FOR A FEW YEARS BACK IN THE ’60S, HIS WAS THE SOUND OF ONE good ol’ boy laughing—all the way to the bank. But with a blaze of truck-stop hits like “Dang Me” and “Chug-a-Lug,” he seldom rose far above hard-corn honky-tonk. Then came an even bigger bang. In 1965, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” crashed the charts and streaked the Grammys, taking an unprecedented nine nominations. Ascension into the Nashville pop firmament seemed inevitable.
Then his career skidded, 180 degrees. Miller, who at 56 died of cancer in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, headed over the top in 1969, revealing an enormous appetite for drugs and partying. On a midnight run in the early ’70s, he left a wake-up call outside Johnny Cash’s Las Vegas hotel room in the form of hundreds of baby chickens. At first, the country establishment was amused, but not for long. “Nobody knew what he was going to do next,” Minnie Pearl once said, echoing the verdict: Roger Miller was too unpredictable.
To his credit, they were right. Drawing on a deep store of grit, milled from a tough, fatherless childhood on an uncle’s two-mule Oklahoma farm, he straightened his course. By 1970, he’d sworn off drugs and made his mark as a songwriter uniquely versed in wisecrack and wordplay. In 1988, Ricky Van Shelton topped the charts with his “Don’t We All Have the Right”; more than 500 of his songs were eventually recorded by other artists. Producer Rocco Landesman saw his genius, too. In 1982 he asked Miller to score a Broadway version of Huckleberry Finn, Big River, which opened in 1985. It racked up seven Tonys, including “Music and Lyrics” for Miller.
During his last decade, Miller, whose throat cancer was diagnosed last year, spent much of his time on his 20-acre spread near Santa Fe. He homed in on his role as family man, refusing gigs that would have separated him for long from his third wife, Mary, and their adopted children. daughter Margaret Taylor, 5, and son Adam Gray, 2. (Two earlier marriages produced five other offspring.)
In the end, Miller was a man of artistic means, by all means, and Nashville was in mourning. Said Marty Stuart: “This world was a much brighter place on account of Roger.”