Among his classic country peers, you’d be hard pressed to find an artist more universally respected and admired than Roger Miller (1936-1992).
As both a performer of his own material and as songwriter for others, the Texas-born singer/guitarist/actor is best known for tunes like “Dang Me,” “England Swings,” “Chug-a-Lug,” and his signature tune about the old stogie-smoking hobo, “King of the Road.” At the 1965 Grammy awards, he took home six statues – a record that would stand until 1984 when Michael Jackson nabbed eight in the wake of Thriller.
To celebrate his legacy, Miller’s son Dean has spearheaded the 2-CD, 30-track compilation King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller. It brings together interpretations by Miller’s songs by artists of his era (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Lorretta Lynn), acolytes (Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss), current mega stars (Brad Paisley, Eric Church, Kasey Musgraves), offbeat choices (alternative rock bands Cake and Toad the Wet Sprocket, actor John Goodman), and many performers both known and lesser-known.
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“A guy came to me and said he wanted to put together a tribute album to my father, and I said ‘You get the money, and I’ll get the stars!’ It took about a year to record the music and a year to talk to all of the lawyers and managers,” Miller laughs – adding that he produced some tracks in person while others were sent to him. “And I wanted it to be all cool people – nobody cheesy or gross or just because they sell a lot of records.”
In the process, Miller says he got to hear a lot of stories about his father from some of those contemporaries – like Merle Haggard – that he had not heard before. Haggard appears on the wistful “Old Friends” alongside other grizzled vets Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. It was one of the last things the Hag recorded before his 2016 death (the original version featured Miller, Nelson, Ray Price).
There’s even an actual Beatle involved with Ringo Starr. The country music-loving singer/drummer famously covered Buck Owens and Carl Perkins with the Fab Four. He takes on the humorous deep cut about a battling couple and the nightly racket they make, “Hey, Would You Hold It Down?”
In fact, while Miller certainly excelled in his more traditional country songs of heartache and nostalgia, he also infused a sly, subversive sense of humor or satire in many of his songs, which certainly set him apart.
“He had a huge, broad ability. He was funny, he was serious, he was deeply poetic and an amazing wordsmith. I really feel that my dad was on a whole other level of wisdom and depth and how he looked at things,” Miller offers. To support that, King of the Road is interspersed with short spoken pieces by Roger Miller himself recorded on stage and in the studio, offering wry anecdotes, jokes, and observations.
Born in Fort Worth and living in various other Lone Star State cities through his life, Texas naturally loomed large in Roger Miller’s story. “Texas is a whole other planet with its own culture and way of doing things, and I don’t think you can help but be influenced by it,” Dean Miller says.
He adds that the first club his father played in was in Shamrock, Texas, where he’d establish a routine of arriving on a Friday, working in a restaurant busing table or washing dishes, play at the club, go to a used car lot and find a vehicle to sleep in overnight, then start the whole process over again the next morning.
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As a father, Dean Miller says – like a lot of other progeny of musicians – he didn’t have a “normal” parent that was home all the time or would go to Boy Scout meetings. The troubadour had a total of seven children over the course of three marriages.
“I stuck with him, though. My full name is Roger Dean Miller Jr., and I also sing and play and I like to think that I have a quick wit like he did,” the son says. “My dad was also like a kid himself. Always wanting to do what was fun and going on the next thing. He wanted to travel and go and party and everything, but he was a good dad to me.”
King of the Road ends interestingly with the title track, but in this case each line or two is taken by a different one of the record’s performers. It’s something Miller says he wanted to do on purpose, seeing as it’s the one song everybody would want to cover on their own.
“I couldn’t imagine giving it to just one artist. It was so big and broad. I thought it would also emphasize the impact of that song and how far-reaching it and my father were by having everybody on it,” Miller says. “In the music industry, he’s revered. But outside, his work and impact is often overlooked. My hope is this record will remind people of how important he was.”