|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
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: