"One of a kind" is a phrase reserved for the likes of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe — and Roger Miller. Though Roger Miller has been gone for two decades, the impact that the eleven-time Grammy winner made on the world of songwriting is as unique and timeless as the songs he wrote.
Roger Miller’s career spanned many musical genres and many milieus. He was a songwriter, a singer, an entertainer, an actor and a family man. If you have ever sung along to “King of the Road," watched Disney’s Robin Hood or seen the Broadway musical Big River, you’ve been touched by the creative brilliance that was Roger Miller.
Miller is one of three Texas songwriters being inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Association Hall of Fame on March 3. Mary Miller, his wife, will accept the honor on her late husband’s behalf.
“You know he first and foremost was a songwriter. He loved songwriting and he loved songwriters so this in particular would have been one that he would have been very proud of, and that it’s in Texas would have delighted him,” she explains.
Roger was born of humble beginnings in Forth Worth, Texas. His father died when he was a baby and he was sent to live with relatives in Oklahoma. “He came from a lot of pain,” Mary explains. “A lot of his songs are humorous and he expressed pain through humor. I think his childhood being so hard and working the cotton fields and having to really work to exist — that comes out in his songs.”
"Roger Miller is one of the best songwriters that ever lived, and by far the funniest." - Willie Nelson
Many who knew him well have described Roger as a genius. He had a unique knack for writing songs others could relate to, from his best known hit, “King of the Road” to the comical “Dang Me” to the social commentary of “Husbands and Wives” — songs that still stand up today.
"Roger Miller is one of the best songwriters that ever lived, and by far the funniest,” Willie Nelson says of his long-time friend. “He was one of my best friends and we laughed all the time —from 'When Two Worlds Collide' to 'You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd'… I rest my case."
Fellow Texas songwriter Bruce Robison says Roger Miller set the standard when it comes to songwriting. “He was such an original. There’s nothing like Roger Miller. I mean I don’t even know how you come up with that stuff,” Robison explains. “I think he influences everybody and it’s really hard to find another songwriter who had such a distinctive stamp.”
Mary says her husband’s creativity was a God-given talent and seemed to flow out of him at a constant rate. “He wrote songs all the time and literally I carried a pad and pen around with me. We could be driving or whatever and I’d just be writing as fast as I could.”
She says he was so prolific he could write at any time, and songs often came down in a matter of minutes. His publisher once asked Roger to co-write with someone, Mary recalls. She says his response was, “Well what do you mean co-write? What does that mean?” After it was explained to him, he responded in typical Roger fashion: “I don’t want to do that. Did Picasso co-paint?”
Mary says Roger also rarely listened to music with lyrics because he didn’t want others’ ideas to influence his own freewheeling creativity. “He had no method to it. He would write a lot of things on little pieces of paper and they would be all over the house. We’re gonna put a little book out called 'Roger’s Droppings.'”
Mary says those "droppings" caused many people to follow him around with a tape recorder, waiting for the next brilliant thing he’d say. “Roger just had a slant on things, he had a unique way of communicating. He would see all the things that everyone sees but you just wouldn’t comment on. Well, he would go ahead and comment on it. He’d just say something and you’d just die laughing because you knew exactly what he was talking about but you just wouldn’t have said it.”
She says Roger’s lack of a filter sometimes got him into trouble, including when he took over the lead role in Big River on Broadway. Roger wrote the music and lyrics for the musical but Mary says his attempts to take poetic license during his time on Broadway created a lot of confusion and funny moments. Other actors were often left waiting for cues that never came because Roger liked to ad lib his lines.
“In a union like that, you have to say the words verbatim. And with Roger there was no verbatim with anything because he was constantly making up something. So they would come back after the show and say, ‘Oh Roger you can’t do that.’ He said, ‘Why? I wrote it.’”
After three months in the role, Roger decided he wasn’t cut out for Broadway. Mary says of all of his accomplishments, Big River’s 1985 Tony win for best musical was one of Roger’s proudest moments.
Despite her husband’s many accolades, Mary says she doesn’t think Roger understood how talented he was and how much joy he brought to others. “I think that Roger honestly never knew how great he was."
Whether he knew it or not, the humble songwriter from Fort Worth brought, and continues to bring, a lot of joy to those who knew him well, and those just getting to know his music.
“He just had a way with the human spirit. He wrote about the commonness of people and that’s what people loved about him. It felt like he was writing your song," Mary says. "I just think his songs, even today, are unbelievable.”
Although Roger didn’t live in Texas from the time he was a child, Mary says he visited often and was so proud to be from the Lone Star State. She knows he’d be honored to be inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame and wishes he were here to accept the honor himself.
“He was an extraordinary person and I personally believe all of these accolades are so well deserved. I’m just sorry that I have to be the one to accept them, because he would be so thrilled.”
Tickets are still available for the Texas Heritage Songwriters' Hall of Fame Awards Show on March 3 at ACL Live. Roger Miller is being inducted along with Ronnie Dunn and Sonny Curtis. The show will include performances by Sonny Curtis, Ronnie Dunn, Toby Keith, Larry Gatlin and Jack Ingram.