Gear Guide: Last Ride of a Legend

HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (4/1/13)—It was born in Kalamazoo during the peak of the “golden age”; it’s survived countless state-hopping road trips and a fully involved house fire; it’s graced the hands of highly skilled artists known all over the world for their remarkable talents; it’s seen the Smithsonian and the Grand Ole Opry; it’s recently garnered the attention of area newspapers, the Hopkins County Genealogical and Historical Societies, and Western Kentucky University’s Folk Studies Department, just to name a few; and it stands as one of only several intact instruments that helped to bring a purely western Kentucky style of music to full fruition. But, odds are, it—a 1959 Gibson ES-225TD—would have been just another collectible guitar without the pivotal touch of its late owner, Mose Rager.

A native of Muhlenberg County, Mose Rager placed a vital stamp on the enduring style and sound of western Kentucky thumbpicking in the early to mid-20th Century. Putting this prowess in perspective, it was Rager that taught globally acclaimed country musician and Kentucky native, Merle Travis, how to thumbpick during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Though the style is coined by many as “Travis Picking” today, Travis never shied away from letting the public know that Mose was one of his most important early mentors.

And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

While Rager never really gained any widespread “spotlight” notoriety for his fervent and innovative approach to the intricate, dual-toned thumb style, his rich musical legacy continues to inspire and directly influence many of the region’s most notable contemporary artists.

Among this group of Rager-inspired artists is Nortonville, KY resident, award-winning thumbpicker, and “all-terrain” musician, J.T. Oglesby (pictured above).

A longtime friend of the Rager family, Oglesby has spent years listening to and studying Rager’s storied, but relatively rare catalogue of music, the hand-me-down stories of his lengthy life, and the historic mystique that has come to envelope the region-specific style he helped to propagate.

In turn, Oglesby recently got the “dream-like” chance to take Mose’s well-seasoned 1959 Gibson ES-225TD electric guitar on what he says could easily be its “last ride” in Kentucky—a ride that is still underway as of this writing.

In addition to recording a slew of both traditional and modern tracks with the guitar thanks to the help of local musician, Patrick “Patson” Richardson, Oglesby has also been in talks with the Western Kentucky University Folks Studies Department regarding a documentary style piece focused on the instrument and recently played/showcased the instrument at a Paducah-based concert filmed by KET that is to be televised in May.

In honoring this momentous, seemingly once-in-a-lifetime occasion, while also drawing attention to the upcoming celebration of Rager’s life and music—Mose Rager Day—which will be held at the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close, the Sugg Street Post would like present our readers with a look at the life of Mose Rager and the influence he had on the thumbpicking style, some in-depth research conducted on his beloved 53-year-old Gibson, and the backstory that led Oglesby to the instrument.

* Mose Rager was born on April 2nd, 1911 in Drakesboro, KY (Muhlenberg County) and passed away in Greenville on May 14th, 1986 at the age of 75.

* Mose was a family man that primarily worked as a barber. Among other things, he was also employed by several coal mines throughout his life. Interestingly, he served out a short stint with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Paducah, KY.

* Described by many area musicians as the “father” of thumbpicking, Mose—by all historic accounts—taught legendary country musician and Muhlenberg County native, Merle Travis, how to play the innovative style for which he is now popularly known (“Travis Picking”). In paying homage to his roots, however, Travis never shied away from giving full credit to Mose for teaching him the style. Along with his lengthy, hit-making recording history and live performance prowess, Merle Travis also starred in several western movies and TV shows. In turn, his music was also featured on nationally released films and national syndications. For example, Travis performed alongside Frank Sinatra in one of his original songs, “Reenlistment Blues,” which would be used in the classic 1953 film, From Here to Eternity.

Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers.

PHOTO: Mose Rager  and his Gibson ES-225TD pose with Don and Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. 

* Inspired by the African-American-based and parlor-style guitar playing of his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones, as well as the increasing popularity of bluesy guitar “rags” prevalent during the early half of the 20th Century, regional native Kennedy Jones is credited with actually creating what came to be known as thumbpicking or “thumb style.” While Jones is noted as the originator of the style—and is also known for using a “Hawaiian” style steel guitar thumbpick for the very first time, which are still used today—his relatively nascent approach was taken to new, innovative heights by the likes of Mose, Ike Everly, and fellow “thumbpicking originator” Arnold Schultz. It was this group of artists that, as many accounts attest, truly produced what’s now known as Western Kentucky Thumbpicking.

* For several years, Mose spent time on the road as a professional touring musician and played alongside Grandpa Jones, Curly Fox, Texas Ruby, and other WSM Barn Dance/Grand Ole Opry stars of the day. However, after being involved in a bus crash, Mose immediately stopped touring. (EDITOR’S NOTE: The radio tag WSM, which was fashioned in 1925 by the station’s originators, The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, stood for “We Shield Millions.” WSM’s Barn Dance program and live music venue would eventually be renamed The Grand Ole Opry in 1927)

* Mose performed a striking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” at the Grand Ole Opry. The guitar he used that particular night was the Gibson ES-225TD seen in the attached photos.

* Throughout his life, records and firsthand accounts indicate that Mose rarely played the same guitar more than once or twice. As these same accounts evidence, he often borrowed and traded guitars with other local musicians. As mentioned in a previously-released post found on the Ohio Fingerstyle Guitar Club’s official website:

Like many struggling non-famous guitarists, it was told that if Mose ever got a guitar—he didn't have it for long. Sometimes he didn't even have one. Merle Travis joked on the album, Travis Atkins Traveling Show, that Mose “would sometimes borrow a guitar from one person, play it for a while, and then give it back and borrow a guitar from somebody else.”

However, both his Gibson ES-125 (now on display at the Merle Travis Center in Central City, KY; see photo below) and the ES-225TD were among some his most beloved instruments and remained with him throughout much of his life.

* While Mose played alongside a plethora of talented musicians during his life, including country music star, Chet Atkins, Central City sensations, The Everly Brothers, jazz master, Lenny Breau, country music star, Merle Travis (of course), and many others, Mose was apprehensive when it came to recording his works. In fact, many described Mose as being “studio shy.” Interestingly enough, one of his sessions, which may or may not still exist on record, was captured through a little bit of sly maneuvering on the part of fellow musicians and engineers. As the story goes, when he paid a visit to a recording studio in Central City, the recording “light” had to be unscrewed. The reason: as soon as the light would come on signaling that recording was underway, Mose would simply freeze up.

* Today, acclaimed area musician, entertainer, and the unequivocal “king” of the thumbpicking style, Eddie Pennington, as well as other acclaimed performers (Alonzo Pennington, J.T. Oglesby, Steve Rector, Paul Mosely, and more) give credit to Mose for inspiring their deep affinity for the west Kentucky style.

* The following excerpt taken from David K. Bradford’s, “The Unstrung History of the American Guitar: The Guitar and Early 19th Century American Music,” provides an insightful historical look at Mose’s influence and the thumbpicking style:

In western Kentucky, most specifically in Muhlenberg County, a style of fingerpicking emerged, typically called “thumbpicking” or “thumb style,” which, like the Piedmont style, uses the fingers to play a syncopated melodic line on the treble strings while the thumb plucks a bass line on the beat. Also like the Piedmont style, flashy guitar rags were often the showpieces for Kentucky thumbpickers, with “Cannon Ball Rag” the piece that still defines the accomplished guitarist. This style would become enormously influential in country music as “Travis picking,” named for country guitar great, Merle Travis (1917-1983), a Muhlenberg County native.

Travis was influenced by white Muhlenberg guitarists Mose Rager and Ike Everly (father of Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers), who in turn had learned from Kennedy Jones (1900-1990). Jones, according to journalist and author Bobby Anderson, was “the one man who brought it all together. … More than anyone else, ‘Jonesy’ was responsible for the sound that later became known as the ‘Merle Travis Guitar Style.’” Jones credited his style to his mother, Alice DeArmond Jones (1863-1945), but it is nearly certain that origins of Travis picking lie in a black guitar tradition that had existed in the region for many years. Jones’ greatest contribution seems to have been the fusion of a fingerpicking style that he had learned from his mother with the African-American ragtime style he heard from black players, especially the remarkable guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz (1886-1931).

Schultz was a favorite at white square dances, where he played with both black and white groups. “The first time ... I ever seen Arnold Shultz ... this square dance was at Rosine, Kentucky,” recalled Bill Monroe, who grew up in Rosine. “Arnold and two more colored fellows come up there and played for the dance. He was powerful with it.” Schulz never recorded, but it is clear he was an innovator, combining the syncopated country dance music style of the region with harmonic innovations he picked up performing on steamships traveling the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

At the core of Schultz’s style, by all indications, was country ragtime music with roots firmly set in the nineteenth century. Schultz was not the only black practitioner of this style of guitar playing in Western Kentucky. Other African-American guitarists – undoubtedly some of the generation prior to Schultz – also contributed to the birth of “Travis Picking.” “Colored fellers way back yonder played the thumb pick just as far as I can remember,” according to Mose Rager. Tommy Flint, another well-known Muhlenberg guitarist, cites Amos Johnson, Jim Mason and Jody Burton – all black guitar-playing coal miners – as important influences on thumbpicking. Amos Johnson’s signature piece was “Amos Johnson Rag,” which was transformed into “Guitar Rag,” a hit for Merle Travis in the 1950s.

The ES (Electric Spanish)-225 was introduced to the Gibson family of guitars in 1955 and was discontinued in the latter half of 1959. This model, like others, was manufactured at Gibson’s storied Kalamazoo, MI factory, which relocated to Nashville in 1984.

Throughout the model’s comparatively short-lived, four-year production run, two main variations were manufactured—the 225T (Thinline) and the 225TD (Thinline/Dual Pickups)—each of which had three finish options (tobacco sunburst, a lighter cherry-style sunburst, and the more expensive “natural” option, which was denoted with an “N” on the model number; ex. ES-225TDN).

While both models sported many of the same features, including a single Florentine-style cutaway, thinline-style hollow-body construction, a maple laminate top with “f” holes, a maple laminate back, mahogany sides, a one-piece mahogany neck, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, dot-style fretboard markers, 20 frets, a four-ply black/white celluloid pickguard, single-layer binding on both the neck and body, a 24 ¾” scale length, a set neck joint, nitrocellulose lacquer, and similar body dimensions, the original 225T utilized a single P-90 pickup that was situated (oddly enough) at an angle between the neck and bridge. In turn, the inaugural “T” model donned a single volume and single tone control. The 225TD, which was introduced in mid-1956, sported two more conventionally positioned P-90s—one at the neck and one at the bridge—as well as a three-way pickup selector switch (bridge, bridge/neck, and neck), two tone controls, and two volume controls.

Though both models originally used a longer, wrap-around style trapeze tailpiece—much like the first run of early ‘50s “goldtop” Gibson Les Paul models—the 1959 ES-225 models were fitted with both a rosewood bridge/base combo and a shorter non-wrap nickel tailpiece (as seen on the ‘50s and ‘60s era ES-125T, TD, and TDC models). Therefore, when using this seemingly insignificant cosmetic peculiarity as a dating tool, it would seem that Mose’s ES-225TD was produced in one of Gibson’s most desirable “Golden” years: 1959. Though the shorter tailpiece and wooden bridge/base could have been fitted to the guitar at a later date, it’s unlikely as the rest of the guitar is completely original. What’s more, Mose’s ES-225TD sports the darker brown sunburst finish, which is considered to be rarer than the redder, cherry-type sunburst.

While the ES-225TD is more or less considered a forerunner to Gibson’s later, ‘60s era model, the ES-125TD, many guitar aficionados point out that the 225’s neck joint was deeper set and, consequently, stronger than its psychedelic-age heir. Additionally, the ES-225 was manufactured with a block of wood (probably maple or mahogany) attached to the underside of the top below the bridge area, which helps to reduce feedback when the guitar’s signal is pushed hard through a “dimed” amp. Though the block does not extend through the length of the body as in the larger semi-hollow ES-335 model, the later ES-125T, TD, and TDCs are completely hollow inside. One other distinctive difference between the models is the neck profile. Like most of Gibson’s ‘50s era guitars, the ES-225’s neck shape, more commonly known as a “U” profile, is slightly larger and rounder than its later ‘60s era counterparts.

As with most semi-hollow and hollow-body style guitars, the tone Mose’s ES-225TD produces is somewhat warmer and more dynamic than that of the average solid-body guitar (i.e. Les Paul, Telecaster, Stratocaster, SG, etc.). In the case of Mose’s vintage 225TD, this tonal characteristic is further enhanced by a combination of seasoned tonewoods and the thinner, “midrangey” signal produced from Gibson’s single-coil P-90 pickups. Taking into account the simultaneously two-sided sound of the thumbpicking style—both low rhythm and higher melody/lead lines—it’s no wonder that many thumb style practitioners oftentimes prefer a full sounding, big-bodied acoustic or a similar hollow/semi-hollow electric. The reason: the warmer tones of these dual pickup guitars accentuate the rhythm played by the thumb while still retaining enough snap to allow the melody/lead lines to cut through the mix.

Other electric hollow/semi-hollow guitars commonly used by well-known thumbpickers include Gibson’s Super-400, L-5, Byrdland, Super V, and various other ES models (such as the 335, 330, 175, and 125). As mentioned earlier, Mose’s fully hollow ES-125 was among his small group of favorites. Gretsch’s various Chet Atkins signature models, as well as similar hollow/semi-hollow productions like the White/Black Falcon, Country Club, the Eddie Cochran tribute model, the Anniversary line, and the Electromatic G5422 line, are also mainstays of the thumbpicking world. Though these particular instruments are among some of the most commonly used, thumbpicking—like any other genre of music—has been taken to a variety of differing guitar styles over time (both with and without success).

Though I’ve always loved the guitar—my parents have pictures of me in diapers holding guitars at family gatherings, around the house, and everywhere else—but Mose died before I seriously started playing.

I was first exposed to thumb style guitar playing when I was in my teens. I heard [Kennedy Jones’ “thumbpicker anthem” and Merle Travis’ hit single] “Cannonball Rag” on KET’s, Kentucky Afield. I liked it even though I was really into punk and metal at the time. I had no idea of what all was going on during that song. I thought it was two guitars playing with one doing lead and the other playing rhythm. A few months later, I ran into my cousin [award-winning thumbpicker] Eddie Pennington and saw him play both parts at the same time. I was blown away, man. I had no clue you could back yourself up with rhythm while playing lead. I had already wanted to learn classical-style guitar; the main reason was that I loved the idea of using my fingers to pick. It just seemed to me, at least at the time, that if I could pick out a melody, I could pick out five melodies if I used five picks—my fingers in this case. [laughs] Eddie started teaching me how to thumbpick not long after. I learned really quickly, but I was also playing 12-plus hours a day. I wore holes in all my jeans from resting the guitar on my leg; I had callouses on my forearms from resting them on the body of the guitar; and I wore all the finish off the neck of my guitar in a single year. Seriously, that is all I did, and it didn’t stop for years.

I had just turned 17-years-old and Eddie introduced me to all the thumbpickers. He took me around to the contests and get-togethers, too. It was at a contest that I met Mose Rager’s family. Mose’s wife, Mrs. Laverda, was a sweet and pleasant lady. I remember meeting her and his daughter, Marilyn, who goes by the nickname, “Frizz.” The nickname was given to her by Merle Travis as a kid because of her really curly blonde hair. Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, and I hit it off really well.

One day, I got a phone call from a mutual friend, Joanna Fox, who was living in Drakesboro, KY at the time. Many know her from her time as a teacher in Muhlenberg County. Basically, Joanna always used to call me out of the blue whenever she had something she knew I would like. She is related to [musician] John Prine, and when John was awarded his Kentucky Colonel certificate, she called and asked me to give it to him because she knew I was a fan. That’s just how she was. Joanna was a really nice and interesting person that always has something interesting going on. Well, one day, she called and asked me, “Would you want to play Mose’s guitar?” Within a few weeks of starting to learn from Eddie, he introduced me to recordings of Mose. I was immediately drawn to Mose’s music and personality on the recordings. So, when Joanna asked me if I wanted to play his guitar, I was beyond excited. I agreed to meet them at the fire station in Drakesboro and when I showed up, Mrs. Laverda, Frizz, Mose’s grandson, Anthony, and Joanna were there. They had two Gibson guitars and an amp with them. One was the guitar I am currently borrowing—the ES-225TD—and the other was a Gibson acoustic that was finished with an orange sunburst, but I’m not sure of the model. The amp was Mose’s personal amp, but, for some reason, I really don’t remember anything about it even though I ended up playing through it for several years. Well, that night was the start of a very long friendship that continues to this day.

Frizz showed me her home, which was right across the road from the fire station at the time, and gave me a standing invitation to visit at any time. I more than took her up on it. Every chance I got, I was there over the years. I would pick Mose’s guitars, look at family photos, have her tell me stories about him, and would listen to every recording she could dig up. It was not uncommon for me to show up around 6pm and stay until sun-up.

Around this time, I got to traveling as a musician quite a bit. [Slaughters, KY native and acclaimed musician] Chris Knight and I had standing gigs in Nashville and had started talking to labels, publishers, and the like. I would head to Nashville and stay as long as needed, then I would come home and run to Drakesboro to hang out with Frizz and learn more about Mose. I remember being in Seattle at one point and encountering my first recordings of Django Reinhardt. He is another “top hero” of mine now, but I had never heard of him at the time. I don’t even know if I stopped by the house when I returned from the airport after that. I headed straight to Drakesboro to play his recordings for Frizz. [laughs]

Frizz and her husband, Larry, had a house fire several years ago. They lost Mose’s amp and acoustic guitar in the fire, but they saved the electric—the ES-225TD—that I’m borrowing and recording with right now. Merle Travis used to draw cartoons for them when they were kids, too. Luckily, they managed to save the cartoons that Merle drew, but lost a ton of recordings of Mose. They no longer live in Drakesboro. Mrs. Laverda lived in Drakesboro until she passed away. Frizz and Larry bought Mose’s old house when he and Mrs. Laverda bought their new place right behind what is now known as “The Four Legends Fountain” in Drakesboro. The last house Mose lived in is still there, but his old house is gone.

I was with Mrs. Laverda the last time that Chet Atkins came to visit her. Chet’s health was failing and he died not too long after that. Chet spoke so highly of Mose, and he thanked Mrs. Laverda for always being hospitable and kind to the throngs of musicians, including himself, that would come to pay homage to Mose. I knew that day, as my friend drove off to take Chet back to Nashville, that it was going to be last time I saw him. You could just tell that his time was short, and he passed not long afterward. Mrs. Laverda made sure I was with her when Chet came that day. She was getting frail herself and I helped her stable herself so she could walk over and see him. It was all pretty emotional, because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era. In a way, that is how it is for me now. It is an honor to have the guitar of a personal hero, but, at the same time, I also know I am watching the end of an era once again.

Over the years, the Ragers have become a part of my family. I love them all, and they have shaped my life in ways they will never fully understand. It started out years ago, as a kid trying to discover all he could about his hero. Now, it is ending as a man that is trying his hardest to preserve the memory of a family that he has grown to love. It goes way deeper for me than just honoring a hero; I was fortunate to have the opportunity and recognized it. If I hadn’t recognized it, I would not have acted on it. If I hadn’t acted on it, my life would be totally different today. My past would be totally different. My attitude would be as if it belonged to another person. The whole family shaped my outlook, music, and various other aspects of my life.

Mose was an innovative, unique, and wonderful person. His influence on music and musicians goes far beyond the notes he hit on his guitar. 40-year-old me and 20-year-old me have many things in common: we both still love Mose’s music, we both still love to hear his stories on tape, and we both have a profound admiration for the man that gave this area its own singular style of playing, which has influenced the world. But, we also have differences. Among them is a better understanding of why Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and countless other musicians’ lives carried with them such an impact from Mose. It was his spirit in general. He was the wise man on the mountain that not only played music is such an amazing way that it blew your mind, but also had a deep insight into people, happiness, and life so much so that that it made you examine yourself and discover things you may not have ever noticed otherwise. There was something about Mose that made you want to be good. Not just musically good, but good as a person. He made you feel like he cared, because he did. The shoddy recording methods of the time period he lived in could not squash the inner spirit of this man. He was a happy soul, and that carried across through his music, stories, and that massive laugh of his that he was not shy about unleashing. I can hear his laugh in my mind clear as I can hear the melodies of his songs.

I came to borrow Mose’s guitar just as a whim actually. I thought it would be cool if I played it on the show we filmed for KET in Paducah on March 1st. When I asked Frizz, she told me that she had no problem with it, but she had given it to Cameron, who is her grandson, and that he would have to give his okay or else she wouldn't feel right. The next day, I messaged Cameron's dad and asked if he could ask Cameron about me borrowing it. The next day, Frizz called and told me to come pick it up.

I sent out a few emails letting a few people know that I had the guitar and then went and picked it up. One of the people I emailed was Dr.Erika Brady, who is the head of WKU's Folk Studies Department. I was already planning on recording some with the guitar while I had it, too. I had contacted Patrick “Patson” Richardson about doing a recording and documentary-style project with me as well. Patson has been filming video of me in the studio while I’m recording tracks so we would have both audio and video of the guitar. Erika contacted me a day or two later and said she had a student, Mike Rivera, that had just been asking her about the whole music history of Muhlenberg county. She asked if I wanted to have them get involved. I told her it would be an honor, and that is how the idea of doing a full-fledged documentary got off to a start. Erika and I have met and talked about plans, but we were both really sick the first go around, so the meeting was short and sweet. [laughs] There is both a short-term and long-term project that we are working on. The short-term project is "What can we get recorded and documented before I return the guitar?" The long-term idea is still to be discussed more in-depth.

To hear a rare recording of Mose Rager in the studio, click here. Additional recordings can be found by searching "Mose Rager" on YouTube. 

If you would like to participate in celebrating the life and longstanding legacy of Mose Rager, please visit the Drakesboro, KY Community Center (fire station) on April 13th from 10am to close for Mose Rager Day.

To learn more about Mose Rager and the thumbpicking style, click the video player attached below this article. 

For additional “Gear Guide” articles, click here.

Sugg Street Post
Written by Luke Short
Photos of J.T. Oglesby and Mose Rager’s ES-225TD/ES-125 by Jeff Harp
Historic photos provided courtesy of J.T. Oglesby

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