Country's Roger Miller Says Howdy to Broadway with Big River and Takes a Tony Home to Santa Fe

Back in the ’60s—it wasn’t all Beatles and Brits—Roger Miller mined his Oklahoma boyhood for a mother lode of down-home ditties (Dang Me, Chug-A-Lug, King of the Road) that made him a millionaire. He made whoopee with a fleet of cars, a Learjet, thousand-dollar suits and a weekly TV series that netted him some $50,000 per. “Hell, I thought I was Elvis there for a while,” says Miller. Then in 1970, two bad marriages and a bout with amphetamines prompted Roger to put things on hold. Two years later he went before an Oklahoma state legislature committee to support a ban on the over-the-counter sale of amphetamines, because it could “keep somebody from getting into the same snake pit I got into.” Miller had a new goal: “To sober up and conduct my business. I just got tired of falling down. You either mature or you die.” Miller eased off on his concert and TV appearances, and the big hits stopped coming.

Until now. By reaching back to his roots once more, Miller has just scored a stunning comeback, this time as the composer of Big River, the musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which this month sashayed off with seven Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score. “I feel like a real writer at last,” says Miller, 49, smiling like a kid. “It’s like I had the paints and brushes but until now I didn’t have the canvas.”

It was no snap getting him to Broadway. That task began about three years ago, when producer Rocco Landesman, a longtime Miller fan, went backstage after a Miller concert and asked him to write a musical, his first. “Hell, I was too dumb to even get excited,” Miller says.

Over the next few months Landesman kept cajoling. In the end the Big River story convinced Miller. “It was the everyday language I grew up with,” he says. “And I could smell that river.”

Miller knew Twain’s character from the inside. Born in Fort Worth, Roger was just 1 year old when his father died and his impoverished mother had to parcel out her three children to relatives. Roger went to Oklahoma to live with an aunt and uncle, now both dead, whom he refers to as his mom and dad. (Roger wrote a song in the musical, “Arkansas,” for his natural mother, who lives in that state, and he’s invited her to come to New York to hear it.) For his first eight years of schooling, Roger walked three miles to a one-room schoolhouse. At home he plowed fields, milked cows and picked cotton. His family had no telephone or plumbing, and not until he was in eighth grade did they get electricity. “It was hard at the time,” Roger reflects, “but I wouldn’t be anything of what I am if it wasn’t for that.”

By the time he was 15, Roger was running off to Amarillo nightclubs and pretending to be his idol, Hank Williams. After serving in Korea, he moved to Nashville and started writing in earnest. Country star Jimmy Dean heard some of Roger’s songs in 1962 and asked him along to his Tonight show appearances. Miller’s low-key folksy humor was so popular that the singer thought of branching out into acting. He took one lesson—and then his song Dang Me, recorded in 1964, became a massive crossover smash. It won him five Grammys, and the next year’s King of the Road garnered six. Suddenly Miller was a star.

“I was quite the ticket,” Roger says of his go-go years. “People were dressing me and writing things for me to say, and I just wasn’t quite ready for it,” he says. “All I wanted to be was Hank Williams, and suddenly I was Andy. I didn’t have the mental discipline at that time.”

Roger (the father of five from his first two marriages) credits his third wife, singer Mary Arnold, 35, with providing the contentment that had eluded him. His friend Kenny Rogers introduced them 12 years ago, and three years later they were married. “Mary’s my third wife, but I’ve only really been married one time,” says Roger. “I’m a different person than I was.” Six years ago, seeking a simpler life, the Millers moved from California to a remodeled 1924 adobe house in Santa Fe. A backup singer, Mary travels with Roger for his 20 weeks of club dates. “When we get home in Santa Fe we like to do as little as possible,” she says. “When Roger gets up he wants me to go into town with him and get a cheeseburger with green chilies.”

Right now Roger and Mary are planning an album with their versions of several Big River songs and some new Miller material. So far no word on another Broadway musical. He’s still enjoying the thrill of this one. “I’ll always be able to stand around and say I wrote a musical for Broadway and it’s playing in Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls and Cleveland tonight,” he says proudly. “That’s a great reward.”

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