Roger Miller was always a tough nut to crack when it came to defining—too humorous to be taken seriously but often too good to be ignored. Whether it was songs talking about “bobbies on bicycles, two by two” or skating in a buffalo herd, the tunes had a certain quirky-yet-catchy quality to them. But behind each nonsensical tune, gems such as “King of the Road” or “Me and Bobby McGee” were close by. This collection of both is twenty songs deep and runs less than an hour. Thankfully, though, Miller’s legacy as one of the finer, yet underrated, songwriters Nashville had to offer is in full force. And if those who have covered his songs are a measuring stick, he’s in elite company with Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, and Jim Reeves to name a few.
The opening track is an enjoyable song called “Dang Me”, recorded in 1964 and reaching Number 1 on Billboard‘s country charts. Miller’s acoustic guitar is what carries this song, while Miller scats a little bit after the chorus, at times bringing to mind the late Johnny Cash throughout the number. “Dang me / Dang me / They oughta take a rope and hang me”, he sings before sounding like a horse. The way Miller approached most songs was to get the most out of them in the shortest amount of time. And this is no exception, creating a toe-tapping old-time country sound. “Chug-A-Lug” is possibly the earliest binge-drinking tune on record. Another simplistic track that just ambles along like most Miller songs, the piano work is another highlight before Miller talks about doing a double back flip.
“Do Wacka Do” has more of a standard, traditional ‘60s country sound, despite the humorous catchphrase and more adlib scatting. “In the Summertime (You Don’t Want My Love)” has a jugband aura to it and has a certain polka tone to it. It’s probably the earliest of many highlights here. What’s more amazing is its quick pace, sounding like two minutes at just past the minute mark. “King of the Road”, probably his signature song, is a finger-snapping tune that recalls what Bobby Darin was doing during “Mack the Knife”. Although this track was covered several times, including by the Proclaimers, this is still the best recording by far. “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd” is basically self-explanatory. Miller, to use a Brit term, is “taking the piss” with the audience, having a laugh while still making it a good song overall.
“One Dyin’ and a Buryin’” has Miller talking through the early portion before the country honky tonk takes over. And Miller drops the fun and games here for one of his better sensible tunes. “Last Word in Lonesome Is Me” only adds more proof that his talents were always apparent. “England Swings”, which starts with whistling, is a brief, audible Fodor’s London guide for the most part. “Let me tell you where to go, go to England-O!” Miller sings, the rhythm arrangement sparse, but again melodic. “I’ve Been a Long Time Leavin’ (But I’ll Be a Long Time Gone)” has the verse and chorus completed in thirty seconds as the singer goes into a quasi-falsetto in certain spots. It’s also an early rap moment as he reaches the song’s homestretch and laughs like he just swallowed the canary.
“Walkin’ in the Sunshine” often resembles a fellow comedy-meets-serious performer in Ray Stevens. The tune, which cracked the Top 40 in both the pop and the country charts, features a late ‘60s-style organ that adds a great deal to the song. “Little Green Apples” shows Miller’s skill, but if there’s one drawback, it has to be how the song fades out so early, almost before tune track ends. “Me and Bobby McGee” has a certain flare to it, but doesn’t measure up to Kris Kristofferson’s original. Miller lets loose a tad on this track, which isn’t saying that much given how tame it truly is. The ending is fully flushed out with a larger ensemble. “South” exemplifies how Miller’s best work came in just talking about the mundane things like going for beer or just sitting on one’s porch. This has a swing to it courtesy of horns and a subtle string section supporting it.
Miller passed away over ten years ago after a year-long battle with throat cancer. While his passing came too early, this body of work should stand much longer than anyone could have hoped for. The line between quirkiness and corny is thin, but Miller toed it better than anyone around.
// Notes from the Road
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