100 Greatest Men: The Complete List
He became widely hailed for his lightning-fast wit and charming novelty songs, but Roger Miller’s talents ran far deeper than just the moments of comedic brilliance that made him a legend.
Miller took a long and winding route to country stardom. His brother-in-law, Sheb Wooley, encouraged his fiddle playing as a boy, and he sang and played guitar, but he was more interested in working as a ranch hand. But after a stint in the army led to a chance meeting with industry insiders, he made the jump and moved to Nashville.
An audition for Chet Atkins at RCA went poorly, but Miller persevered, focusing on his songwriting. He wrote the classic Ray Price hit “Invitation to the Blues”, along with hits for Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, and Faron Young. He also co-wrote with George Jones, and although it wasn’t a hit at the time, their collaboration “Tall, Tall Trees” would become a #1 hit for Alan Jackson three decades later.
Miller’s success as a writer garnered him new attention from Nashville labels, and he had a handful of minor hits on RCA during a short stint on the label. While he was known as a hardcore country singer up until this point, he tried a new approach, moving to California and appearing on network variety shows as a more comedic country singer.
The new image was a big success, and when he began releasing singles and albums on the Smash Records label, he became a superstar. Over the course of just three years, he released several major hits, won eleven Grammy awards, and earned several gold albums, along with the million-selling single, “King of the Road.”
After those peak years, he continued to chart, and often brought attention to material from newer songwriters like Bobby Russell (“Little Green Apples”) and Kris Kristofferson (“Me and Bobby McGee”). His own songwriting led to additional hits for other artists, most notably Eddy Arnold, who had a #2 hit with “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me.”
Miller’s storytelling skills led him to pen several songs for the Disney animated film Robin Hood in 1973, which foreshadowed his next and final major signature success. In 1985, he became the toast of Broadway for his score to the show Big River, which won him two Tony awards. Though Miller continued to work after this incredible achievement, he was soon sidelined by throat cancer, which claimed his life in 1991.
- Dang Me, 1964
- Chug-a-Lug, 1964
- Do-Wacka-Do, 1964
- King of the Road, 1965
- England Swings, 1965
- Husbands and Wives, 1966
- Little Green Apples, 1968
- Me and Bobby McGee, 1969
- Roger and Out, 1964
- The Return of Roger Miller, 1965
- Third Time Around, 1965
- Words and Music, 1966
- Walkin’ in the Sunshine, 1967
- A Tender Look at Love, 1968
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Interesting write-up. I didn’t know that Miller’s brother-in-law was Sheb Wooley who was famous for the Purple People Eater song.
King of the Road and Husbands and Wives are my favorites of your essential singles. Other favs include Engine Engine #9 and Walkin’ in the Sunshine.
I enjoy his music. His songs always have such a nice laid-back charm about them.
Miller famously wrote “Dang Me’ under a kudzu tree after leaping from Johnny Cash’s car and returning 10 minutes later. I’ve always been a bigger fan of his comedic songs than his serious side, and I still contend “Engine Engine #9” contains one of the more brilliant rhyme schemes of all time.
Roger Miller was one of the few few singers who needed only a guitar in order to keep an audience spell bound for hours. Truthfully, he probably didn’t even need the guitar !
His music was at least a decade ahead of its time, and he was really profient at unearthing good material from other writers, as well has writting a musical canon that remains unique to this day.
If all he ever did had been “Dang Me”, “Chug-A-Lug” and “King Of The Road”, I think Roger Miller would still have been a legend. Thankfully for us, those are the mere tip of the iceberg. He was such a good-time performer whom I feel we lost a bit too soon.
Paul, here’s a quote from a radio personality in an article from the Star Tribune celebrating 30 years of WEFest:
In 1991, Roger Miller was a showstopper. I can’t remember who he followed but it was a big, big act, with lots of guitars, drums and the whole thing. And all of a sudden, Roger Miller, all by himself, walks out with his guitar, sits down on a stool and everybody thinks this is going to be a downer. And then he mesmerizes the crowd for the next 90 minutes.
He’s one of my biggest inspirations. I don’t think it is right to say he was ever a strictly hardcore country singer, though.
He went from being a fiddler to writing songs that I would call diverse, if nothing else. His early work is predominantly country, but by no means exclusively so. I believe I read somewhere that that’s part of the reason Atkins wasn’t too fond of him at first.
I’ve read quite a bit and wrote a little about him and his relevance in Europe here: