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The Return of Roger Miller

Wow. I didn't realize how lucky I was when I found a very good vinyl copy of this album at the Reckless Records on Milwaukee Avenue a couple months ago. I bought it just because I've always been a big fan of Roger Miller, since I was nine years old, really, when his mid-60s smashes "Dang Me" and "King of the Road" succeeded somehow in pushing the British Invasion off my radar for about five seconds. But now that I check it out, I see that The Return of Roger Miller (1965, Smash Records) has NEVER been released as a CD. Amazing. This was his "King of the Road" album! What gives? It turns out the big songs off it have only been issued on CD in "greatest hits" form.

roger_miller_return.jpgWell, even before I realized that, I was thinking I had a winner for Bin Dive. This is Miller at the absolute top of his game, funnin', pickin', grinnin,' gettin' all "novelty" on me. It's too bad he's always been pigeonholed as a novelty act because there's so much wonderful classic country flowing just below the surface. Of course, it's because of the pop-crossover surface that I ever even had heard of him in the first place. The fact that he got played on every Top 40 rock 'n' roll station in the land had a lot to do with his bright and upbeat way of telling what are really typically downbeat, cry-in-your-beer, country-style tales of woe. It was Miller's unique way of telling horrible stories with a sly grin and an anarchic attitude that elevates his music beyond novelties and into something that's just as profound and American as any Hank Williams weeper.

Miller teamed with Nashville producer and guitar genius Jerry Kennedy for his string of big 1960s hits. They recorded most of them over an 11-month period in 1964 for Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records that also had James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis under contract. "Dang Me," off their first album Roger and Out, became such a huge hit that Miller, who had moved to California (living in an apartment above Lee Hazlewood's garage) to find an acting job, hurried back to Nashville to cut more songs. The result was his finest moment, The Return of Roger Miller, and one of the greatest songs in the history of country music, "King of the Road."

I think anyone who knows anything about '60s pop or country music knows "King of the Road," so I won't spend too much time on it. But it has been described as perhaps the most perfect country song ever written, even though it has a very jazzy arrangement, with those unforgettable finger snaps and crawling bass line performed by Bob Moore. Here's a list of the well-deserved Grammys it won in 1965: best country song; best country vocal performance, male; best country and western recording, single; best contemporary vocal performance, male; and (get this) best contemporary (rock 'n' roll), single. So it was judged the best country AND rock 'n' roll song in a year when the Stones dropped "Satisfaction" and The Beatles were busy playing Shea Stadium. Wow. Talk about crossover.

King Of the Road

"King of the Road" was the first track off side two, and it set the stage for the album. Jerry Kennedy, who later became known for his overdubbing and studio machinations, instead used a sparse technique for Miller, whose quirky, complex lyrics delivered in his unique voice needed to be brought to the front and allowed to shine, and that's just what Kennedy did on this album.

The other big hit off The Return of Roger Miller was "(And You Had a) Doo-Wacka-Doo." This follows the Miller formula in that it's an upbeat song about wishing someone ill, just as "King" is an upbeat song about homelessness. "I wish I had your happiness, and you had a doo-wacka-doo, wacka-doo, wacka-doo, wacka-doo." Not very charitable, and yet it fairly oozes sunshine and contains probably the finest example of Miller's outrageous, ultra-high scat singing. Certainly no one in the realm of country music at a time when the lush and plush "Nashville Sound" was taking hold could claim to be so free-spirited. No wonder Miller scored big with college kids.

This album is nothing but one strong song after another. "Reincarnation" is a prime example of Miller's patented playfulness, which appealed so strongly to kids but also had a hidden darkness. One the surface it's a silly song that asks questions like,

If l was a bird and you was a fish
What would we do? l guess we'd wish
For reincarnation, reincarnation
Wouldn't it be a sensation
To come back too, like reincarnation

But guess what? It's really about longing, loneliness and death. Am I right? Just sayin'. Then there's "That's the Way It's Always Been," with its signature line, "Fall yourself in love and get your teeth kicked in." Umm, but of course it's upbeat.

After listening to the album (which also won the 1965 Grammy for best country album, by the way) a few times, "Hard Headed Me" really grew on me. It's definitely "goofy" because of its light-hearted arrangement, with some of Miller's best comic delivery, but check out the lyrics - they're about a chronic alcoholic who loses everything he loves:

Well he gave me fair warning, he said let him alone
But I'd had one too many and refused to go home
Then I said somethin' awful and then so did he
And he hit me and hurt me and my eyes couldn't see
Hard, hard headed me
I spoke out of turn once too often
I'd be better off in my coffin
Hard headed me

Well she gave me fair warning many times my wife said
She said, "If you aim to keep me quit your foolhardy ways"
I said, "Now listen, woman, you better leave me alone"
How long is forever? That's how long she'll be gone
Hard, hard headed me...

I don't even have time to tell you about the sheer foolish wackiness of "You Can't Roller Skate In a Buffalo Herd," except to say that it contains another of the best examples of Miller's genius scat singing. Instead, I'm including this:

There are seven other songs on this tour de force of timeless Americana. Thanks, Reckless Records, for a $2.99 bin dive classic. It's what bin diving is truly all about.

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From Chad Everett to Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Swaggart to Prince, the Beachwood Bins are teeming with great and not-so-great moments in rock history.



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Posted on June 9, 2008


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