Texas-born, Oklahoma-raised 1960's country superstar Roger Miller (1936-1992) is one of those love-'em-or-hate-'em kind of artists... Some folks find his goofball novelty hits, like "King Of The Road," "Dang Me" to be irresistible singalong classics, while others (the more cranky among us) consider them to be tacky blights along the face of popular culture. Admittedly, some of Miller's follow-up singles, like "You Can't Rollerskate In A Buffalo Herd" and "Kansas City Star" don't have quite the same creative spark, but there has to be a middle ground somewhere. There's a lot of Miller's work that I think is great -- my complaint would be more with his later work, when he started to take his role as a Composer of Popular Song a little too seriously, and he started to craft overly poetic proto-countrypolitan songs that were somtimes a bit of a snooze. (Then again, he also wrote "Husbands And Wives," which is a doozy. Anyway, he was one of the big crossover stars of the decade, and definitely worth knowing about... Here's a quick look at his work...
Roger Miller "All Time Greatest Hits" (Mercury Chronicles, 2003)
Man, talk about being in the right place at the right time! Roger Miller's hitmaking heyday came in 1964-65, when the Beatles ruled the world, and Nashville was once again struggling not to lose its audience to an unstoppable rock'n'roll craze. While Buck Owens strapped on a Fender and injected a teenybopper bounce into his work, Miller tapped into the new Pop mindset by crafting several of the goofiest, perkiest, and most memorable novelty tunes ever recorded. "Dang Me," "Chug-A-Lug," and "You Can't Rollerskate In A Buffalo Herd" are all classics, and they swept the charts... As a Midwesterner, I'm also fond of "Kansas City Star," and, of course, the latter-day hobo anthem, "King Of The Road" is quite simply one of the most mindlessly addictive pop songs on the 'Sixties. The thing that's striking about Miller's early hits is how stripped-down they are -- the band is basically limited to rhythm, with little of the instrumental zip (or orchestral excess) that you heard in other contemporary country tunes. Miller came up with this punk-ish approach after nearly a decade kicking around the margins of Nashville, where he succeeded as a songwriter, but bombed as a performer. (Although, personally, I rather like his late '50s recordings for the Starday label...) Anyway, Miller came up with a great formula -- his songs were fun, and funny, the sparse arrangements left plenty of room for his "nutty" personality to come through, and he definitely stood out from the pack. The trouble came later, when, as a chart-topping singer-songwriter, he felt compelled to write and record more serious material, and his records became sluggish and mistakenly highbrow. It happens. This is probably the best collection of Miller's stuff on the Smash and Mercury labels you're likely to find, and will give you ample opportunity to judge for yourself the merits of the Miller ouvre. Recommended.
Roger Miller "Golden Hits" (Smash, 1965)
The first standard-issue best-of Roger Miller collection, this was a common fixture in used bins for decades to come, and still a great record. A very compact reading of his early hits, with classic Smash label artwork. And pretty much the only original Roger Miller LP to have made it unscathed into CD form! There are more extensive best-of albums available now, but this one's still a doozy.
Roger Miller "His Greatest Hits" (Curb, 1991)
Re-recorded versions of a dozen of his best-known songs. These renditions remain faithful to the '60s originals, almost note for note, though not tone for tone, and they definitely lack the energetic spark and crisp production style of the Smash singles. Still, it's not bad... In fact, this is probably good enough to fool most listeners, although the originals are definitely better.
Roger Miller "King Of The Road: The Genius Of Roger Miller" (Polygram, 1995)
A fairly definitive 3-CD box set which includes his later hits on Columbia, his early ones on RCA, and a bunch of the even earlier material from the '50s that came out on Starday. I haven't heard this collection, but I'd imagine that for the true Roger Miller fan, this is the way to go!
Roger Miller "King Of The Road" (Bear Family, 1994)
This single disc set includes his early '60s RCA material as well, and all the big hits, too. Plus, all the great liner notes and impeccable sound quality that we've come to expect from Bear Family. If you're looking for a single CD that encompasses the key parts of Miller's career, this German import may be the way to go.
Roger Miller "A Man Like Me - The Early Years of Roger Miller " (Bear Family, 2006)
This is a fun collection of early work by country singer Roger Miller, in the years before he hit the bigtime as a novelty-singing goofball in the early 1960s. These late '50s recordings on Starday and Decca show us a different Miller -- a straight country singer in the honkytonk mould, and a pretty darn good one at that! I have a bunch of this stuff on old LPs, but it sure is nice to hear it on CD as well, especially with Bear Family's tried-and-true top-quality sound mix.
Roger Miller "Oh Boy Classics Presents..." (Oh Boy, 2000)
Hmm. How odd. From the title, you'd expect this disc to be classic performances from the good ole days, but instead they are from some unspecified Nashville sessions from an unknown date (possibly in the late '70s? Early '80s?) that features once-ubiquitous studio pickers such as Roy M. Huskey, Jerry Kennedy and Hargus Robbins. These recordings are okay, but naturally pale in comparison to the original versions, especially since Miller tried so hard to keep things so much the same. A dodgily-packaged reissue series from a label that I normally have great respect for.
Roger Miller "Roger And Out" (Smash, 1964) (LP)
After a decade in Nashville, plugging away as a songwriter on staff for various publishing houses, as an anonymous artist recording song demos and as an unsuccessful recording artist for Decca and RCA, Roger Miler finally hooked up with the Smash label and became an "overnight" nationwide success. This album was later Dang Me/Chug-A-Lug to capitalize on the success of those early hits, songs that propelled him to the top of the country charts, and paved the path for his biggest success, the crossover single, "King Of The Road..." Smash Records, indeed.
Roger Miller "Roger Miller" (RCA-Camden, 1964) (LP)
The folks at RCA were quick to capitalize on Miller's stardom, rushing out this collection of flop singles and leftover studio tracks from his early career... Includes his version of "When Two Worlds Collide," a hit that he co-wrote with Bill Anderson which had been Miller's first entry into the Country Top 10. Worth checking out, for sure.
Roger Miller "The Return Of Roger Miller" (Smash, 1965) (LP)
And here we go: the record that really made Roger Miller a household name, with the killer single, "King Of The Road," which wound up being one of the biggest Pop hits of 1965, and certainly one of Miller's most evocative, singalong classics. It also contains "wacky" tracks such as "Do-Wacka-Do" and "Buffalo Herd," which one must admit are pretty annoying, and don't hold up well over the years. Still... what a success story!
Roger Miller "The Third Time Around" (Mercury-Wing, 1965) (LP)
Roger Miller "Wild Child: The Madcap Sensation Of Country Music" (Starday, 1965) (LP)
A collection of Miller's early recordings and singles on the Starday label... Pretty good, and pretty twangy!
Roger Miller "The One And Only Roger Miller" (RCA-Camden, 1965) (LP)
Roger Miller "Words And Music By..." (Smash, 1966) (LP)
Roger Miller "Walkin' In The Sunshine" (Smash, 1967) (LP)
Roger Miller "Waterhole #3" (Smash, 1967) (LP)
Apparently this is a soundtrack album...(?)
Roger Miller "A Tender Look At Love" (Smash, 1968) (LP)
Roger Miller "Roger Miller" (Smash, 1969) (LP)
Roger Miller "A Trip In The Country" (Mercury, 1970) (LP)
(Produced by Jerry Kennedy)
Before hitting the big time as a novelty performer, Miller was a true-blue, bona fide 1950's hillbilly hitmaker, writing songs for a number of artists, most notably for George Jones (with whom he co-wrote "Tall, Tall Trees"), Faron Young (who recorded Miller's "That's the Way I Feel") and Ray Price, who had a hit with "Invitation to the Blues." On this album Miller took a brief detour from his post-"Dang Me" countrypolitan trajectory and went back to the wellspring of his early years, singing simple, rootsy, pleasantly robust versions of a bunch of his old honkytonk songs. The backing band are a bunch of old pros -- Harold Bradley, Hargus Robbins, Tommy Jackson, Buddy Emmons and others -- and they manage to stay true to the feel of the '50s originals. This isn't as dynamic as the older versions but it's a nice surprise to hear this much twang in a commercial country record of this vintage. Definitely worth tracking down, and deserving of reissue.
Roger Miller "Roger Miller, 1970" (Smash, 1969) (LP)
Roger Miller "Dear Folks, Sorry I Haven't Written Lately" (Columbia, 1973) (LP)
Roger Miller "Supersongs" (Columbia, 1975) (LP)
Roger Miller "Off The Wall" (Windsong, 1978) (LP)
Roger Miller "Making A Name For Myself" (20th Century Fox, 1979) (LP)
Roger Miller & Willie Nelson "Old Friends" (Columbia, 1982)
Roger Miller "Big River: The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn" (MCA, 1985) (Soundtrack)
Roger Miller "Roger Miller" (MCA, 1986) (LP)
(Produced by Jimmy Bowen & Roger Miller)
This self-titled album reprises many songs on the "Big River" soundtrack, just without the incidental music... It's a surprisingly strong set, with several well-crafted and soulful songs, including "Some Hearts Get All The Breaks," "You Oughta Be Here With Me" and "Days Of Our Wives." Maybe less vital is the half-desperate attempt at generating a little spark with the anti-taxation novelty song, "Guv'ment," where he fake-cusses about all the bad ways that Uncle Sam sticks it to the little guy. Overall, though, Miller's last studio album stands up pretty well, with solid, competent backing and Miller pretty committed to his vocals. His voice definitely had more of an old-man tone to it: it took me a while to place it, but he almost sounds like Merle Haggard on a lot of the songs. Worth a spin!
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