He’s a nut. But he’s the most talented nut I’ve ever known. – Minnie Pearl
Roger Miller had no off switch. In a career that took him from the dive bars of Lower Broad to the Broadway stage – amassing 11 Grammy Awards, a Tony, and his rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame (1995) and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1973) – he was one of those live wires directly tapped in to the pulsating energy that holds the universe together, burning white hot bright and all too brief. When asked, those who knew him universally remember his relentless spontaneity, genius and humor.
There is nothing spontaneous about Erick, Oklahoma. The topography surrounding Erick is broad and green and endless. It stretches out for miles in every direction without relief or intermission. This was the environment where the boisterous, explosive genius spent his formative years picking cotton on his family’s farm and escaping into his overly active imagination.
What I’d do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff… I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention.
Miller first began composing songs on the three-mile walks to his one-room country schoolhouse. His older cousin married a local boy named Shelby who gave Miller his first guitar and, with it, his first taste of a life outside of Oklahoma. Shelby became better known as Sheb Wooley, most notably for his 1958 novelty record “The Purple People Eater” as well as dozens of film and television roles as a western character actor, including Rawhide and a memorable performance playing notorious murderer Frank Miller’s brother Ben in High Noon.
After a stint in the Army, Miller made his way to Nashville where he worked as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel and toured as a harmony singer with Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys to make ends meet. He was signed to a publishing deal and in 1958 several of his songs became hits with other artists. Ray Price took “Invitation to the Blues” to #3, Ernest Tubb hit with “Half A Mind,” Faron Young cut “That’s the Way I Feel” and Jim Reeves gave Miller his first #1 record with “Billy Bayou” all in that same year.
Miller was well on his way. But he longed to be a recording artist himself, and he blew through his songwriting draw most nights at Toostie’s Orchid Lounge.
The famed honky tonk in downtown Nashville is today a soulless shell of its former self. Tootsie’s was once ground zero for country music songwriters, musicians and artists – both famous and downtrodden – where hit songs were written and pitched in the wee hours, band members were hired and fired over bottles of beer the night before loading up the tour bus for a string of dates, and where proprietor Tootsie Bess would serve you a bowl of chili on a tab that never came due and poke you with a hat pin should you fall asleep on the bar. Today, coasting on its name recognition, Toostie’s more resembles a smelly, unkempt Hard Rock Cafe where tourists cram in to listen to loud and insipid cover bands hurling one banal, uninspired southern rock cover after another to the belated dense and sweaty masses; its past glories boxed into frames on the wall reduced, like zoo animals, into something to be observed rather than experienced.
Every great songwriter, by necessity, must be part con man to some degree and versatile enough to back it up. One night in Tootsie’s, Faron Young offered Miller a job as his touring drummer, even though Miller had never played the drums. He held on to the gig for over a year and in 1961 finally had his first top-ten hit as an artist with a song he co-wrote with Bill Anderson, “When Two Worlds Collide.”
Miller would find massive fame and success with his one of a kind humorous novelty songs such as “Dang Me,” “England Swings,” “Chug-A-Lug,” and the ubiquitous “King of the Road,” but he was just as skilled at crafting straightforward, serious and sad songs. “When Two Worlds Collide” is achingly poignant, reminiscent of a Don Gibson masterpiece. “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” is one of those titles ace tunesmiths like Harlan Howard would have killed for. The exquisite “Husbands and Wives” (which was a cross-over hit for Miller in 1966 and again in 1998 as a #1 record for country superstar duo Brooks and Dunn) is a perfect song. There is a knowing melancholy to it, yet Miller’s wry humor simmers in the background just enough to infuse the atmosphere of the song, without distracting from its purpose.
In a town where co-writing is king, Roger Miller preferred the solitary aspects of songwriting (“Did Picasso co-paint?” he once quipped) and, although he could certainly craft standard songs for other artists, his distinctive material was best served when recorded in his own inimitable style. His freeform, nonsense syllable style of scat singing is very similar in approach to the Irish tradition of oral storytelling. When attempting to read James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for the first time, for example, the reader may find the experience frustrating until discovering that the book is meant to be read aloud. It is the overall sound of the words that is important, rather than their specific meaning.
This stylistic technique is seen throughout Miller’s recordings. Most notably in 1964’s “Dang Me.” The final lyric of each chorus – “woman would you weep for me” – is followed by a guitar line which serves as the musical hook for the song. Miller mirrors this guitar part vocally using improvised nonsense rhythmic syllables. His gift at aural language manipulation is also evidenced by successfully rhyming maple syrup with purple. With an opening line as inviting as, “well here I sit high, gettin’ ideas,” it was a somehow unlikely yet inevitable #1 country hit, top-ten pop hit, and Grammy Award winner.
It often seemed as if he couldn’t restrain himself from these outbursts of expression. In one of his earliest recordings, 1960’s “You Don’t Want My Love (aka In the Summertime),” he scats a jazzy vocal solo that almost sounds like a trumpet. (Andy Williams, in his cover, opts to refrain from this device.) Sometimes these nonsense improvisations became the very title of the song itself, as in 1965’s “Do Wacka Do.”
I hear tell you’re doin’ well
Good things have come to you
I wish I had your happiness
And you had a do-wacka-do-wacka-do-wacka-do-wacka-do-wacka-do
Perhaps remembering his upbringing in Erick, Miller’s second cross-over hit (following “Dang Me”) describes the joys and virtues of moonshine liquor. “Chug-A-Lug,” like so many Roger Miller records, is unlike anything else. The song begins with a stripped-down, acoustic guitar groove and odd hiccupping sounds (these “whoop-whoop’s” would later be used frequently by Waylon Jennings on many of his records). With each verse detailing a different episode in the singer’s life in which he partook – from bringing homemade wine to school, to uncovering a moonshine still on a 4-H field trip, to sneaking into a roadhouse with the help of his “finagling uncle” – the band modulates to a higher key, creating a tension and sense of increased forward motion which, much like being drunk, ends sloppily and abruptly.
Virtually every word Roger Miller uttered was worthy of a song lyric. As his publisher Buddy Killen observed, “he spoke in songs.” With songwriting, and country music songwriting especially, titles and opening lines are everything. A simple sign in a lot that reads, “trailer for sale or rent” can become a million-selling hit in the right hands. Roger Miller’s songwriting contemporaries used to follow him around and listen to every off-the-cuff remark, hoping to pick up crumbs of songwriting gold with which to craft their own creations.
This talent is perfectly displayed in his appearance on The Johnny Cash Show, where Cash and Miller engage in a fascinating exercise in front of the live audience. Miller gives Cash a song title, and Cash proceeds to write a song on the spot. Cash returns a volley, and Miller responds with an off-color parody of Cash’s signature song, “I Walk the Line.” Two masters of word, craft and wit passing the time with a couple guitars in front of a national television audience:
In “Kansas City Star,” Miller portrays a local celebrity children’s television show host who, either due to fear or contentment, declines an offer to move his show to the bigger market of Omaha, Nebraska. The title itself is a pun (“Kansas City Star” being the name of the major Kansas City, Missouri newspaper) and the lyric is peppered with clever wordplay and an exuberant vocal performance, complete with yodel. Considering Miller’s over-the-top personality and natural ability to relate to children without dumbing down or patronizing, it is a wonder he himself never hosted a Saturday morning children’s variety show. It would have been a no-brainer.
Kansas City star, that’s what I are
Yodel-deedle ay-hee, you oughta see my car
I drive a big old Cadillac with wire wheels
Got rhinestones on the spokes
I got credit down at my grocery store
And my barber tells me jokes
I’m the number one attraction
In every supermarket parkin’ lot
I’m the king of Kansas City
No thanks, Omaha, thanks a lot
Roger Miller’s ability as a vocalist is often overshadowed by his writing and animated personality, but his vocal performances are nuanced, layered and always perfect. For examples of his emotive range and ability, just listen to the way he sings, “I know she got on in Baltimore” in “Engine Engine #9” or his so-restrained-it-almost-hurts rendition of “Little Green Apples” (which, despite the brilliant rhyme of “Apples” and “Indianapolis,” was not written by Miller but by Bobby Russell).
There was always an element of wandering minstrel in Miller’s ability to distil richly detailed stories through stream of consciousness thought into three-minute pop songs. In 1973, he portrayed an actual minstrel in Disney’s animated retelling of the Robin Hood legend. It was brilliant casting. Miller wrote new original songs for the film, which he sang as the animated rooster narrator Alan-a-Dale, including “Whistle-Stop” and “Oo De Lally.” But it is the ballad “Not in Nottingham” that stands out as one of the great Roger Miller compositions.
From a damp debtor’s prison cell, Miller’s introductory narration details the plight of the poverty stricken masses struggling to survive under the heavy foot of an oppressive government’s endless thirst for wealth in the form of crippling, overly burdensome taxes. It is a somber and serious theme for a children’s cartoon, but it sets the scene for our outlaw hero Robin Hood (portrayed in this adaptation as a fox) to win the day by stealing back from the wealthy state, usurped by the draconian Sherriff of Nottingham and the spoiled, entitled Prince John, that which rightly belongs to its people.
Has its ups and downs
Outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham
I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham
Robin Hood should have been the beginning of a great second act for Miller, who seemed a natural at composing for film. But he virtually disappeared from the public eye for over a decade until he was approached to write the music for a new Broadway production based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Miller and Twain shared a similar voice. They each possessed a sharp, unyielding wit, delivered through sophisticated craftsmanship disguised as simple homespun demeanor. There was also a dark and rebellious side to each of their personalities that permeated the colloquial humor of their work. Most importantly, they each could tap into the nature of childhood innocence, mischief and wonder without being trite or condescending. If there was ever an American tunesmith to be tasked with bringing Twain’s Mississippi River to the Broadway stage, it could only be Roger Miller. The resulting production, Big River, took Broadway by storm, winning seven statues at the 1985 Tony Awards, including a Tony for Miller personally for Best Original Score. Roger Miller considered Big River among his finest work.
Roger Miller reached the pinnacle of his cross-over, mainstream success with his down-home folksy charm and deceptively simple songs smack dab in the middle of Beatlemania and the British Invasion. He won a cumulative 11 Grammy Awards in 1965 and 1966, beating out the monumental “Yesterday” in the latter year in multiple categories with a catchy, stripped-down song about a down and out hobo janitor riding in boxcars and living in a fifty-cents-a-day trailer.
“King of the Road” is a perfect example of the aesthetic and commercial benefits of space. Recordings have become over-crowded; every millisecond occupied with wall-to-wall sound. There is a place for that sensibility, but when full saturation becomes the starting point, as it has, it is like painting without shadow.
“King of the Road” is both a great song and a great record. It begins with one of Bob Moore’s more infectious bass lines (which is saying something considering the legendary session bassist has played on as many hit records as anyone – from “Crazy” to “Jingle Bell Rock” to “Oh, Pretty Woman”) immediately followed by snapping fingers that suggests the opening theme to The Andy Griffith Show. With each final line in the verses and refrain, the band drops out leaving the vocal and finger snaps suspended as Moore’s bass teasingly slides back in to transition into either the next verse or bridge. The echo in these quiet moments creates a negative space as vast and open as the countryside seen from a passing freight train on its way to Bangor, Maine. The band drops out again as the first verse repeats on the fade out, creating a circular prosody that feeds back into itself; mirroring the never-ending hobo’s journey – endless roaming across a constructed set of tracks, the destination moot, the purpose in the journey.
It is hard to tell if Miller’s character is to be romanticized, pitied, or spurned. He is dubiously familiar with “every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around,” yet he is well-liked by children and “every engineer on every train.” There is, of course, an element of sarcasm in the narration. But there is also truth in its wisdom. He works only when he wants, enough to provide a roof only when needed. He may not have any cigarettes, but he manages to find enough discarded cigar stubs to do the trick. A man of means, by no means, but still a king.
Perhaps the success of “King of the Road” – what has endeared it to the public consciousness so deeply – is the same thing that drives our fascination with the Mona Lisa. The emotional ambiguity of the subjects leave us coming back again and again, each time seeing them in a different light, never quite sure if they are happy or sad, satisfied or longing. The man with the explosive sense of humor who wrote “Walking in the Sunshine” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” with it’s optimistic refrain, “but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to,” also lived a rough and wild lifestyle, was married three times, experienced bouts of depression, suffered the death of a son, and died from throat and lung cancer at the young age of 56.
What he left was a peerless artistic legacy as one of the most original and beloved troubadours of the 20th Century.
That, and a do-wacka-do.