Unpublished, written Dec. 1995

Kings of the Road

Some folks are country simply because they were born in the wrong place, grew up in the wrong neck of the woods. Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall, for instance. Both grew up on country radio, cast off bad educations with fanciful imaginations, started inventing songs before their teens, and were lucky enough to find mentors (Miller's cousin Sheb Wooley, best remembered nowadays for a novelty song best forgotten; Hall's teenage idol was a local picker named Floyd Carter, immortalized in song as Clayton Delaney).

Both did stints abroad in the Army, then headed to Nashville, where they cranked out made-to-order songs by day and did their own thing by night. Both were brilliant, got lucky, became famous, and have shiny new box sets to their credit. Other than that, they couldn't be more unlike. Or unique: no one else even remotely resembles them.

Miller's three-disk box, King of the Road: The Genius of Roger Miller, does an admirable job of chronicling Miller's career, which cleaves into three neat, chronologically detailed, phases: honky tonk wannabe, sheer genius, coasting celebrity.

Through 1964, Miller penned a number of respectable songs (such as "Tall, Tall Trees" with George Jones, and "Invitation to the Blues" for Ray Price), played guitar for Price and drums for Faron Young, and scratched out a single top-ten hit under his own name. The first half of disk one covers the period nicely, the only intimations of what would follow in a manic song that goes "Jason Fleming / chasing women / he's a swinging daddio" and the scat that estranges "You Don't Want My Love."

Miller's breakthrough date was Jan. 11, 1964. Dropped by RCA, Miller decided to move to L.A. to try his hand at television, but was short of cash. Smash Records offered him $100 per song for 16 songs, to release a single and an album. The planned single, the completely conventional "Less and Less," replete with the usual Nashville strings and backing singers, was cut on the 10th. The rest of the album was fleshed out on the 11th, with Miller reeling off a slew of his oddest originals. The box serves up four cuts from this date: "Lou's Got the Flu" and "The Moon Is High (And So Am I)" set the tone of the day, while "Dang Me" and "Chug-a-Lug" hit paydirt.

It's tempting to call Miller a genius because anything more specific is bound to be wrong. From 1964 through 1967 (through the end of Disc Two), Miller never ceased to amaze. The novelties, "Do Wacka Do" and "England Swings" and "Kansas City Star" and above all "King of the Road," were huge crossover hits, and Miller's enormous charm and humor took TV by storm, but Disk Two is full of clear voiced, simply arranged, uncategorizable gems: "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me" is the ultimate down-and-out; "Dad Blame Anything a Man Can't Quit" a timeless rant; "Train of Life" a timeless meditation; "Pardon This Coffin" a grim memoir; "Walkin' in the Sunshine" turns upbeat, like a funkier Lovin' Spoonful.

Miller stopped writing after 1967, and Disk Three is listenable but relatively pointless: mostly covers, remakes of 50's originals, a live "Orange Blossom Special" to show off his fiddle work, then finally two strong cuts from his 1986 comeback score for the "Big River" musical. One outtake offers an inspirational verse: "Why don't you treat me like a human, because I think the change would do me good."

Roger Miller died in 1992. Tom T. Hall is still around, but is more or less "retired," and at any rate hasn't recorded anything very interesting since, roughly, he turned 40 with 1976's Faster Horses.

Growing up in Kentucky, Hall's musical tastes lean more toward bluegrass, but his music is more relaxed and eclectic, and subservient to his lyrics, which are legendary for their plain and simple observance of the nuances of everyday life. Hall has explained that he didn't know what he was doing in writing his story songs, that he thought the songs simply wrote themselves. In his early days, Hall would travel the roads of the South, meeting people, talking, listening to stories, transcribing them into songs. It's simple enough in principle, but only Hall has had the curiosity and the humility and the ear to bring it off. Now that his lyrics have become the stuff of college literature courses, it's hardly surprising that he's stopped writing them.

Hall's catalog has not been served well by the record companies. His best LP, 1972's In Search of a Song, is long out of print, as is the very commendable 1988 anthology, The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs. Mercury's new two-disc box, Storyteller, Poet, Philosopher, should have made amends, but it is a horrible mess. With 50 cuts, it manages to omit 11 of 20 songs from the former anthology, even dropping a song from the skimpy Greatest Hits, which has long been the only Hall available on CD. The box itself is yet another bad idea in CD packaging: a cassette-sized box with glued-down CD holders, salvaging a few pennies from the cost of jewel cases.

What has been included seems to have been selected by throwing darts, then arranged thematically. Some times this is interesting, like following "Ballad of Forty Dollars," about a funeral, with "I Hope It Rains at My Funeral," which isn't. Mostly it's dumb, like pairing "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" with "The Son of Clayton Delaney." The nadir is a sequence of drinking songs, beginning with "I Like Beer." The debacle is snapped with "Salute to a Switchblade," which no doubt came next because it was set in a bar.

The best songs, of course, are true and wondrous. "More About John Henry," for example. The worst songs are trite and annoying. If Mercury's track record with George Jones is any indication, maybe they'll keep re-releasing them until they get it right.

Also found in the old directory is a cover letter to Robert Christgau, most likely also written December 1995:

I've managed to throw together a Riffs-sized piece on Roger Miller and Tom T. Hall, which follows. It may be a little longish, but given the subject matter could just as well be deemed to cryptic. If you think it's any good, you may forward it to the appropriate person (Ann Powers?).

I've been looking for a representative Miller CD for some time, but didn't have any real sense of what I was getting into. I remember the hits, of course, and (more vaguely) Miller on TV. Most of the research is simply a matter of reading the box notes, which provide useful background without drawing the obvious conclusions. I wish I knew more about Miller's TV reign. Also, at this point I kind of wish I had access to the two Mercury anthologies, although I doubt that they have much more than the box. I remember thinking it somewhat extravagant at the time to buy the box, but I've been enjoying it occasionally for several months, and it finally occurred to me that it might be something to write about.

I've been looking for Hall ever since the CD age dawned. My knowledge of the old albums is spotty, although I have LP copies of In Search of a Song, We All Got Together, and Faster Horses, as well as various anthologies. So I'm less familiar with the early stuff, and less jaundiced about the later stuff, than more knowledgeable critics, but the selection and organization and so forth of the new box is unremittently rotten. I don't have the other recent Hall reissues (a combined Greatest Hits I & II, a slim love song collection, and some Bear Family 2-for-German-import-price early album reissues, which don't seem to be complete), so didn't bother mentioning them.

Anyhow, it's something. I've been down with a cold all week. Missed work, and haven't felt like working on Ftwalk. Let me know what you think.

Other news of sorts: Ftwalk is released, available on the Internet, but I haven't done any significant publicity, so practically no one is aware of it, and I'm still awaiting my first new sale. I'm pretty lost business-wise, and haven't really felt like working on it the last few weeks. I'm getting along OK with my 3 day/week job at Xyvision. I enjoy the work, and the cash flow, although I've been spending it as fast as I've been making it. Still, the company is losing money again, and the CEO just resigned under fire, with threats of layoffs coming this week. On the other hand, my former boss/nemesis is just setting up a new startup company, and he's offered to hire me if I get cut loose. I don't think there's any chance of that, given that my projects are all funded contracts at $200/hour and that I'm producing stuff that they'd be very hard pressed to get anyone else to do.

Got a new computer last week, a Gateway P-133, which should help out finishing the documenation. Shipped the old DX-486-66 to my nephew Mike. I'll fly to Kansas 12/14-19. I didn't want to spend Xmas there, but it's been over a year.

I started writing a year-end letter, but haven't gotten very far, and also started writing an annotated jazz summary. I've found a lot of marvelous jazz. Two main clusters I've been enjoying: swing-era saxophonists in small 40's/50's groupings (Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Budd Johnson, Benny Carter, Don Byas); and the "hard bop" groups that brought the music back into jazz after Parker et al. nearly wrung it out (Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan). Lots of Ellington and Mingus, too.

I thought a bit about a year-end list, but didn't come up with much. Don't have my notes handy, but the top slot was either P.J. Harvey or Stevie Wonder, followed by John Prine, Sue Foley, and maybe M People. No great shakes! Laura doesn't like PJH, so I don't play it much, and Wonder, of course, has done better (as have the others mentioned). I like Garbage quite a bit, better than Whale, much better than Tricky. Also like Rancid, PM Dawn, Pavement, James Carter, and another jazz album called Three of a Kind Meet Mr. T. (Stanley Turrentine). This weekend I've been playing Stripped then the Waco Brothers, which seems like a pretty good combination.

My top reissues are all jazz: RCA's Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins anthologies; Ben Webster's The Soul of Ben Webster; and Lester Young's Complete Alladin Sessions. Actually, the Faron Young CMF anthology ranks in that company. The Jean Shepherd is not nearly as good, but notable anyway. Didn't buy the Louvin Brothers collection, since I have a UK collection is very similar (probably better). There's a gospel collection of Thomas A. Dorsey material that is pretty great; and there's a Kool Moe Dee anthology that'd crack the top ten. Volume 2 of Cachao, also, really wonderful.

I also picked up the Willie Nelson (Columbia) box, which I at one point thought about fitting into the following piece, but decided that I didn't need it (nor want it). I think the first disk is very hit and miss, the second disk (the duets) is much more miss than hit, and the third disk is pretty good. The IRS tape stuff, in particular, sounds very good, whereas it gets real boring in its original context.