Genre borders weren’t a thing for Roger Miller, a songwriting phenomenon and enthusiastic smoker who died of lung cancer in 1992. He’s best known for his ‘65 hit “King of the Road,” which topped the country charts here, the pop charts in England and Norway, and would be covered years later by an evidently inebriated R.E.M. But that was hardly Miller’s only hit, and his charm so transcended red/blue state divides, he got himself a network TV show years before Johnny Cash. It’s fitting, therefore, that the high points of King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller come from “country” artists with a similarly cavalier attitude towards convention.
Foremost is Kacey Musgraves, who often brings Miller’s brand of wiseass empathy to her own songwriting. With due respect to the author, she now officially owns “Kansas City Star,” the story of a big TV fish in a small pond who decides to stay put. Lyle Lovett is a perfect match for “England Swings,” still the best country song ever written about Great Britain. Miller wrote and sang “Oo-De-Lolly” for the 1973 animated Disney film Robin Hood, which Eric Church no doubt saw as a kid. His take is a keeper, a swampy and surprisingly spooky backwoods ramble. Like peers Little Richard and L’il Wayne, Miller was great at making songs from gibberish. “Do-Wacka-Do” gets a faithful reading by Robert Earl Keen Jr. Brad Paisley does a solid “Dang Me.” And Huey Lewis, of all people, resurfaces for a rousing take on the boozy “Chug-A-Lug,” a song he was clearly born to sing.
There are other baffling moments — what Toad The Wet Sprocket are doing on a Roger Miller tribute, I’ve no idea. But their take on “Nothing Can Stop Me” ain’t bad. In the final count, about half the 30-some covers here are keepers, decent for this kind of thing. And King of the Road gets extra points for reviving the catalog of a guy who wrote as if America was one single place — a country crossover in the best sense of the term.