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This reissue proves Roger Miller was more than just a novelty act

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Roger Miller is best known for a series of novelty songs that were big country and pop hits in the 1960s and '70s, songs like "King Of The Road," "Chug-A-Lug" and "You Can't Rollerskate In A Buffalo Herd." But Miller, who died in 1992, was also a serious songwriter who wrote beautiful ballads for artists such as George Jones and Ray Price. Over the summer, a series of reissues of out-of-print Roger Miller albums began. Among them is one rock critic Ken Tucker has long searched for - "A Trip In The Country," released in 1970. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME")

ROGER MILLER: (Singing) I walk up to my door and hate to turn the key. Emptiness is all that waits inside for me. That's how it is when the one you love is gone. That's how it is when your house is not a home.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Many years ago, someone mentioned to me that one of Roger Miller's most underrated albums was 1970s' "A Trip In The Country." When I went to look for it, I found that it was out of print. What few copies I could find for sale were on vinyl and were ridiculously expensive. So over the years, I put together a mixtape of the album as various songs from it would be posted on the internet, but most of the time the songs would be taken down and disappear again. So I was excited to read about this reissue containing some of Miller's most artfully crafted songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF A MIND")

MILLER: (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 but only half the heart to go.

TUCKER: That's "Half A Mind," Miller's version of a top 10 country hit when Ernest Tubb cut it back in 1958. It was one of the first songs to establish Roger Miller as a Nashville songwriter and predates his explosion as a big star in the '60s. Once "King Of The Road" crossed over to the pop charts in 1965, Miller churned out the novelty tunes that remain his best-known work. I'm not putting down those compositions at all. They represent a peak moment in country humor and wit. But I admire equally his articulate songs of heartache and loneliness. And that's what this album, "A Trip In The Country," represents. When it arrived in 1970, it must have puzzled his fans. Where were the jokes? What they got instead was a Roger Miller shattered by romantic disappointment, asserting that he existed in a world he didn't want to live in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD I CAN'T LIVE IN")

MILLER: (Singing) Yours is a world I can't live in, but without you, I can't live in mine. You'd rather go places without me.

TUCKER: This album was not a commercial success. Only one song, "Don't We All Have The Right," made the billboard country chart, peaking at No. 15. It certainly deserved better than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WE ALL HAVE THE RIGHT")

MILLER: (Singing) I laughed it off when she left. I said she'd come back again. Don't we all have the right to be wrong now and then? She won't come home, says her love will never be mine again. Don't we all have the right to be wrong now and then?

TUCKER: Miller filled this collection with his saddest songs, most of them older and originally covered by other artists. They showcased his familiar gift for wordplay but were making more serious points. Although the great honky-tonk singer Ray Price had a huge hit with Miller's glorious shuffle beat ballad "Invitation To The Blues" back in 1958, record buyers turned down that same invitation here in 1970.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVITATION TO THE BLUES")

MILLER: (Singing) I couldn't sleep last night, just walked the floor. Don't know how I'll this anymore. Lonely are the times since I lost you. Received your invitation to the blues.

TUCKER: At the height of his popularity, Miller won 11 Grammys in just two years, and legend has it that Elvis Presley stopped him on the street to ask him for his autograph. Today, Roger Miller isn't very well known at all. I don't expect the reissue of "A Trip In The Country" to remedy that situation, but it sure is nice to have all this eloquent unhappiness in one place again.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed the reissue of Roger Miller's album "A Trip In The Country." The final albums in the digital reissue series will be released Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY EARS SHOULD BURN (WHEN FOOLS ARE TALKED ABOUT)")

MILLER: (Singing) Sometimes, my memories let me hold and kiss you, but they're just lending me the things I live without. And it's my fault that I can't really hold you. Yes, my ears should burn when fools are talked about. What made me think I craved another's kisses...

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, journalist Jesse Eisinger explains how a trove of IRS data acquired by ProPublica shows that many of America's billionaires avoid paying taxes. He'll also look at how the Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress could affect the tax obligations of the wealthiest Americans. I hope you can join us. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY EARS SHOULD BURN (WHEN FOOLS ARE TALKED ABOUT)")

MILLER: (Singing) At night in dreams, I do her callin' to me. She loves me. She loves me. There's no doubt. But my lips have no right to ask forgiveness. And my ears should burn when fools are talked about. Yes, my ears should burn when fools are talked about. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.