Week 25: Roger Miller, King of the Road/Country’s Class Clown
One or more of the interview subjects in And Here’s The Kicker…, Mike Sacks’ fine exploration of the comic mind, posits that a gift for comic thought represents a benign form of mental illness, since comic geniuses process the world in ways not only different from most people’s thought processes, but antithetical to them. They think in jagged zigzags instead of straight lines, subvert and distort conventions and clichés, and make words do wonderful, unexpected little tricks. Perhaps that’s why comic geniuses tend to suffer from plenty of non-benign mental illnesses as well, like insomnia, crippling depression, Asperger syndrome, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I thought about that observation a lot while reading about and listening to Roger Miller, country’s preeminent comic genius. Miller was many things: a brilliant songwriter, a wildly idiosyncratic singer and vocal stylist, a Tony-winning composer for the stage, the narrator of and primary songwriter for Disney’s animated Robin Hood, and one of the all-time great musical eccentrics. But he was never normal. His whip-smart, lightning-fast brain saw connections that eluded everyone else, and filtered the raw data of everyday life into kaleidoscopic new shapes.
Just about everyone interviewed in Ain’t Got No Cigarettes, Lyle E. Style’s worshipful, aggressively half-assed oral history of Miller’s turbulent life and times, calls Miller the fastest, funniest mind they’d ever encountered and gleefully repeat favorite one-liners and quips. Style’s book consequently feels less like a proper oral history than a marathon account of funny things Miller did and clever things he said.
My favorite anecdote in the book comes from a Miller friend who recalls watching a particularly beautiful sunset with the singer-songwriter and having him reflect, “Wow. Imagine what God could have done if he’d had money.”
That was apparently a pretty representative one-liner from Miller. The book’s interview subjects often talk about how Miller would say something that appeared nonsensical on the surface, but made a peculiar sort of sense the more they thought about it.
Miller loved playing the wise fool, but history has taught us that clowns rarely get much respect. Given the enormous amount of accolades he received in his lifetime, it seems a little strange to argue that Miller has never quite gotten his due. He accomplished an awful lot. During his mid-’60s heyday, Miller hosted his own primetime show on NBC that probably would have lasted longer than 13 episodes if its host hadn’t been high on speed its entire duration. Before Michael Jackson’s Thriller surpassed him, Miller had the distinction of winning a record-setting 11 Grammys. He won the Tony for writing the music and lyrics for Big River, a well-received musical based on The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.
Yet many of Miller’s early albums have gone out of print, and when the names of great country eccentrics and songwriters are bandied about, his name is seldom one of the first that springs to mind. Such is the complicated legacy of the musical funnyman. In his 1997 autobiography, Johnny Cash said that of all the voices in country, Miller’s deep bass reminded him most of his own. But where Cash came to personify the stoic dignity of the workingman, Miller wrote and performed clamorous ditties like “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died” and his own personal favorite, “You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd,” which bordered on novelty songs.
Then there was the matter of Miller’s singing. Miller’s oddball delivery reflected both the loopy workings of his mind and the incredible amount of speed he was on when he wrote and recorded many of his early hits. Where Cash sounded like a majestic old oak, Miller filled his songs with scat-singing, nonsense sounds, crazy voices, his trademark cry of “Whoop, whoop, whoop!”, whiplash-inducing shifts from bass to falsetto, and other assorted foolishness. When Miller ran out of beautiful, ridiculous, strangely perfect words, he filled out his songs with the overly caffeinated throat-clearing of a hyperactive child who can’t sit still or stay quiet for longer than a few seconds.
Before I began researching Miller for this entry, I knew him exclusively as the man behind 1965’s “King Of The Road,” an utterly irresistible ode to the hobo life that instantly became a standard not just in country, but in pop, rock, and adult contemporary. It’s simultaneously a brilliant illustration of Miller’s songwriting gifts and something of an anomaly in his repertory.
Miller often seems to be in a mad rush to finish his songs, but on “King Of The Road,” he takes his sweet time. Opening with beatnik finger-snaps and the soothing strutting of stand-up bass, Miller’s signature song swings with a syncopated, shuffling rhythm as rooted in jazz as country. Lyrically, however, the song explores themes endemic to country: poverty, box cars, the timeless allure of the open road and a life unencumbered by responsibilities, the superiority of common folk to pseudo-sophisticated city slickers, hobo culture, and the benefits of playing the angles. It’s also one of the few Miller songs that lends itself to covers. The singer-songwriter left such an indelible stamp on his songs that other singers rightfully feared they could never make them their own. “King Of The Road,” on the other hand, is so perfect and so malleable that everyone from Dean Martin to Rufus Wainwright has covered it in a number of idioms.
“King Of The Road” is Miller’s biggest, best-known song, but Miller’s first No. 1 hit, 1964’s “Dang Me,” is more representative of his oeuvre. It opens with frantic guitar-picking and scat-singing before a classic Miller opening: “Here I sit high, gitting ideas / Ain’t nothing but a fool to live like this / Out all night and running wild / Woman sitting home with a month-old child.” Then the gleefully morose chorus beckons, “Dang me! Dang me! They oughta take a rope and hang me / high from the highest tree / Woman, would you weep for me?” According to a tale in Ain’t Got No Cigarettes, the original pressing of the song contained Miller saying almost inaudibly, “one fucking more” between verses. Then the profanity was detected, and the song was hastily recalled and replaced with a cleaned-up version. As always, though, Miller found a way to inject the song with his irrepressible personality and gift for wiggy wordplay through couplets like “They say roses are red and violets are purple / Sugar’s sweet and so is maple surple / I’m the seventh out of seven sons / My dad was a pistol, I’m a son of a gun.”
Like punk rock, Miller’s early singles favored humor, personality, energy, and speed over virtuosity or slickness. Like the Ramones, Miller seldom needed more than two minutes to get his point across, score some laughs, and make an indelible impression. His songs often combined militant jauntiness with dark gallows humor. On “Hard Headed Me,” for example, he bemoans his incorrigible ways and tendency to speak out of turn once too often, then suggests, “I’d be better off in my coffin. ”
Miller’s beautiful mind often attacked familiar subject matter in unexpected ways. There are plenty of songs about mismatched and star-crossed love, but few ponder what would happen if the lovers in question were alternately a bird and a fish, a tree and a flower, and a rose and a whippoorwill, as Miller does in “Reincarnation.” And there are lots of ditties about troubled relationships, but few hit upon a metaphor as vivid and memorable as a plague of vultures circling over the couple in question, waiting to swoop in and feast upon the carcass of a dead love. That’s the startlingly cinematic conceit behind Miller’s “What Are Those Things (With Big Black Wings).”
Of course, it wasn’t all crazy songs with telltale titles like “Chug-A-Lug,” “Do-Wacka-Do,” “The Moon Is High (And So Am I),” and “Atta Boy Girl.” Miller was also capable of writing sensitive, tender ballads like “Husbands And Wives” and “A Million Years Or So.” But the goofy songs made him a star. For years, speed fueled Miller’s creativity, and when he tried to kick the habit, he tended to go into lengthy dry spells as a writer. Miller more or less stopped writing songs for himself in 1978, and he scored his last hit in 1982 with “Old Friends.”
As with so many country icons, the bad habits that sustained Miller through fruitful, productive, half-remembered years of sleepless nights eventually killed him. Miller supplemented his pill-popping with endless cigarettes. To no one’s surprise, he eventually died of lung cancer at 56 in 1992, and though his biggest success came at the beginning of his recording career, he must have taken enormous pride in the success of 1985’s Big River, his triumphant return to songwriting. The goofball kid from Oklahoma with the crazy voice and warped, boundless imagination had conquered Broadway.
“I don’t like to do things I don’t like to do / I like to just do what I please,” Miller sings with delicious literal-mindedness on “Our Hearts Will Play The Music.” Over the course of his long, checkered, frequently glorious career, Miller did just that. The world is a better, more joyous place for it.
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