[18 April 2012]
Jody Miller became a popular country star during the mid-‘60s, thanks to her hit “Queen of the House”, an answer song to Roger Miller’s signature tune “King of the Road”. Miller received the Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance for that year, but the fact that she won it for a novelty tune indicates the poor regard Grammy voters had for female country singers during this time period. Oh, it’s not that Miller was bad. She sang well, but the fact that a woman did not have a single #1 country hit during 1965 reveals their low status.
Miller continued to work in the pop country vein during the rest of the decade, but in 1970 she signed with Epic and began working with producer Billy Sherrill, best known for his countrypolitan style. These are the sides collected on this new collection. The early cuts sound like Miller’s channeling Tammy Wynette, which is not surprising considering The First Lady of Country Music was also produced by Sherrill. But Miller really comes into her own by channeling the girl group and female vocalists of the ‘60s county style. She had a top five country hit with her version of the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. In the liner notes Miller explained that her rendition had its roots in George Harrison’s “He’s So Fine”. Indeed, the steel guitar line artfully mimics Harrison’s sitar in an eerily beautiful way. When the former Queen of the House sings lines such as, “If I were a queen / and he asked me to leave my throne / I’d do anything that he’d ask / Anything to make him my own”, it comes off as mainstream country music from that era.
Miller has other success with similar covers, including Barbara Lewis’ “Baby, I’m Yours”, the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. A comparison between these early ‘60s pop R&B hits and early ‘70s pop country covers reveals much about how times had changed. In the beginning of the turbulent decade, a pop song by black female singers was a radical act in and of itself. White teen idols seemed safe as milk and were promoted by major labels in light of the payola scandals. The civil rights movement was in the news daily. Girl groups seemed like another step towards racial equality and were trumpeted as such in the black press of the day.
However, during the early 1970s there was a return to the country roots of rock and roll music as witnessed by acts such as the Eagles and the Allman Brothers. Miller’s covers of the girl group hits signaled a conservative reclaiming of a time when mixing R&B with country was rebellious (think Elvis and Rockabilly). This time, defiance was expressed by being tame.She was not the only one to do this. Heck, she was part of a larger movement of both rock and country artists who joined together during this period as a part of a retrenchment after the excesses at the end of the ‘60s.
But Miller does so effortlessly. Part of the reason why her covers seemed fresh instead of retro at the time is because she doesn’t push her vocals. She has a small ache in her voice, but sings almost conversationally. If anything, she sometimes lowers the volume and croons softly if she needs to emphasize a feeling. She mostly invites the listener to relax as she sings about tender love. She soothes more than excites the listener.
On a related note, Miller sings the most chaste version of the old folk song “House of the Rising Sun” that I have ever heard. She turns Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” into a well-scrubbed declaration of love instead of the earthy way in which Aretha Franklin turned it into an ode about being connected to one’s bodily urges. Because of this, Miller’s versions stand out in a positive way. She’s no copycat. She makes the songs her own and they reflect her personality.
All of the 25 songs on this compilation bear hearing. Some listeners may reject light country pop because it inherently does not address serious issues in a somber manner, but Miller’s oeuvre from the ‘70s suggests there is much pleasure to be found in the surface of such sounds, and the renditions suggest much more than immediately hits the ear.