alongside the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, played a key role in its early sound. Amos Johnson and Jim Mason—two coal miners who never recorded any songs—were among its other fathers, according to Tommy Flint, a Muhlenberg native who has been a thumb picker and professional musician for the last 50 years.
One indisputably important thumb picker was Mose Rager, a barber whose playing would later inspire Travis, a coal miner’s son, to perfect its intricacies and take the sound far away from its home. Flint, Travis’ second cousin, found his own inspiration at Rager’s knee in the ’40s. “I spent most of my teenage years in Mose Rager’s barbershop watching him play,” he says. “His wife said she was surprised I didn’t turn out to be a barber since I was there so much.”
Eddie Pennington, considered by many to be the best thumb picker alive, also marveled at Rager’s style after working up the nerve to visit the elder player’s house. “He said, ‘Buddy, are you a box picker? Well, get your box and come on in,’” says Pennington, a Muhlenberg native now living in Princeton. “I knew I had met one of the masters.”
While Rager continued to inspire those at home, Travis was making himself into a critical and popular success on the national stage. His playing spurred another aspiring player from Georgia, Chet Atkins, to take up picking. “He was so taken by that style of guitar, and when he found out it was just one man playing, he wanted to play like that, too,” Anderson says. Another player, Thom Bresh (Merle Travis’ son), took thumb picking to further success, as did Ike Everly, whose famous sons, the Everly Brothers, would be later ambassadors for the sound.
While the years would mark the closing of most of Muhlenberg County’s coal mines, thumb picking continued to thrive as expression, release, and a sheer feat of dexterity and willpower. After all, it’s not quite as simple as just picking up a guitar and strumming. “The hardest part is getting the thumb and finger to work together doing two different things,” Flint says, conceding that at first it can be a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach simultaneously.
Each year, the Everly Brothers host a Muhlenberg reunion and contest in Drakesboro, Ky., drawing thumb pickers from as far away as Georgia, Indiana, West Virginia, and even overseas. Merle Travis’ restored birthplace also is now the temporary home of the Thumb Pickers Hall of Fame, which eventually will move to a permanent home in a music hall.
And as thumb picking continues to evolve with new players, new licks, and new progressions, its inimitable Muhlenberg origins continue to flavor the playing. Once the full, self-accompanying sound drew tired miners around porches, an easy diversion. Now
it reaches over generations, a singular contribution woven inextricably into the fabric of American music.