Roger Miller was unique in terms of his all-around abilities as an entertainer. He could write off-beat and humorous songs then turn around and write a masterpiece of a straight ahead ballad. The nearest thing to him in terms of his compositional abilities was Shel Silverstein, but unlike Silverstein, who was a terrible singer, Roger was an outstanding vocalist and musician. People who have heard Roger’s concert in Birchmere, VA, about a year before he died can attest that Roger Miller barely even needed a guitar in order to keep and audience entertained.
Because Roger was so offbeat, tributes to him and his music have been rare – many of his most famous songs barely lend themselves to being covered. One of the few tributes I’ve seen was Tim O’Brien’s O’Brien Party of Seven – Reincarnation: The Songs Of Roger Miller, released about six years ago and featuring members of Tim’s family. It is a great album, but Tim and his family mostly stayed away from the more famous songs, and delved deeper into the Roger Miller catalogue.
King of The Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller is a two disc set featuring snippets of dialogue from Roger along with covers of 34 of his songs as performed by various artists. The covers of straight ahead country songs work best as few artists have the ability that Roger had to let vocal scats and odd phrasings simply roll of his tongue. Among the odder songs tackled on disc one are “Chug A Lug” (Asleep at The Wheel with Huey Lewis), “Dang Me” (Brad Paisley), “Kansas City Star” (Kacey Musgraves), “You Ought a Be Here With Me” /“I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving” (Alison Krauss & The Cox Family) and In The Summertime” (Shawn Camp /Earls of Leicester) . All of these songs are competently performed but sound a bit forced except Shawn Camp’s take on “In The Summertime” since Camp simply treats the song as a straight ahead county song. The Krauss / Cox song would have been better had they performed it as separate songs and not made a medley of it.
For me the disc one the standouts are Loretta Lynn’s take on “Half A Mind”, a hit for her mentor Ernest Tubb, Mandy Barnett’s “Lock Stock and Teardrops” and the religious song “The Crossing” as performed by Ronnie Dunn and the Blind Boys of Alabama.
Dwight Yoakam does a fine job with his co-write “It Only Hurts Me When I Cry” but you’d expect no less since it was a hit for him.
Disc two is more of the same, some banter, goofy songs, and some straight ahead ballads. Cake makes a complete mess of “Reincarnation” (the only decent cover I’ve had was by Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, USMC) and I didn’t like Toad The Wet Sprocket’s take on the old George Jones hit “Nothing Can Stop My Loving You” (also decently covered in the 1970s by Patsy Sledd). Jamey Johnson & Emmylou Harris do a nice job on “Husbands and Wives”.
John Goodman, who never claimed to be a singer, reprises “Guv’ment” from the play Big River. Ringo Starr, also not a compelling singer, gives the right vibe to “Hey Would You Hold It Down?”
For me the two best songs on disc two are the Dolly Parton & Alison Krauss recording of “The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me” and Flatt Lonesome’s exquisite “When Two Worlds Collide”, easily the best performance on the album.
This album offers a good overview of the depth and breadth of the songwriting talents of Roger Miller. While I wasn’t all that impressed with all of the performers on the album, all of them clearly gave their performances their best efforts.
I mostly enjoyed this album and would give it a B+ but if this is your first exposure to Roger Miller, I would strongly suggest picking up one of Roger’s currently available collections of Smash/Mercury recordings.