Merle "Tootin'" Bridges

(As told by Jesse Jacobsen)


Merle Degville Bridges, the cousin of Lamont, was born on or about the morning of July 23rd, 1925, to Dwight and Carly Bridges of Mays Lick, Kentucky.
He was raised on the family farm, learning the ways of the traditional country lifestyle. At the age of four, he milked his first cow. Shortly after, he was administered treatment for injuries sustained in the aforementioned milking. By the time little Merle had reached the age of ten, he was an important part of life on the farm. It was around this time as well, that he developed a taste for strong Kentucky bourbon, as distilled by Uncle Clyde, from two towns over.

When he was 18, Merle was given a present: an old brass instrument known locally as a "Pipe and Toot". "Pull out that old pipe and toot," they'd say, "and we'll have ourselves a good old time." Now, as impressive as Merle's solo tooting was, the Pipe and Toot was designed more for, shall we say, ensemble playing. So Merle (or Tootin' as he was now known) gathered up some friends and relatives and formed the Swamp Creek Bunch in 1954. The group had stringed instruments (pluck boxes and bow diggers), brass instruments (blow pipes, a higher pitched variant of the Pipe and Toot) and percussion (pretty much anything they could find). The group was a central part of what became known as the Southern Invasion.

The group's first public appearance was at the wedding of Merle's cousin Jed to Merle's other cousin Becky Sue. They were received warmly, especially following a rousing performance of "Old Brown Jug". From there, the group took off. They traveled throughout the South, performing at hoedowns, hootenannies, shindigs, jamborees, and the occasional Ku Klux Klan rally. In 1956, they released the hit single "Whiskey Bottle", which was re-released on their first LP, Songs From the Swamp. They continued touring over the next few years while releasing Down On The Farm, The South Rises Again, and their untitled fourth album. In 1961, the double live album, SCB: Live at the Fillmore South, was released and went platinum in under a week.

However, as the year progressed, Merle grew increasingly disenchanted with the scene in which he was becoming a part. He dropped out of the band he had formed and took to living in seclusion in the Appalachian Mountains. In late 1965, backwoods families of the area reported being visited by a mysterious traveling minstrel. Nothing was known about this man except that he left behind a dead herring wherever he went. No one knew why. However, sources noted that he played "the best durned pipe an' toot these ears have ever heard." It seemed that old Tootin' was still going strong, in his own way. He lived this way for 20 years.

In 1986, Merle returned to the limelight. He reunited the Swamp Creek Bunch for one last show. It would be the concert event of the century and it took place where it all started. The fields of the Bridges' farm were filled with fans of SCB both old and new. The concert lasted well over five days, featuring several up and coming Southern bands, but the show belonged to Merle and the Swamp Creek Bunch. Fueled by whiskey and uppers, the band played 15-hour sets throughout the festival. Musicians and concertgoers alike dubbed it a tremendous success.

After the extravaganza, it was discovered that Merle had disappeared. All traces of him had simply vanished. Reactions to this were mixed: some called it a betrayal, some marveled at this symbolic gesture that said that Merle "Tootin'" Bridges was gone for good. Note: Merle's body was found on the banks of the Mississippi River in Missouri on October 14, 1993. Although the exact cause of death remains a mystery, doctors suspect a bizarre gardening accident.

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