My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

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Album Review: Various Artists – ‘King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller’

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.

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Classic Album Review: Roger Miller – ‘Roger Miller’

This eponymous album, released by MCA in 1985, would prove to be the last album of original material that Roger would release during his lifetime. All of the songs were written or co-written by Roger, and seven of the album’s ten tracks were taken from the highly acclaimed Broadway musical BIG RIVER for which Roger wrote the words and music. In 1985, Roger won three Tony Awards for best musical score, best music and best lyrics. The play, based on Mark Twain’s book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was revived on Broadway in 2003 and has since been performed by various amateur, high school and college theater groups. It is well worth seeing if it comes your way.

The soundtrack for the play sold well, and many of the songs work outside the context of the play. For me the revelation was hearing Roger perform his own songs with a sympathetic background featuring many of Nashville’s finest studio musicians, including John Jarvis (keyboards), Billy Joe Walker, Jr. (acoustic guitar), Reggie Young & Larry Byrom (electric guitar), Hoot Hester (fiddle) and Jim Horn (sax and flute). The redoubtable trio of Curtis “Mr. Harmony” Young, Colleen Peterson, and Mary Miller (Roger’s wife) provide the background vocals. Strangely, there is no steel guitar but that particular instrument really was not an essential part of Roger’s music.

The album opens up with five songs from the play BIG RIVER starting with “River In The Rain”, a lovely ballad comparing the flow of the Mississippi to life itself:

River in the rain
Sometimes at night you look like a long white train
Winding your way away somewhere
River I love you don’t you care

If you’re on the run winding some place
Just trying to find the sun
Whether the sunshine, whether the rain
River I love you just the same

But sometimes in a time of trouble
When you’re out of hand
And your muddy bubbles roll across my floor
Carryin’ away the things I treasure
Hell, there ain’t no way to measure
Why I love you more than I did the day before

Next up is “Hand For The Hog”. This song really doesn’t stand apart from the play; however, the song is so quintessentially Roger Miller that it would have been criminal for Roger not to include it on the album. This is Roger the scat singer at his finest:

Ya say, a hog ain’t nothin’ but a porky thing
Little forked feet with a nosey ring
Pickle them feel folks
How about a hand for the hog

If you took a notion I’ll bet
A good hog would make a hell of a pet
You could teach him to ride and hunt
You could clean him up and let him sit up front

In the scheme of things the way things go
You might get bit by the old Fido
But not by the gentle, porker friend.
How about a hand for the hog

A feller and a hog had a comedy act
The feller was terrible as a matter of fact
But that hog was so funny
How about a hand for the hog

If you took a notion
I’ll bet you could teach a hog to smoke a cigarette
Well, it might take a little bit of time
But hell, what’s time to a hog

The third track is my favorite song from the play, “Leavin’s Not The Only Way To Go”. This song is a haunting ballad that should have been a hit for someone. I am not aware of anyone releasing the song as a single; however, Merle Haggard recorded the song on his 2005 album Chicago Wind.

Do the mornin’s still come early, are the nights not long enough?
Does a tear of hesitation fall on everything you touch?
Well, it all might be a lesson for the hasty heart to know
Maybe leavin’s not the only way to go

Maybe lyin’ at your feelin’s, grow accustomed to the dark
By mornin’s light, it just might solve the problems of the heart
And it all might be a lesson for the hasty heart to know
Maybe leavin’s not the only way to go

People reach new understandings all the time
Take a second look, maybe change their minds
People reach new understandings every day
Tell me not to reach, babe, and I’ll go away

But do the mornin’s still come early, are the nights not long enough?
Does a tear of hesitation fall on everything you touch?
Well, it all might be a lesson for the hasty heart to know
Maybe leavin’s not the only way to go

“Guv’ment” was sung by John Goodman in the original cast play. It’s not much of a song but it echoes the sentiments of many.

Well, you dad gum guv’ment
You sorry so and so’s
You got your damn hands in every pocket
Of my clothes

“You Oughta Be Here With Me” is another lovely ballad of forlorn longing and loneliness:

If you think it’s lonesome where you are tonight
Then you oughta be here with me
If you think there’s heartaches where you are tonight
Then you oughta be here with me

CHORUS:
Because with you I’m whole, without you I’m cold
So if you think about me where you are tonight
Then you oughta be here with me

If teardrops are falling where you are tonight
Then you oughta be here with me
Loneliness calling where you are tonight
Then you oughta be here with me

The first five songs comprise side one of the original vinyl album/audio cassette release. Side two opens up with “Some Hearts Get All The Breaks” the first of three songs not from BIG RIVER. This song is a mid-tempo contemporary country ballad, with 1980s production values with synthesizer in the mix. The 80s production is not as noticeable on the tracks from BIG RIVER which has its own dynamic.

I guess I’ll never learn
Some Hearts got love to burn
I guess that’s what it takes
Some hearts get all the breaks

We’re back to BIG RIVER for “Arkansas”, a nostalgic but humorous story song that is performed with some interruptions in the play:

Arkansas, Arkansas
I just love ole Arkansas
Love my ma, love my pa
But I just love ole Arkansas

Well, I ain’t never traveled much
But someday when the money’s such
I’d like to see the world and all
And take a run through Arkansas

Grandpa he was always good
I’d play horsey on his foot
He’d tell me when I’d get tall
We’d both go see Arkansas

Arkansas, Arkansas
I just love ole Arkansas
Love my ma, love my pa
But I just love ole Arkansas

The next two songs are not from the play. You probably could not get away with a title like “Indian Giver” given our current hyper-sensitive politically correct environment.

The title of the next song “Days of Our Wives” would likely be barely acceptable, but the song is an up-tempo song somewhat reminiscent of the Glen Campbell hit “Dreams of the Everyday Housewife” or perhaps Bobby Russell’s “1432 Franklin Park Circle Hero”. The arrangement features some mariachi style horns and makes a nice change of tempo.

So fly away heart on the wings of make-believe things
It’s nice to pretend and maybe cry at the end
She watches the soaps and sometimes just sits there and cries
Like sands through the hourglass so are the days of our wives

Fittingly, the album closes with yet another song from BIG RIVER, “Muddy Water”, a song of wanderlust and perhaps escape.

Look out for me, oh muddy water
Your mysteries are deep and wide
And I got a need for going some place
And I got a need to climb upon your back and ride

You can look for me when you see me comin’
I may be runnin’ I don’t know
I may be tired and runnin’ fever
But I’ll be headed south to the mouth of the Ohio

Look out for me, oh muddy water
Your mysteries are deep and wide
And I got a need for going some place
And I got a need to climb upon your back and ride

To the best of my knowledge this album has never been available in a digital format. The Broadway cast BIG RIVER soundtrack album has remained in print forever in various formats. The play is well worth seeing and the Twain’s story of Huckleberry Finn is worth passing down to subsequent generations. If you are not familiar with the Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Finn saga, you should read the books first, then tackle this album or the soundtrack album (or both) as it will greatly enhance your appreciation for the story.

Many of Roger’s performances of the songs on Roger Miller are available on You Tube.

This album isn’t Roger’s best album but it is a good one and represents the last chance to hear new material from Roger Miller. Roger would pass away from lung cancer in 1992 without having recorded any more studio albums. The man was a musical treasure and probably still ahead of the times.

Album Review: O’Brien Party Of Seven – ‘Reincarnation – The Songs Of Roger Miller’

reincarnationRoger Miller passed away on October 25, 1992. In the twenty years since his death performers and songwriters have come and gone, but none who had the imagination or wit of Roger Miller. Most of the readers of this blog likely are too young to remember when Miller burst on the scene in the 1964 with his off-the-wall repartee’ in songs such as “King of The Road”, “Dang Me”, “Chug A Lug” and “England Swings” although they may well remember having heard the songs. Miller was also a master at finding songs excellent songs from other writers – he was the first to record Bobby Russell’s “Little Green Apples” and he had the first (and best) recording of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee”.

Fads and fashions change, and Miller’s run as a huge chart artist ended after 1973. After a long hiatus, Miller was talked out of retirement during the early 1980s to provide the music for the successful Broadway musical Big River, which was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning seven (including Best Original Score for Miller). Big River was based on the exploits of Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s novels.

Miller’s songs continue to be performed to this day, Alan Jackson (“Tall, Tall Trees”) and Brooks & Dunn (“Husbands and Wives”) each reaching the number one spot on country charts in during the middle to late 1990s.

Tim and Mollie O’Brien are excellent performers who work in the folk and bluegrass idioms. Tim O’Brien was a member of the highly acclaimed group Hot Rize, plays virtually any instrument with strings and is an accomplished songwriter having written songs recorded by many artists in the country and bluegrass realms. Mollie O’Brien, more folk than bluegrass, is an accomplished singer who has recorded many albums as a solo artist as well as albums with brother Tim and husband Rich Moore.

Tim, Mollie and Rich are from my generation and remember the depth and breadth of the Roger Miller catalog. They felt Miller’s songs would provide a fine unifying theme for a family recording project for their talented offspring. Rather than dictate the agenda, the parents turned their sons and daughters loose to select songs that appealed to them. The end result is a fascinating selection of songs, which includes several selections from Big River, but only one of Roger’s big hits, the ubiquitous “King of The Road”. Trust me, the lack of the big hits does nothing to diminish the quality of the material.

PERSONNEL: Rich Moore (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, resonator guitar); Tim O’Brien (vocals, electric guitar, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, pump organ); Lucy Moore (vocals, keyboards); Joel O’Brien, Jackson O’Brien, Brigid Moore, Mollie O’Brien (vocals); John Gardner (drums).

Rich Moore is Mollie O’ Brien’s husband – Lucy & Brigid are their daughters. Joel & Jackson are Tim O’Brien’s sons. Read more of this post