Saturday, January 2, 2021

This Day in Country Music History (Roger Miller, Witty ‘King of the Road,’ Born)

Jan. 2, 1936— Roger Miller, who rode his offbeat wit and songwriting brilliance from a stint as a hotel “singing bellhop” to crossover success on the country and pop charts, then to a late-career Broadway triumph as composer of the Tony-winning musical Big River, was born in Fort Worth, Texas.

At the height of his career, from 1964 to 1966, hardly anyone was as ubiquitous on the American musical scene—except those four mop-tops from Liverpool. Miller scored 10 Top 40 crossover hits, along with 11 Grammy Awards—a record at the time.

But numbers only told part of the story. He also made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, for a piece on the boom in country music; headlined his own variety show; and maintained a high-flying lifestyle and touring schedule.

It was all heady stuff for someone who lost his father at age one and had to work on an uncle’s farm when his mother couldn’t support the family; a teenage drifter whose theft of a guitar led him to join the U.S. Army in Korea rather than serve time in prison; and a backup musician who, despite having his own songs recorded by prominent Nashville artists, was having trouble at one low point landing paying gigs in his own right.

In fact, as noted in the fifth episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music PBS series, Miller was at the point of ending his solo act and heading to Los Angeles for an acting career when the startling success of his novelty song “Dang Me” changed his plans.

"The day 'Dang Me' was released, I played a little club in northern California for seventy-five dollars," Miller told William Whitworth in a 1969 profile for The New Yorker. "Had four people in the audience and got a hot check. But in about a week my phone started ringing. Wanting to do this and that, and pictures, and busy, busy, busy. After that, uh, I don't know what became of me.”

The song peaked at number 7 on Billboard Magazine’s pop chart, and reached number 1—and spent 25 weeks—on the magazine’s country-music chart. This humorous lament of a reprobate was endlessly charming—so much so that Oregon Congressman Rod Chandler, hoping to deflect charges that he spent $100,000 on congressional mailings while many constituents went jobless in the recession of the early 1990s, began singing the lyrics in a TV debate during his 1992 Senate race against Patty Murray. (The ploy bombed.)

But the tune that brought him the greatest success was his “hobo song,” “King of the Road.” It took him far longer to compose than “Dang Me” (six weeks versus four minutes), but it became the signature song of the “Dashboard Poet” who, as noted in Brian Carpenter’s Southern Cultures article, composed so much while on the road that he found that “there was something about laying hands to the wheel that freed up the songwriter in his mind.”

Individual song lines seemed to spring fresh, almost fully minted, even from Miller’s carefree conversations. While he was fond of telling fellow songwriters he had only one line, that was often a gem—yet he refused to take even a credit when that line became a part of a smash record for them.

Maybe it was because, at the height of his career, the inspiration for his own music seldom flagged. It’s hard to top songs with memorable titles like “You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” “The Moon is High (and So Am I),” “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me,” and “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died.”

A creative and commercial lull set in for Miller in the 1970s, but by this time his idiosyncratic songwriting and concise recording arrangements (a sharp variation from the lusher “Nashville Sound” prevalent at the time) were influencing such “Progressive Country” artists as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris.

For all his charming but sometimes undisciplined ways, the former Nashville "Wild Child" managed to mount an improbable comeback two decades after his commercial peak. Shrugging off a 1974 film attempt to adapt Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into a musical, Miller had far better luck with the 1985 Broadway production of Big River

It not only won that year’s Tony Award for Best Musical, but earned Miller one for best score. It has since become a staple of regional and high school theaters, and was revived in 2003 on Broadway in a joint production by the Roundabout Theatre Co. and Deaf West Theatre.

In 1992, Miller passed away from throat cancer. Three years later, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m sure there are others like me who wish he could have kept his creativity fires burning longer and more consistently. But in the end, his intelligence, talent, rollicking humor, and sheer joy in performing remain irresistible.

(For a fine career retrospective on Miller, see musician Deke Dickerson’s 2011 post on his “Muleskinner” blog. I think you will also find much to enjoy in an all-star tribute to Miller in a cover version of “King of the Road” featuring Nelson, Kristofferson, Harris, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam—and, with tongue in cheek on the lyric “man of means,” such country queens as Dolly Parton and Brenda Lee.)

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