"WELL, there sure are a lot of cowboys out there," says veteran country singer-songwriter Roger Miller, wryly commenting on all those slick, be-Stetsoned dudes riding herd over the current country charts. Miller, who's been silent for far too long, is taking a look before he reenters the pop rodeo himself.
Long and tall with a sleepy Texas drawl, Miller's the guy who wrote and sang the wistfully witty "King of the Road" -- nominated for nine Grammy Awards in 1965, when his genre was called Country & Western and his competition included the Beatles and Herb Alpert. It went: "Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let 50 cents . . ." Remember?
Recently the brash Scottish pop duo the Proclaimers had a U.K. hit with its "King" remake.
"I got a video of it," says Miller, who appears at the Birchmere on Saturday. "They're doing me, actually. They're dressed like I did in the '60s with the hats and skinny ties, and they're just running around on boxcars -- it looks like my old NBC-TV show opening. It's all right, it keeps the song alive. I was kind of flattered by it."
After a strong run of some 20 years that included a couple dozen hits, his own TV show and a Broadway musical, it seemed as if Miller had vanished.
"Hey, I've been here," he says. "I've been everywhere actually. Just been doing everything except recording. I was on Broadway for a while. Now I'm working on a second project. And I've been writing records for other people."
Lately, such new country names as Ricky Van Shelton and Highway 101 have capitalized on Miller's songwriting knack, with, respectively, "Don't We All Have the Right" and "Walkin' Talkin' Cryin' Barely Beatin' Broken Heart."
Now is that an ultimate country song title or what?
On the phone from his home in the mountains of Santa Fe, Miller sounds like a relaxed, affable sort of fellow. Just the way you figured the guy who sang stuff like "Dang Me" and "You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd" and even "My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died" would sound, in fact.
"It's been five years since I recorded," Miller says. "The constant pressure -- you gotta have a hit -- starts to get to you. So I just went off in some other directions, and my focus changed. But now I'm writing a new batch of songs that I'm gonna record.
"I just met today with my old producer, Buddy Killen, who produced all my hits, so we're gonna record again. I've been looking at everything going on, and I think, I can do better than that," he chuckles.
Miller went on stage as an actor for a spell in a touring company of "Big River," the musical he composed based on Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, was a hit for a year in Japan (in Japanese), and opens this summer in England (which, as another of his '60s hits told us, "swings like a pendulum do").
After the success of "Big River," Miller's looking at adapting another story -- maybe "Shane" -- for the stage.
He's also set to do Garrison Keillor's live radio show in Nashville in mid-April -- the two American humorists are a natural-born match. And once again, Miller's king of the road.
"Lately, I'm just doin' me and my guitar," he says. "It's not really a tour, I just do a couple nights a week. And it's just been a kind of new-found freedom for me."
Audiences expect to hear "King of the Road," naturally, and Miller insists he doesn't mind singing it. After all, this is the tune that set him up for life.
"A long time ago, I decided it was just a matter of trying to sing it like it was the first time through, kinda like you don't hear it every day.
"Anyway, I surely don't want to go out there and say 'Well, folks, I don't want to sing 'King of the Road.' Let me show you some new inroads . . ." Miller says, and laughs. "You gotta do the old stuff."