“My name is Roger Miller, probably one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived, and I have written a few songs, probably eight or nine hundred in my professional career and I would like to do about 700 or 750 here tonight, whatever we have time for.” Bantering with the crowd at a live performance, Miller, king of the tongue-in-cheek humblebrag, pokes a little fun at himself while also reminding his audience — and now us — of a singular truth: Roger Miller was one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and listeners only familiar with “King of the Road,” “England Swings,” or “Dang Me” miss the emotional depth and range of Miller’s songs.
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller brilliantly captures the many facets of Miller’s music, reminding us how deeply Miller influenced so many artists, not only in country music but also in gospel music and rock. Miller’s son, Dean, who along with executive producer Colby Barnum Wright put together this album, says, “The way I wanted to do it was to go to the artists who were influenced by my dad and let them choose the songs they wanted to do; some of them knew right away how they wanted to do a song, and some we worked with.”
“All the artists we started asking to participate really wanted to do it,” says Wright. “I was fighting for this record to be the tribute album,” he says, and, indeed, this monumental, two-album set achieves even more than Miller and Wright hoped for. It honors Miller’s may achievements, it reminds us of Miller’s canny, quick mind, it introduces us to some new artists, and it takes us deep into Miller’s catalog to demonstrate his musical genius.
Asleep at the Wheel and Huey Lewis kick off the album with a high-octane version of “Chug-a-Lug” and capture the raucous spirit of getting high off that “first taste of sin” that makes you “wanna holler hi-de-ho / burns your tummy, don’t you know?” Brad Paisley delivers an almost note-by-note faithful rendition of “Dang Me,” channeling Miller himself; in fact, many of Paisley’s own songs owe a debt to Miller, with their playful look at love, lust, alcohol, and faith. Kacey Musgraves’ shuffling “Kansas City Star” — one of the album’s many highlights — manages to evoke the ironic joy of a singer who’s left home to be a star and ends up being a “star” in a Kansas City shopping center parking lot. A cast of Opry stars — Bill Anderson, John Anderson, The Bellamy Brothers, Roy Clark, Larry Gatlin, Bobby Goldsboro, Jan Howard, Brenda Lee, and Tanya Tucker — navigate the hilarity of “You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd,” illustrating that sometimes it takes an Opry to testify to Miller’s musical genius.
Mandy Barnett sultry vocals capture the mournful warning of “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops,” while Rodney Crowell drains the stark emotion of living in a “World So Full of Love,” and not enough to go around. Alison Krauss and The Cox Family leave us with a hauntingly beautiful medley of “You Oughta Be Here with Me” and “I’ve Been a Long Time Leaving.” Ronnie Dunn and The Blind Boys of Alabama testify on the electrifying “The Crossing,” which embraces our identities as “pilgrims on a journey / though the darkness of the night / we are bound for other places / crossing to the other side.”
Also included on the tribute album are Miller’s “Oo De Lally,” which he sang in Disney’s Robin Hood; here Eric Church delivers a faithful version, close to Miller’s original. Actor John Goodman, whose career Miller helped launch, reprises his role from the Broadway musical Big River, singing “Guv’ment.” Flatt Lonesome draws out the aching beauty of “When Two Worlds Collide” in their gentle, somber version, while Jamey Johnson and Emmylou Harris offer a subdued version of “Husbands and Wives,” a song also recorded over the years by artists as diverse Ringo Starr, Neil Diamond, and Brooks and Dunn. Various artists — including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Radney Foster, Shawn Camp, Bill Anderson, Mandy Barnett, and Emmylou Harris, among many others — close out the collection with a rousing, joyous, and spirit-filled “King of the Road.”
While some songs don’t work as well as others — Cake’s “Reincarnation” and Ringo Starr’s “Hey, Would You Hold It Down?” fall flat — King of the Road delivers a heartfelt gift to the memory and music of one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived. As Wright observes, “I realized that the world should be aware that Roger Miller has such an in-depth mind; his songs weren’t just humorous.” King of the Road serves as the ideal showcase for Miller’s range.
His son, Dean, remarks, my dad “was brilliant in his use of words; he was a wordsmith. He had a way of saying so much in such a little amount of space. The number-one rule of songwriting for him was to say as much as he could in as few words as possible.” King of the Road joyously, and joyfully, celebrates the Miller’s musical legacy, for the artists on the album deliver emotion-filled performances, tender renditions of songs to a writer and man who’s so deeply influenced their own music.