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The Amazing Adventures of Roger Miller
Remembering the King of the Road's reign on the pop charts from 1964 to 1966
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
Since last time I was in touch, I had the pleasure of taking part in a meetup of Substack writers in Toronto. I had a blast connecting with fellow scribes and meeting several of the dedicated staff at Substack. For a small group, they do mighty work creating opportunities for writers to connect and to have our collective work be discovered so that we can all feel just a little less alone as we ply our trade.
To those who are new to ‘Listening Sessions,’ including those I met at last week’s meetup who subscribed to my Substack, I wish you a warm hello and am glad to have you along on this musical journey.
This edition’s essay is an appreciation of the one and only Roger Miller, one of the most creative, witty and ingenious singer-songwriters of the sixties. In particular, I focus on the years 1964 to 1966 in which Miller ruled the pop charts and became just simply, a sensation. I hope you enjoy it.
Currently, my wife and I are enjoying some rest and relaxation in Ontario’s Georgian Bay which means it will be a little longer than usual until I am next in touch: two weeks (October 4) instead of the usual 10 days. Then, I will be sharing an essay on vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s classic 1972 recording Sunflower to mark the recent passing of Creed Taylor, one of jazz’s most visionary producers. Coming later in October will be pieces on Frank Sinatra in 1965 as he turned fifty years ago and on Simon and Garfunkel’s autumnal half-concept album Bookends.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all.
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“I wish to be amused.
Bring me my fool.”
The King (Anthony Quayle) from Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask
A few facts to ponder about Roger Miller.
He once stated his favourite of all the songs he wrote was ‘You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd.’
He once claimed he wrote ‘Dang Me,’ his breakthrough song, not in 10 minutes or even five minutes but in exactly four minutes.
He amassed 11 Grammy Awards in two years (1964 and 1965) and later in his career, wrote a Tony-award winning musical, Big River which was an adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
To borrow parlance straight from the man himself, Roger Miller was one heck of a son of a gun. Of him, Bill Anderson, among the most accomplished singer-songwriters of sixties Nashville, once said “Roger was the most talented, and least disciplined, person that you could imagine.” His propensity for wordplay was so prodigious and came at such preternatural speed and with such disregard if another songwriter in Nashville copped one of his lines (Anderson himself partook of a Miller witticism for his ‘Po’ Folks’) that it was said his fellow scribes would hang around him just in case he said something that could be incorporated into a song.
How Miller came to record for Smash, a Mercury Records’ subsidiary, is central to this sort of legend of Miller as a quintessentially plucky American hero. He went to dinner one night with Buddy Killen, his long-time business associate and pal, in Nashville in 1963 during the city’s annual DJ convention. At the restaurant were Mercury executives Charles Fash and Lou Green along with Shelby Singleton, head of the label’s operations in Music City. Singleton, producer of such hits as Leroy Van Dyke’s ‘Walk on By,’ Paul & Paula’s ‘Hey Paula’ and countless hits by Brook Benton, spotted Miller, then on hard times and without a record contract, and recommended Fash and Green sign him, which they did on the spot and as Miller might say “and there you go.”
Belying this seemingly incredible tale is all that led up to it, a key to unlocking the layers of Miller’s surface persona as country music’s ultimate court jester.
Born in Forth Worth, Texas on January 2, 1936, Miller’s father passed when he was one. When it proved too difficult for his mother to care of him and his two older brothers, she had her late husband's brothers each take in one of her sons. Miller’s childhood, spent in Erick, Oklahoma, was hard scrapple and tinged with loneliness. The husband of one of his cousins, Sheb Wooley, got Miller to dream of forging a life as an entertainer. Wooley and a teenaged Miller would listen to the Grand Old Opry on the radio every Saturday night, and Wooley gave him his first lessons on guitar. Even more consequentially, Wooley provides a template for Miller’s own aspirations. Best (solely?) known for his 1958 novelty smash ‘The Purple People Eater,’ Wooley was, in addition to being a singer, an accomplished movie and television actor, a screenwriter and director, cowboy and rodeo man, and is also thought to be the voice behind the famous ‘Wilheim’ scream sound effect.
Inspired by Wooley, Miller hightailed it from Oklahoma to try to make it in the music business. An initial attempt while he was still a teen ended when he was wanted for stealing a guitar after crossing the Texas state line into Oklahoma. Choosing to turn himself in, he was given a choice: jail or the military. He chose the latter and was soon off to Korea. Once Miller got out of the army, he was off to Nashville. Until fate brought him into the Smash Records fold, Miller’s tale has a certain roguish charm to it: a promising step forward usually followed promptly with a step backward.
For a while, he ingratiated himself to country music’s elite as the “singing bellhop” of the Andrew Jackson Hotel. There were stints in the bands of Minnie Pearl, Ray Price and Faron Young. There were promising signs of Miller’s gift as a songwriter. He wrote hits for Price (‘Invitation to the Blues’), Ernest Tubb (‘Half a Mind’) and the biggest country star of them all at the time, Jim Reeves (‘Home’ and ‘Billy Bayou’). There were singles on Mercury Starday and Decca that garnered little interest and a potential breakthrough on RCA that ended with Miller being dropped by the label. Songwriting royalty money was spent as quickly as it was obtained. By the end of 1963, Miller thought he may have a better shot at TV stardam and was ready to pulling stakes and move to California. The Smash contract provided the money to do just that but things quickly took a detour in the best way possible. It was all because of two of the songs that Miller brought for his initial sessions for Smash at Nashville’s Quonset Hut with the famed A Team.
Producer Jerry Kennedy selected one of those songs, ‘Dang Me,’ for Miller’s first Smash single after playing it at home. “My kids came screaming down the stairs when ‘Dang Me’ came on. They thought that was the greatest thing they ever heard,” said Kennedy.
For a song that runs a mere minute and 47 seconds, it packs in a symphony’s worth of stylistic and thematic ingredients that made Roger Miller, at his best, an irresistible and irrepressible force. There is Miller wordlessly doubling his opening guitar riff—a cowboy yodel after one too many at the local saloon. The lyrics are a delirious weaving of seriocomic vignettes with profoundly clever wordplay, including a surreally askew variation on ‘Roses Are Red.’ There is a lack of moral judgment as Miller relays the tale of a fellow who has an awful lot of fun getting up to an awful lot of no good. The groove hits that sweet spot between pop and country. It’s countrypolitan enough to grab those averse to country-and-western but not too syrupy sweet for those who may have been more drawn to the Bakersfield antics of someone like Buck Owens. In short, it had all the makings of a hit and a hit it was. Just as the British Invasion was closing out the pop market to just about anyone—certainly anyone over 25—Miller, 28 then, defied the odds to become a sensation.
His follow-up single, ‘Chug-a-Lug,’ was just as big a hit. It and ‘Dang Me’ anchored Miller’s first LP on Smash, Roger and Out. Featuring 12 tracks totaling just under 24 minutes and with its original cover featuring a befuddled Miller with literal head in hand, it shoots by with the machine-gun rhythm of punchline after punchline. A song like ‘Lou’s Got the Flu’ is tossed with such casual carefreeness—in its main refrain, Miller sounds like he is duetting with the illustrious Michigan J. Frog—that one can almost see his glee that he is actually getting away with this. That may signify some degree of cynicism but the song is so much fun, packs so much nerve, is so brilliantly inventive that the thought that Miller may be having a joke at our expense is as preposterous as his recounting in the song of getting sick from putting sugar in his soup. Miller is not laughing at us—we’re laughing with him. Listen to ‘Got 2 Again,’ in which the sheer contrived nature of his songs is offered up for mockery, and try to get through it without cracking an appreciative smirk.
Oh yes, there’s more going here than simple country clowning. In the middle of the madness, ‘Private John Q.’ offers some kind of critique of the military and ‘Squares Make the World Go Round’ hints at the folly of politics. The nuance became more honed on Miller’s follow-up album, The Return of Roger Miller, released in 1965. The more baldly novelty songs like ‘Reincarnation’ and ‘Do-Wacka-Do’ act as warm-ups for sophisticated fare like ‘Our Hearts Will Play the Music’ and ‘As Long As There’s a Shadow’ as well as whimsical flights of fancy like ‘That’s the Way It’s Always Been.’
On the latter, each verse starts with almost a throwaway line (a sample: “fall yourself in love and get your teeth kicked in”) but then in the bridge, there comes something entirely different, something philosophical, maybe even karmic:
“A little lesson in the art of livin’
May I be forgiven if I’m guiding you wrong
Sing for your supper
Remember on the other end of the spoon
The guy’s working for a song”
Of course, when listening to the album, what towers above is ‘King of the Road.’ Here, Miller offers a tale of a street-smart hobo whose got all the angles figured, a poor man's philosopher offering proof that in life sometimes, the house doesn’t actually win. Miller’s vocal is superb, his southern tone combining with a jazz singer’s timing embodying the song’s roguish ragamuffin character. It’s a key song in peeling back the layers of Roger Miller. Another is ‘Ain’t That Fine,’ written by rockabilly icon Dorsey Burnette and recorded at Miller’s first Smash session. Here, he is an urbane country crooner (shades of Don Gibson or Sonny James) and is backed by a vocal chorus. It all fits beautifully.
Miller’s ascent continued on The Third Time Around, which came out in June 1965. There’s a deeper sophistication in the production: the use of a dobro adds a more expressly country feel, a flapper vibe distinguishes the pastiche of ‘The Good Old Days,’ a bass trombone fits in with the children’s-show vibe of ‘Kansas City Star’ (one of three hits from the album) and a back-porch rhythm dominates the LP’s closer ‘Swing Low, Swingin’ Chariot.’
‘Engine Engine #9,’ the album’s biggest hit, has a glorious change in the bridge, as Miller modulates to the baritone range, that contrasts with the ringing dobro riff in the verses. In a tale of a man waiting in vain for his beloved to arrive on the train she was due on, Miller is laughing to keep from crying. The tears can’t be warded off on ‘The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,’ in which he glides through the sorrowful melody.
A re-recording of ‘Swiss Maid,’ which Miller first laid down in his early scuffling days, illustrates what may have been his most uncommon gift: the ability to unexpectedly touch the heart. The story of a young gal in Switzerland pining away for love starts light and lovely with Miller often slipping in a lilting yodel, and Ray Edenton’s guitar empathetically chiming through. The second verse is more pessimistic as his protagonist continues to wait for a sweetheart but to no avail. He then recounts “some say the maiden’s dream never came true” but that he is ultimately unsure how her story ended. He ends with a final benediction, finishing it acapella.
“Did she die unhappy?
I’d rather think that she found her love.
Wouldn’t it be better if she did find love?
Somewhere, some way.
Yo lo lo lady yay.
Yo lo lo lady yay.”
A sign of Miller’s stature at the end of 1965 was his appearance, sandwiched in between the Ronettes and the Byrds, in the filmed concert The Big T.N.T. Show. He performed ‘Dang Me,’ ‘Engine Engine #9,’ ‘Kind of the Road’ and his newest single, ‘England Swings.’ The hook-laden chorus of the latter unspools like a slightly out-of-focus nursery rhyme and Miller’s lyrics are comprised of long, tongue-twisting phrases that are both slightly satirical jabs at swinging-sixties Britannia as well as doffs of the bowler to the antic energy of the Beatles’ flicks A Hard Day’s Night and Help! In sum, it may just be Miller’s most irresistibly charming composition.
1966 represented a turning point for rock and pop music: a growing ambition in the music, the beginning of a gradual move from singles to the artistic statement of the album and a flurry of new groups and sounds hitting ears. It also marked the end of Roger Miller’s reign on the pop charts.
Words and Music was his album of that moment and suggests that his commercial wane resulted primarily because of the broad changes in popular taste underway but perhaps also to a certain extent to Miller’s understandable inability to sustain the frenetic pace of the previous two years, especially as the record includes covers of Elvis’ ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ the two big songs he wrote for Jim Reeves: ‘Billy Bayou’ and ‘Home,’ and others he recorded earlier in his career. Even so, Words and Music is predominantly another example of Miller’s flair as a songwriter and performer. ‘Less and Less’ is a classic mid-sixties country ballad, ‘Train of Life’ is a dramatic revisit of the some of terrain explored on ‘King of the Road’ and a re-recording of ‘Every Which-a-Way’ has Miller slowing down at the end of each chorus and then winding back up for the next verse.
‘I’ve Been a Long Time Comin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)’ is absolutely maniacal with Miller demonstrating his range as a falsetto as well as his ease in blazing through lyrics at almost-auctioneer speed, mixing words and sounds in an astonishing bridge over a motoring hi-hat rhythm by drummer Buddy Harman.
In all of 12 seconds, he sings:
“I say, “Hi there high line, hello highway”
Here come a big old semi my way
I stick up my thumb, hear the truck come
But the truck goes by and he looks like he’s flyin’
And he’s whoopin’ the big legs on my Levi’s
They go woop woop woop woop woop”
The opening track ‘My Uncle Used to Love Me But He Died,’ a play on an iconic line in Martin Ritt’s classic modern-day western Hud, is Miller in his absurdist glory singing lines like “who’ll bid me quarter, thirty cents for a ring of keys, three sixty-five for a dollar bill of groceries.” It’s followed by one of his most penetrating ballads, ‘Husbands and Wives,’ the ninth of ten straight top forty singles on the Billboard chart. It is a poignant examination of those moments that imperil matrimony. Over waltz time, he plaintively sings affecting lyrics like “the angry words spoken in haste, such a waste of two lives.” It is also a reminder that reducing Miller to being simply a uncommonly gifted signing court jester is a profoundly derivative characterization that he often bristled at and worked hard to resoundingly dispel.
Even as Miller soon became more of an interpreter of other people’s songs than his own—most notably, he was among the first to explore the work of newcomer Kris Kristofferson—and never fully captured the public’s attention, his extended moment in the sun from 1964 to 1966 remains an act of wondrous derring-do.
The music Miller wrote and made during that time continues to be laden with joy and cleverness. And just as he has you falling over with laughter, fulfilling the desire to be amused, he reaches deeper, proving that he knew that a secret to life is that it contains both bathos and pathos. It’s all part of the human comedy. It’s all worthy of a song.