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Songwriting Genius - Roger Miller
"If I Had My Life To Live Over... I Wouldn't Have Time" ............ Roger Miller ~ 1936-1992
Roger Miller was one of those rare, multi-talented people who only come along once in a lifetime. I'm so thankful he was here during my lifetime. He was a songwriter, singer, fiddler, guitar player, drummer, humorist, and yes, even a Broadway composer! An amazing, brilliant man and a lyrical, musical genius.
Roger Dean Miller was born the youngest of three boys on January 2, 1936 in Forth Worth, Texas. He was born to Laudene and Jean Miller during the depression. His Father, Jean, unfortunately died at the age of 26, from spinal meningitis. His Mother, Laudene, now a single mother of three boys during the depression could not care for the boys, so each boy was sent to live with one of their father's brothers. Roger, who was only one year old at the time, was sent to live in Erick, Oklahoma with his Uncle Elmer Miller and Aunt Armelia. Roger once joked that "the town was so small, the town drunk had to take turns".
It broke Roger's heart to have to be separated from his brothers and his Mother. He was a lonely, introverted child, with an unbelievable imagination. He dealt with the daily grind of picking cotton and walking three miles to the one room school he attended by composing songs, making up lyrics and rhymes in his mind. Supposedly, his very first song was something like this "There's a picture on the wall, it's the dearest one of them all, Mother."
Roger liked to tell humorous stories of his school days and once said that there were 37 kids in his class, himself and 36 Indians - during recess, they would play Cowboys and Indians and things got "pretty wild from my standpoint."
Roger was considered a "daydreamer" and his cousin's husband, Sheb Wooley, once said of Roger 'It's really a good thing that he made it in the music business 'cause he would have starved to death as a farmer." Roger hated picking cotton. His heart simply was never in it.
One of Roger's cousins, Melva Laure Miller, married Sheb Wolley, an Erick Oklahoma native who happened to be in show business. Sheb was 15 years older than Roger. Sheb and little Roger would ride around the farm, "fixin fence, chasing steers and talking about stardom" recalled Wooley. The two of them would listen to The Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights on the radio and dream. Wooley taught Roger his first chords on the guitar and bought him his first fiddle. Miller grew to idolize guys like Bob Wills and Hank Williams.
As a teenager, Roger started running away. He took whatever jobs he could find by day, and he would cruise the honky tonks at night. This came to a halt when one night he stole a guitar in Texas and crossed the line back into Oklahoma. He had wanted a guitar so desperately, and to him, this seemed to be the only way to get one.
He turned himself in the next day, and rather than put him in jail, the court offered to let him join the Army. He went into the Army at age 17, and joked years later that "My education was Korea, Clash of '52." He was homesick, but worked through it until the end of his tour. From there, he was sent to Fort McPherson in Atlanta, where he played fiddle in an army band known as the "Circle A Wranglers", an outfit that was started by PFC Faron Young.
After he was discharged from the Army, he headed to Nashville to try to start a career in the country music business. He met Chet Atkins and a story was told that he was nervous when he played some songs for Chet, so he ended up playing in one key and singing in another and was told to "practice some more, then come back." Chet gave him his guitar to use to play these songs. He was just overwhelmed that he was playing Chet's guitar, and singing for Chet Atkins.
While he was looking for his big "break" in the country music business, he needed a job to bring in some money, so he went to work as a Bellhop for the Andrew Jackson Hotel. He felt that it was better than washing dishes, and since the hotel was so close to the Country Music scene, he was in a good position to make some contacts. He would sing to anyone who would listen on the way up or down on the elevator, and became known as the "singing bellhop."
Roger got his first break when he was hired to be a fiddle player in Minnie Pearl's road band. His next break came later when he met George Jones at the WSM Radio station and played some of his songs for George. George saw right away the talent in Roger and introduced him to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily of Mercury Starday Records. Jones asked them to listen to some of the "new kids" material. Later, George Jones and Roger miller collaborated on the song "Tall Tall Trees" which ended up being a huge hit, and was later covered by Alan Jackson.
By now, Roger was married and had a child on the way. He played music all night and into the day, then tried to work by day as a firefighter. He was called upon to fight two fires, the first in a chicken coop. When he slept through the second fire, it was suggested that he find another career.
Meeting Buddy Killen was indeed a turning point in young Roger Miller's career. He and Buddy quickly became lifelong friends. Killen used to say that he had a hard time getting Roger to sit still long enough to write or finish a song. Later Killen was quoted as saying "he was the most talented, but the least disciplined person you could imagine"... he then went on to say "It was his personality. Roger was the closest thing to a genius I think I've ever known."
Buddy Killen also said that Roger would give away lines to songs that other songwriters would have killed to have made up themselves. Songwriters in Nashville would follow Roger around and "pick up his droppings" said Killen, "because everything he said was a potential song. He spoke in songs."
It was said that Roger met Faron Young one night out in back of Tootsie's, a famous "watering hole" and songwriters hangout. Roger seemed to be "down" so Faron asked him what was the matter. Roger replied that he didn't have a job. Faron asked him "are you a drummer?" Supposedly, Roger replied "When do you need one?" When Faron said "On Monday"... Roger reportedly said "Monday, I'm a drummer!" This was how things worked back then, and thankfully, Roger got his career back on track during this time.
He wrote the song "Chug-A-Lug" which became tremendously popular with college kids, and later also became popular on both the country music charts and the pop charts. He wrote a beautiful song for his son, Roger Dean Jr. who was known as "Dean Miller," a song called "Old Toy Trains."
The song he is most famous for, though, is "King Of The Road" which he wrote on a trip to Chicago. He saw a sign that said "trailers for sale or rent"... and later in the airport, saw a figure of a hobo, which inspired the rest of the song. He started the song on a form used to fill out a credit card application, wrote the first verse, then later finished it.
Roger went on to record a huge number of songs. He was mostly known for humorous songs, but occasionally he would write and sing ballads. He co-wrote with George Jones, and in later years, with Dwight Yoakum. Together, Dwight and Roger wrote the song "It Only Hurts Me When I Cry." Their song-writing session was later remembered by Dwight as being inspirational. They took turns coming up with lines from the song, Roger starting with "The only time I feel the pain"...then Dwight with "is in the sunshine and the rain"... the two were brilliant writing together, and Dwight has fond memories of that day.
Later in his career, Roger was asked to write all of the music for a Broadway Musical called "Big River" which starred John Goodman as Huck Finn's father, Pap. John played the role for a while, then later, Roger Miller himself starred in the role of Pap. It was the story of Huck Finn put to music, and it took Roger over a year to write the songs for this, but it was a year well spent. The Broadway show "Big River" ended up receiving seven Tony Awards, and to this day, Roger Miller is the only country music singer- songwriter to ever receive a Tony Award. This was in addition to eleven Grammy awards he received throughout his career, along with numerous other awards.
In 1991, Roger found out that he had a form of lung cancer, and he would unfortunately lose his battle with cancer on October 25, 1992, at the young age of 56.
I cannot begin to imagine what Roger Miller might have gone on to do had he survived cancer, he was a brilliant lyricist, a natural born talent, and he will always be remembered for his awe-inspiring creativity. I feel blessed to have been touched by the songs of this amazing songwriter and artist. He is truly an inspiration!