Miller's Work Reflected an Erratic Genius : ROGER MILLER "King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller"; Mercury *** 1/2

Roger Miller, who died in 1992 at age 56, was one of the most talented and honored songwriters of the modern pop-country era. He received 11 Grammys for such hits as "King of the Road" and "Dang Me," as well as a Tony for his songs for the Broadway musical "Big River."

But Miller had a remarkably erratic career--with his best work (aside from "Big River") compressed into a three-year period in the 1960s.

You can have fun with this three-disc set by putting yourself in the role of a talent scout and finding the point in Miller's career where you would have pegged him as a potential legend.

You would have been pretty perceptive to have thought you had a star in 1957 when the native of Fort Worth cut a couple of songs in Houston that were released on Mercury-Starday Records.

"My Pillow" was a conventional country heartbreak song, complete with weeping fiddles, while the livelier "Poor Little John" offered a glimpse of the clever word play that would eventually characterize Miller's work. But there isn't enough of it to distinguish the song. Not surprisingly, the record was a flop--and Miller was soon looking for another label.

Thanks to writing Top 10 hits for such country stars as Ray Price, Ernest Tubb and Jim Reeves, Miller was able to record a few tracks for Decca Records in 1958 and '59, but they too were pretty conventional. Next he went to RCA Records, where he came up with a couple of country hits, including the wonderfully wacky "You Don't Want My Love."

But it still wasn't enough to jump-start Miller's recording career, and he was dropped again. Discouraged, Miller decided to head to Hollywood to try acting. To finance his trip, he recorded some tunes for Smash Records.

Jerry Kennedy was the Smash executive who was in the studio on Jan. 11, 1964, when Miller recorded "Dang Me," a disarming tune about a guy down on his luck--a guy exactly like Miller at the time. Its catchy chorus begins: Dang me, dang me / They ought to take a rope and hang me. . . .

Kennedy spotted Miller's talent--and by the end of the session Smash had the foundation for Miller's first hit album. Typical of Miller's ability to twist words and phrases in odd and appealing ways was "Lou's Got the Flu," a song about better days ahead.

Some people bad / Some people good / Too bad the bad / Can't be like the good / But everything changes a little /And it should / Good ain't forever / And bad ain't for good.

"Dang Me" not only spent two months at No. 1 on the country charts but also soared into the pop Top 10, where it was joined during the next year by other Miller hits such as "Chug-A-Lug," "King of the Road" and "England Swings."

But the hits didn't tell the whole story because Miller's albums were so filled with gems--goofy tunes, such as "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd," and tender ones, including "Husbands and Wives" and "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me."

By 1967, Miller was experiencing writer's block and he turned to other writers for material, including Bobby Russell ("Little Green Apples") and Kris Kristofferson ("Me and Bobby McGee").

Although Miller continued to be in demand as a concert act, his music remained in the shadow of his '60s work until "Big River" in 1985.

Miller was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October, but because his best work came from such a short time span, his impact and influence are sometimes overlooked by both country and pop audiences. This set is a warm and revealing reminder of the range and depth of his talent.

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