Reckless Driving And The Sound Of Roger Miller

Here’s how it happened. I was driving down the street one day in 1964 and listening to my car radio, which was tuned to a pop station. At that time, I was in a transitional stage, music-wise, and was beginning to appreciate a lot of the popular music of the sixties while still hanging on to my affinity for jazz and the old stuff. Suddenly, I heard something unbelievable coming through the speaker and it distracted me so much that I ran a red light and narrowly missed being T-boned by another car. On the radio, some hillbilly Bozo was singing, in a peculiarly annoying voice, “Dang me. Dang me. They oughta take a rope and hang me…”

Crossovers are nothing new in the music business. Artists who occasionally dip their musical toe into strange waters have been around for a long time and probably always will be. After all, the divisions among genres are seldom rigidly defined to begin with, and there have always been lots of musicians who straddle the blurry line and jump either way. However, what is a little more unusual is when an artist has songs that are legitimate big-time hits in a couple of different genres at the same time. Roger Miller did that again and again, and branched into writing and performing for broadway and the movies — and even had his own TV show.

Miller’s background mirrors that of many country singers of his era — the poor, unhappy childhood in Texas and Oklahoma, time spent in the army (rather than going to jail) followed by a number of years kicking around the Nashville scene. He was always a talented songwriter and it was that quality that enabled his first successes, as it has for many others. He wrote hits for many country stars and finally began recording on his own, but it wasn’t until his lament “Dang Me” climbed the country charts and immediately did the same on the pop side, that he became a star.

It was about this time that I heard it on the radio and thought I’d accidentally tuned into the hillbilly music station. I made fun of the song at first, but it seemed as if everyone but me liked it and I finally opened up my ears and began to listen. When he followed it almost immediately with his newest hit, “Chug-a-lug”, a hilarious take on discovering and enjoying moonshine, I began to listen to that too. Miller had a genius for catchy, clever lyrics, and his songs were small masterpieces of story-telling. I became a fan.

He continued to churn out hit after hit, and his top seller was that wonderful ballad to the pleasures of the hobo life, “King Of The Road”. (He even started a King Of The Road hotel chain.) He won countless Grammys and Tonys, and gained many other honors, including membership in several different halls of fame. He enjoyed the later years of his career but died in 1992, another heavy smoker fallen victim to cancer. (There’s a ton of biographical info available for him online, if you’re interested — here’s the Wiki entry.)

If you don’t remember some of his early tunes too well – or heaven forbid, haven’t heard them – here’s your chance to see what first annoyed me but then attracted me, over forty years ago.

First is “Dang Me” followed by “Chug-a-lug”. Both are available on a lot of different Roger Miller albums, but the link I’m posting is one of the best. It’s titled Twentieth Century Masters Millennium Collection.

Roger Miller — talented in every way, and still a pleasant listen.

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