“I’m not sure I can do this thing,” Roger Miller said the first time we met to discuss Big River. “I’ve only seen two Broadway musicals in my life—one was My Fair Lady and the other was ‘George in the Park with Sunday.’”
Roger, of course, was pretending he was simpler than he was, because that’s how a Good Ol’ Boy shows he’s smarter than you—with irony. Just as Huckleberry Finn, in Mark Twain’s novel, declares he’s bad after making the best choice of his life: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell…I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it….And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.”
There were several old cars in the driveway of Roger’s home near Santa Fe, New Mexico, and when Roger and I took a break from working on the show, we sometimes sat in one of these cars and talked. Often we talked about the first songs we could remember hearing.
These were often country music of the forties—songs like “Ida Red,” “A Deck of Cards,” and “Cool, Clear Water.” We could both perfectly remember hearing Les Paul and Mary Ford’s “How High the Moon,” the first double-tracked song. “I was picking cotton,” Roger said, “and it came on the radio of the pickup that was parked at the end of the row, and I said, ‘Dang, turn that up.’”
Roger also told me that when he was growing up, he spent a lot of time hitchhiking from Erick, Oklahoma, the town where he was born, to Fort Worth, Texas, which had a famous strip of honky-tonks along the Jacksboro Highway. When his money was gone, he slept in the back seat of a used car on a lot, and hitchhiked back to Erick the next day. When I mentioned that this was a dangerous thing to do, Roger said, “All I know is, it’s real important to get to Fort Worth when you’re a kid.”
As we talked, I began to see that roads were the rivers of the Great Plains, and while hitchhiking along them the young Roger Miller was thinking up his great hits, “King of the Road” and “Chug-a-Lug.” Not only was Roger the Jack Kerouac of country music—he was the real Huckleberry Finn. Born into a racist society, he had already learned to think otherwise by the time I met him.
Writing on demand is a gift some musicians never develop. Once, when director Des McAnuff asked Roger about the bridge of a song he was working on, I heard him say to his wife, “Mary, they’re talking about twelve-tone music again.” When the pressure got to be too much, Roger picked up the fiddle—all great country artists can play the fiddle—and just fooled around.
His lifetime had exposed him to some of the most diverse influences in popular music history, and he had absorbed them all. Once I heard him rip off a few verses in scat—nonsense syllables, eight to the bar—when words failed him.
Roger could imitate everyone from Frank Sinatra to George Jones to Johnny Ray. He treasured humor, adored Ray Price and novelty tunes like “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette),” even had a good word for Spike Jones.
In the end, Roger composed a score that any Broadway composer would be proud of. Everyone who created Big River did a great job—in part because we all followed this advice, which I offer to anyone who aspires to create a Broadway musical: work like you don’t need the money, dance like nobody’s watching, and love like you can’t get hurt.
William Hauptman is the Tony Award-winning librettist of Big River.