SoundCheck: Randy Buckner, Merle Travis, and the Springfield Possum Hunters

May 7, 2019

Randy Buckner and Merle Travis backstage at the Crossroads Theater in Nixa, September 22, 1979.
Credit Jerry Buckner

Since the young age of five, Randy Buckner has been a fan of Merle Travis. Known for his unique thumbpicking guitar style, Travis stood out to the young Buckner when he would spend time at his grandparents’ farm on North Grant Avenue in Springfield.

“So, being the usual rambunctious kid, to get me to keep quiet, Grandpa would play Merle Travis records, like Walking the Strings and The Merle Travis Guitar. And just the sound of that guitar just totally fascinated me,” said Buckner.

Buckner grew up teaching himself how to thumbpick and absorbing everything Merle. Then one day when he was 15, he got a phone call that would change his life.

“Mom says, ‘Bob Ensign’s on the phone!’ ‘Ok, great.’”

Ensign ran the Record Rack store in Ozark.

“So I go in and he had this little gravelly voice, y’know, he’d been smoking all his life and says, ‘Yeah, Randy, uh, Merle is coming to Ozark and it’s gonna, uh, I want you to play rhythm guitar for him and you all are going to be the Springfield Possum Hunters.’ And I was like, ‘Cool,” said Buckner.

So just like that, 15-year-old Randy Buckner had a gig playing with his guitar hero at the Crossroads Theatre in Nixa. The night of the show, Buckner was beside himself.

“Finally Merle shows up, y’know, and I just zoom over there and I was like, ‘Uh, Mr. Travis, my name’s Randy Buckner and I’m going to be playing for you today!’ And he’s just kinda looking at me like, ‘Who is this kid??” he said.

Merle Travis was only playing and touring solo at this time, so getting this band together was a big deal.

“He was the consummate southern gentleman. He just said, “Well, uh, you know I play solo mostly now, so if you guys would just kind of keep your volume a little lower, and but, y’know, go ahead and be on stage with me.’ And we’re like, ‘Yes sir, yes sir, whatever you want, sir!’ Which, he could have just as easily just said, ‘No, I play solo. You guys aren’t going on.’ But he didn’t,” said Buckner.

The young Buckner told Merle Travis that he knew his song, “Cannonball Rag.” They devised an on-stage plan:   before they’d start playing, Travis would announce that “Cannonball Rag” is the most difficult song he’s ever written—and that no one could play it like he could. At that point, Randy Buckner would start to play it.

“Middle of the concert, y’know, he does that, y’know, throws his arms up. I kinda look at the ceiling and I start playing ‘Cannonball Rag.’ And then he joins in, and of course, the audience loved it, y’know, this 15-year-old kid playing Merle’s song,” said Buckner.

Through the entire show, Buckner felt both awestruck and afraid. It was trying to remember all the chords to the songs that kept a bit of fear going.

After the show, Buckner hung around back stage. Then he made a bold move.

“So, I go running up to him and, ‘Mr. Travis, can I play your guitar?’ And he’d already put it in the case and just said, ‘Yeah, sure. Go ahead.’” 

Buckner's latest album, Thumbin' the Strings, featuring his Gibson Super 400 guitar.
Credit Ron McGinnis

Over the years, Buckner learned that it was the norm for Merle Travis to let people play his guitar – a  customized Gibson Super 400 with his name on it. He took that to heart.

“I have a custom guitar that’s based off of Merle’s and somebody wants to play it, I just hand it to them and their eyes get as big as saucers. ‘Well, Merle let me play his, so you can play mine,’” said Buckner.

Merle Travis was one of the last people to leave the Crossroads Theater that night. Buckner carried his guitar out for him.

“He had a late ‘70s Lincoln Town Car. Told him goodbye, and then that was the last time I saw him in person.”

After that night, Randy Buckner and Merle Travis talked on the phone a few times, but Travis passed away a few years later in 1983.  But Buckner carries on the thumbpicking tradition, teaching guitar at Hoover Music in Springfield and hosting workshops at the Merle Travis Thumbpicking Weekend at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas.

Thanks for tuning into SoundCheck. I’m Jess Balisle.