11 Nov 2018

King of the Road: a tribute to Roger Miller

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 11 November 2018

William Dart looks at a new tribute album to the American songwriter Roger Miller, most famous perhaps for his song "King of the Road". The CD features artists such as Dolly Parton, Willy Nelson, Lyle Lovett and Loretta Lynn.

King of the Road, Cover Image

King of the Road, Cover Image Photo: BMG Records

 

'King of the Road' was a hit for Roger Miller in 1965, but he’d been recording already for eight years – even if it was small-time, in fact, very small-time.

Miller had come from country farm-stock. As he put it with his customary wit, talking to Hollywood’s Hedda Hopper. “I was born in Erick, Oklahoma.”  “What’s that near?” she asked, only to receive the tart reply, “It’s close to extinction.”

Miller wasn’t destined to be a cotton-picking Oklahoman farmboy, and he moved to Nashville after a stint in the Korean War, or "Clash of 1952" as he later described the conflict.

By 1957 his career set off with a bumpy progression of seven-inch 45s. The first was 'Poor Little John', a pungent piece of fiddle fever (with Miller at the bow).

Now we can hear much more in this than folks might have garnered back then. Surely there’s a hint of Doug Kershaw’s Cajun jive, still a decade away. And as for the lyrics, are we gingerly opening a door on a dysfunctional Southern family, eventually exposed by Randy Newman in his 'Old Kentucky Home'?

Miller didn’t forget this song’s punch line, “Your mama used to love you but your mama’s gone”.

Nine years on, in 1966, with a bit of a gender twist, it gave a title to a quintessential Miller song, 'My Uncle Use to Love Me but She Died'.

And this particular number is not all stomping country chorus. The breaks have a touch of country rap or perhaps talking blues to them. If 'King of the Road' had revealed a Nashville Kerouac cruising  down the interstate looking for a cheap motel, then he’s now settled into his accommodation and  surveying the circus of life, from finger-lickin’ chicken and hamburgers to alligator-kissing and ferris wheel rides.

As for the singing, critic Robert Christgau caught it with snap precision, describing Miller as a singer and songwriter who could also hiccup, gargle, yodel and flap his lids. True, he couldn’t really rollerskate in a buffalo herd, he went on, but he could be happy when he’d a mind.

With Roger Miller’s son Dean behind the new King of the Road project, it’s respectful and fairly conservative. The cast is top drawer, with more than a sprinkling of country royalty.

Sometimes you feel that his father’s bracing cheekiness has been slightly muffled.

The song 'England Swings' appeared in 1965, pre-empting the UK’s Mod and Carnaby Street culture that would bloom just a year later. This was the England that we saw advertised by British Airways and Air NZ in Playdate magazines, whenever we went movie-going.

But instead of the disarmingly casual air of the original, with a breezy, whistling Roger Miller, Lyle Lovett might as well have been in a tuxedo.

If you want your genuine Miller brand, Brad Paisley delivers it straight from the stubbie in the song 'Dang Me'.

Everything’s there, from the jazzy scat of its opening to the dark-toned ramble of the song itself. All lit up by a country band that might well have stepped down from Grand Old Opry Heaven. It was recorded at Nashville’s Station West Studios, with the terrific Randle Currie on pedal steel and an equally funky fiddler, doomed, unfortunately to stay nameless.

One of Roger Miller’s major career achievements was the Broadway success of his 1985 musical, Big River.

Writer William Hauptmann fashioned a sharp book from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Miller provided the crackling music and lyrics to go with it.

There’s not so much of Big River’s music in this tribute. That’s a pity, because some of its songs show a real sense of progression from what he had previously been writing just for himself.

But there are surprises, as well. One is sensing the ghosts of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht hovering in the wings when John Goodman, as Huck’s father, rips into governmental corruption.

Goodman was in the 1985 Broadway cast and reprises his performance of this song for the tribute.

King of the Road, the new Roger Miller tribute, is also an album with a spiritual core.

In amongst the quippy fast-sings and the laid-back heart-melters, there’s this chorus, taken from Big River. It was one of the highlights of the original cast album, powerfully delivered by a chorus of slaves, led by Carol Dennis.

33 years later, it’s Ronnie Dunn who takes the lead, sonorously and soulfully supported by the Blind Boys of Alabama. True, for just a few, terrifying bars at the beginning, I thought I was in for a replay of that irritatingly bouncy Amen chorus from my least favourite nun movie, Lilies of the Field. But, once those big drums boom and the band moves in, it’s an unshakeable testament of faith.

Listen to these songs and several others by clicking 'Listen' above.

Music Details

NB. As well as the newly released King of the Road, A Tribute to Roger Miller, William plays original Miller recordings from the collection with a similar title, King of the Road, The Genius of Roger Miller, released in 1995 by Mercury Records.

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'King of the Road' (Miller) – Roger Miller
King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller
(Mercury)

'Poor Little John' (Miller) – Roger Miller
King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller
(Mercury)

'My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died' (Miller) – Roger Miller
King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller
(Mercury)

'My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died' (Miller) – Eugene Chadbourne
Country Music of Southeastern Australia
(Entropy Stereo)

'England Swings' (Miller) – Lyle Lovett
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)

'Dang Me' (Miller) – Brad Paisley
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)

'The Last Word in Lonesome is Me' (Miller) – Dolly Parton
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)

'King of the Road' (Miller) – Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard et al
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)

'Overture' (Miller) – Big River Orchestra
Big River, Original Broadway Cast Recording
(MCA)

'Guv’ment' (Miller) – John Goodman
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)

'River in the Rain' (Miller) – Original Broadway Cast members
Big River, Original Broadway Cast Recording
(MCA)

'The Crossing' (Miller) – Ronnie Dean, Blind Boys of Alabama
King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller
(BMG)