"I was just determined to get out of there as soon as I could and make something of myself," says country fiddler Gene "Pappy" Merritts of his years growing up in rural Williamsburg, Pa. He made it out — Merritts went on to explore the crazy quilt of country music in such far-flung locales as Wheeling, W. Va., Cleveland and Denver, and settled in Nashville during country's early-'60s salad days. This week, Merritts turns 85, and his bandmates in John England and the Western Swingers are throwing him a birthday party on Lower Broadway, where Merritts has attracted new legions of admirers. Merritts is a character and a half, and an accomplished musician of the old school.
Speaking of where it all started, Merritts remembers his days in Williamsburg, when he was just another country fan listening to the radio. "I used to sit home and listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and listen to Roy [Acuff] and Bill [Monroe] and Ernest Tubb, and all of those guys, and wish that I could maybe someday meet 'em and play with 'em," Merritts tells the Scene from his Nashville home. "And the way it turned out, I did — an old country boy from way back in the sticks."
Merritts was born Jan. 15, 1929, and he graduated from Morrisons Cove High School in nearby Martinsburg. During his school years, Merritts played country music on guitar, harmonica and fiddle in country bands that catered to local square dancers. After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, he hit the road in search of work.
"We moved, golly, to Springfield, Mass.; Cleveland, Ohio; to San Antonio; Corpus Christi; and then I wound up in Denver," says Merritts. "We went everywhere there was a big TV show, and I played on the big TV show in Cleveland — that was called The Landmark Jamboree. Back then, an unknown who became very well-known was one of the girl singers on the show, and that was Dottie West."
During his days in Denver, Merritts got a job at the Four Seasons Club, where he played in a seven-piece band specializing in Western swing. It was there that he met country singer Webb Pierce, who offered some advice.
"Webb Pierce, he liked me, and he liked my playing," Merritts says. "He said, 'You need to come to Nashville, where the music is.' " Merritts arrived in Music City in early 1963, and began playing on a television show called Country Junction with fiddler Benny Martin — the show originated in the basement of Nashville's iconic Life & Casualty Tower.
By the time Merritts got his job fiddling in a show at Opryland theme park in 1975, he had backed up such luminaries as West, Patsy Cline and Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper. "I was the oldest musician in the park, and I played there longer than anybody," Merritts says. "It was called 'The Country Music U.S.A. Show.' They did a show to imitate all the different stars, and had little snippets of 'The Wabash Cannonball' for Roy Acuff, and they'd segue to another song."
After Opryland closed in 1997, Merritts began playing at Robert's Western World, and he continues to work there with England's band. An Indiana-born guitarist and singer who toiled in New York before landing in Nashville, England describes Merritts as an old-fashioned stylist.
"He's been an entertainer since he was 10 years old," England says. "Pappy never became a big-time session player. There's a kind of unpretentious self-consciousness about him — when he plays swing music, he reminds me of Louis Armstrong. It's very aggressive."
You can hear an example of Pappy's artistry in "Fiddler's Waltz," a tune Merritts wrote for Songs Older Than Pappy, the full-length that England and band released last year. Maybe he never became a big star, but any working musician knows there are more important badges of status. England tells me that Merritts has never paid a parking ticket in Nashville, and I ask Pappy if this is true.
"Well, I think I paid one actual parking ticket," Merritts says. "I parked at a meter, and it was legal, around 9 at night, when I parked. When I come out to get my car, they had hauled it off." As Merritts tells it, he was able to void the ticket, but had to pay the fine. That sounds like a good record of achievement, and Merritts leaves me with his assessment of modern country.
"I like guys like Ronnie Milsap, and I listen to Vince Gill some," Merritts says. "But I'm not no big new-country fan. You know why? Because they play rock 'n' roll, and they call it country. But it's not."