Why Roger Miller is my hero (with a partial album guide)
Originally published at MoonRunners
It’s easy to write songs like Jim Morrison. No disrespect intended to a charismatic frontman and a great rock band, but everybody can and has written blatant attempts at poetry, shrouded in so much imagery that only the most astute listener will know or care what the songs actually mean.
It’s tougher to write something that is intelligent, yet so simple that you get it on the first listen, get the melody stuck in your head for days at a time and discover a new layer of meaning on every listen.
Roger Miller is Hank Williams’ only rival in this regard.
People today rarely talk about Roger Miller and if they do all they know is “Dang Me” and “King of the Road.” And they might know him as the dude who played the Rooster in Disney’s version of Robin Hood. While all of this is a part of Roger’s legacy, I feel that Nashville’s greatest songwriter and possibly it’s original outlaw is worthy of much more.
To put it simply, Roger Miller sounded like nothing else on the airwaves in the mid-’60s, country or otherwise. Both his performance and songwriting were totally unique. Yet somehow- in the Nashville sound, Chet Atkins era, no less- he got by with it, racking up both hit records and Grammy Awards.
But let’s let the man speak for himself:
“If l was a bird and you was a fish /What would we do, l guess we’d wish/For re-incarnation, re-incarnation/Wouldn’t it be a sensation/To come back too, like reincarnation?”
If l was a tree and you was a flower/What would we do, l guess we’d wait for the power/Of re-incarnation, re-incarnation/Wouldn’t it be a sensation/To come back too, like reincarnation?”
I love you, and don’t you know l always will/You’re a girl, l’m a boy/But suppose you were a rose/And l was a whippoorwill”
Name me any other artist who wrote a love song that direct, that simple, that honest and that much fun.
Roger Miller began his career in the late ’50s penning classic songs for the likes of Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, Faron Young and Ray Price. While in Nashville he met George Jones, which led to a recording contract with Starday Records, the best independent label of the day (more on them in a future article).
In the early ’60s he was signed to RCA for whom he recorded some brilliant material that was met with little commercial success. Following a divorce in 1963, Roger wanted to leave the music business, but he needed money and Smash Records (a legendary label that featured, among others, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Sir Douglas Quintet, and pre-superstar Charlie Rich) needed a singer. The rest is history. Free from the strict confines of Chet Atkins’ RCA productions, Roger was allowed to cut loose and in two days he had recorded over two albums worth of some of the most brilliant and bizarre songs in country music history.
Upon the release of “Dang Me” in 1964, Roger was a genuine star. “King of the Road,” “Do Wacka Do,” “Engine Engine Number Nine,” and “Chug-a-Lug” all crossed over to the pop charts and “England Swings” (possibly his worst song, other than “Bolivar,” which I’ll discuss later) went all the way to #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. That led to a TV show on NBC in 1966.
But at the same time, his music began to go downhill. He started incorporating more covers into his repertoire, adding unnecessary instruments and generally forsaking everything that had made him great.
Yet he still managed to be the first artist to record “Me and Bobby McGee,” He took roles in Robin Hood and the Rankin/Bass special Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey. Waylon covered one of his songs on perhaps his best album. But his star was fading and his best work was clearly behind him.
Or so it would seem.
After years of going from label to label, Roger recorded the album Old Friends with Willie Nelson in 1981. In 1985 he became the first, only, and probably last country artist to win a Tony Award for Big River, a Broadway musical based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
He performed occasionally, released one more album on MCA, but mostly lived quietly with his family before succumbing to lung cancer in 1992 at the age of 56. But even that didn’t stop him. In the early ’90s, Roger was again one of the most successful songwriters in the country music business after Alan Jackson covered “Tall, Tall Trees,” Brooks and Dunn did “Husbands and Wives” and he wrote “It Only Hurts When I Cry,” one of Dwight Yoakam’s biggest hits.
It’s hard to know how Roger’s career would have went. Would he have continued songwriting and became a cooler version of Bill Anderson? Would he have found a Rick Rubin, went back to basics and release more masterpieces? Would he have done more Broadway shows? Or maybe he just would have been relegated to playing Branson. We don’t know, but what we do know is that Roger Miller is one of the most unique, versatile, and natural talents in the history of American music and it’s time he got his due.
Partial Album Guide
The One and Only Roger Miller, 1965- A budget compilation of his early RCA sides, this is a more subdued Miller than many are used to but the songwriting shines through nonetheless. He would go on to re-record many of these songs later but these versions are still worth hearing. Perhaps the best thing here is “I Catch Myself Crying,” a perfect example of a heartbreaking country ballad.
Dang Me (Roger and Out), 1964- Clocking in at just 22 minutes, Roger Miller’s debut album for Smash leaves no room for filler and it is one of the greatest country albums of all time. Of particular interest here are “The Moon is High and So Am I,” “Got 2 Again,” and “I Ain’t Coming Home Tonight.”
The Return of Roger Miller, 1965- Possibly Roger’s best album. Including such classics as “Do Wacka Do,” “King of the Road,” “In the Summertime,” and “You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd,” the real highlight is the aforementioned “Reincarnation.”
The Third Time Around, 1965- Roger tones down the novelty songs just a bit on this album and it works to tremendous effect. “Engine Engine #9” is the hit, but true country fans will love “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” and “I’ll Pick up My Heart and Go Home.”
Words and Music, 1966- The first two tracks here define Roger Miller. The frantic, silly, and bizarre “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Dies” quickly gives way to the beautiful ballad “Husbands and Wives.” Other highlights here include “Billy Bayou” (Roger’s version of a song he had written for Jim Reeves,” “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin'” and “Home.”
Walkin’ in the Sunsine, 1967- The first album that is anything less than classic. Roger’s originals here are outstanding yet overproduced (see “Absence”) but the album is further bogged down by unneeded covers, such as “Ruby Don’t Take your Love to Town.”
A Tender Look at Love, 1968- Roger writes just one song here, the formulaic, boring “Tolivar” and it is, surprisingly one of the best songs here. He does a great version of “Little Green Apples,” but who the hell convinced him to try his his hand at Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.” My theory is that Dean Martin failed to show up a session and they had Roger fill in for him. Avoid this one at all costs, even if you find it for a dollar like I did.
Roger Miller. 1969- A major step forward from the previous album. Roger still writes only three songs here but the cover material (three Kristofferson songs, including “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” which was clearly influenced by Roger’s style, and several by Dennis Linde) is far more suited to his style than easy listening covers.
1970, 1970- Not quite as good as Roger Miller, but a continuation of the same theme. Only one original here, but his versions of Dennis Linde’s “The Tom Green County Fair” and Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” almost make up for it.
Also at MoonRunners