TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Roger Miller, who died in 1992 at the age of 56, was best known for vividly detailed ballads like "King Of The Road" and novelty hits like "Dang Me" and "You Can't Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd." A new album titled "King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller" has just been released featuring cover versions of Miller's songs by some of country music's biggest stars such as Dolly Parton, Kacey Musgraves, Loretta Lynn and Brad Paisley. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROGER MILLER: My name is Roger Miller, probably one of the greatest songwriters that ever lived, and I just...
MILLER: ... I just want to - let me humble up here for a second. Sam already killed me for that. I have written a few songs - probably eight or nine hundred in my professional career. And I would love to do about 700 or 750 here tonight.
MILLER: What do we have time for?
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That little 20-second audio clip leads off "King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller," and it captures nicely the way Miller knew how good he was, even if his offhanded manner kept you from being aware of just how great he was. Miller started out a Nashville songwriter. And one of his early successes was "The Last Word In Lonesome Is Me," a 1966 hit for Eddie Arnold. On this new tribute album, however, it gets a really wonderful new interpretation by Dolly Parton, who is joined by Alison Krauss.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LAST WORD IN LONESOME IS ME")
DOLLY PARTON AND ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) The last word in lonesome is me. The last word in lonesome is me. My heart is as lonely as a heart can be lonely. The last word in lonesome is me.
DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Too bad...
TUCKER: Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Miller was one of the last country stars to come from the sort of poor, rural background that the genre so frequently mythologizes. He picked cotton and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. He didn't live in a house that had electricity until he was 15. He presented himself as a genial good ol' boy but one possessed with a gift for verbal dexterity. There's a tightness to his rhyme schemes, a perpetual surprise to his word choices, an elasticity to the way he broke down the syllables of his punch lines in big hits like "Chug-a-Lug," "England Swings" and "Dang Me." That last song gets a highly faithful rendition from Brad Paisley, who's basically doing a Roger Miller imitation, and a good one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANG ME")
BRAD PAISLEY: (Scatting). (Singing) Well, here I sit high, getting ideas. I ain't nothing but a fool to live like this. Out all night and running wild - woman sitting at home with a month-old child. Dang me. Dang me - ought to take a rope and hang me high from the highest tree. Woman, would you weep for me? (Scatting).
TUCKER: Tribute albums are usually terrible things - alternately too slavish to the original material or sentimental distortions of the artist's original intentions. This one, featuring 36 tracks, contains just enough first-rate performances to make it worthwhile. The best example of an artist making a song her own is Kacey Musgraves' version of "Kansas City Star." Miller wrote and recorded this song as a brisk, rollicking, humorous piece, a satire of showbiz fame. Musgraves takes the song and reshapes it as a loping piece of cowboy music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KANSAS CITY STAR")
KACEY MUSGRAVES: (Singing) Got a letter just this morning - it was postmarked Omaha. It was typed and neatly written offering me this better job. Better job and higher wages, expenses paid and a car. But I'm on TV here locally. And I can't quit. I'm a star. Ha-ha - I come on the TV grinning, wearing pistols and a hat. It's a kiddy show. And I'm the hero of the younger set. I'm the No. 1 attraction at every supermarket parking lot. I'm the queen of Kansas City. No thanks, Omaha. Thanks a lot. Kansas City star....
TUCKER: This collection features a very eclectic lineup that includes the actor John Goodman. He's here because he starred in the Broadway production of Miller's 1985 Tony Award-winning musical "Big River." Ringo Starr also pops up, doing a forgettable version of a forgettable song called "Hey, Would You Hold It Down?" Much better is Rodney Crowell's achingly lovely rendition of a lesser-known Miller tune called "World So Full Of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD SO FULL OF LOVE")
RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) I know how it feels to be alive with no desire to live. I know how it feels to die inside and try hard to forgive. And my way of finding out was on the day you let me down. This world so full of love and not enough to go around. I was once so proud...
TUCKER: Even though he died of cancer when he was only 56, Miller's career spanned three decades. He's one of those songwriters who was so prolific and yet so good, there are many first-rate songs still waiting to be fully appreciated. And if you ever find a copy of his great but little-known 1970 album "A Trip In The Country," snap that sucker up. Miller is a guy who is perpetually worthy of rediscovery.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "King Of The Road: A Tribute To Roger Miller." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature an interview from our archive with comic, playwright and screenwriter Neil Simon, who died Sunday at the age of 91. And we'll start our series of interviews with Emmy nominees. We'll hear from John Oliver, whose satirical political series "Last Week Tonight" is nominated for outstanding variety talk series. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF A MIND")
LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) I don't love you like I used to do. But I'm afraid to tell you so. I've got half a mind to leave you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.