2012 Drought

09.23.12

Searching for the Ghost of Roger Miller in Erick, Okla.

Humor and hardship go hand in hand in Erick, pop. 1,052, hometown of country great Roger Miller. But even though it looks like a dying town from afar, Erick has an insistent pulse. Malcolm Jones reports.

Driving west on I-40 in the middle of the afternoon, I saw a sign for Erick, Okla., a few miles shy of the Texas line. The countryside in that part of the world has been so gnawed to the bone by drought for two years running that there’s very little about its bleached landscape to make you want to linger. But Erick rang a distant bell. Sure enough, just before the exit ramp, there was a road sign announcing Erick as the hometown of Roger Miller. As soon as I saw that, I yanked the steering wheel to the right.

Erick is four miles south of the interstate, and they have a blinking stoplight in the middle of town to let you know you’ve arrived. Otherwise you could scoot right through in the time it takes to read this sentence and be none the wiser. There were people there once. You can tell this because there are still buildings lining the two main drags that meet at that stoplight, but most of the stores and office buildings are boarded up or closed. According to the last census, the town has 1,052 citizens, but the majority must have been on vacation when I came through. Most small towns in America are smaller than they once were, but Erick takes that to an extreme.

Roger Miller was born in Fort Worth in 1936, but his father died when he was a year old, and his mother parceled her three sons out to relatives. Miller grew up with his aunt and uncle on a farm outside of Erick, a place he joked about all his life. “It was so dull you could watch the colors run,” he once said. “We were so poor, words were our only toys.”

In high school Miller filled out a “Pupil Information Sheet.” Under “Telephone,” he wrote, “No telephone,” and in answer to the question “What would you like to do when you finish high school?” he wrote, “I would like to have my own band and play over the radio.” He more than got his wish.

Miller had three No. 1 singles, including his most famous song, “King of the Road,” which alone netted him five of his 11 Grammys. He also won a Tony for best score for Big River, his musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An established Nashville songwriter before his own performing career took off in the mid-1960s, he wrote hits for artists as disparate as George Jones and Jim Reeves. But no one sang a Miller lyric like the man who wrote it, and in most cases you had to hear him sing the words to truly appreciate how rhythmically clever they were.

Without the music, it’s very hard to hear how he parses this out so beautifully against the beat in “Engine Engine Number Nine,” but consider this lyric: “Old brown suitcase that she carried/ I’ve looked for it everywhere/ It just ain’t here among the rest/ And I’m a little upset, yes.” And has anyone ever written a better song title than “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me”?

The laughs come hard in Roger Miller songs. “Dang Me (They Ought to Take a Rope and Hang Me)” is, on first or fifth listen, just an upbeat, goofy nonsense song, but consider that he wrote this song after divorcing his first wife, with whom he had a child, and you’ll get a little shiver when you hear, “Out all night and running wild/ Woman sittin’ home with a month old child.” A little later we get the lines, “Spent the groceries and half the rent/ I lack 14 dollars of having 27 cents,” which manages to be both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

Miller was forever tagged as a novelty writer, but the truth is, he was one of a kind—a jazz man in country clothing, a poet slyly masquerading as a hayseed. To listen to his songs now is to be reminded that not so long ago, country music belonged to writers every bit as sophisticated as anyone who ever dwelt on Tin Pan Alley.

I was listening to a country station when I got to Erick because that was all I could find on the dial that came in clearly, but out of deference to Roger, I turned it off.

I’ll say this for Erick: they try as hard as they can to honor their most famous son (actually there are two, the other being Sheb Wooley, who had a hit with his self-penned “The Purple People Eater” and who married Roger’s cousin—that stoplight in Erick sits at the junction of Roger Miller Boulevard and Sheb Wooley Avenue).

Of growing up on a farm outside Erick, Miller said, “It was so dull you could watch the colors run.”
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King of the Road: Roger Miller, Erick, Okla. native (Getty Images)

Wandering the treeless, sun-baked streets, I discovered that Erick not only has a local museum but, directly across the street, a museum devoted solely to Roger Miller. My luck being what it is, it was closed. But in the window, I saw a sign announcing that in late October, the Erick Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring the first annual Roger Miller Hog Hunt.

On the way back to my car, I passed Sweet Petal’s Bakery and Florist, one of the few establishments in town that was open for business. Ducking into its cool, spic-and-span stillness, I took a stool at the counter, where the gracious owner, Charlotte Viola, served me one of the best pieces of peach pie I have ever eaten.

Pouring my coffee, she explained that Erick has become a destination point for people like me, tracking down Roger Miller, and also for fans of old Route 66, which runs through the middle of town. They come, she said, sometimes by the hundreds, on motorcycles and in RVs, mostly from Europe, “but we get a lot from Australia, too.”

While I sat there trying to make my pie last as long as I could, a man came in and struck up a conversation with Charlotte. His name was Frank. Before long another man came in. His name was Frank, too. Frank No. 2 wanted to buy a bale of hay from Frank No. 1, and they quickly got to talking about drought, and its consequences.

Listening to the Franks trading insults to pass the time, I found myself absently adopting my country uncle’s habit of stirring his black coffee in time with the conversation. In less than half an hour, I had begun to feel at home, and it dawned on me that there is nothing like a small town to exalt the rituals of idleness.

Frank No. 1 explained to me that before the drought he had grazed more than 400 head of cattle on 6,500 acres. But as hay became scarce and prices climbed, he had been forced to thin his herd. Now he had about a quarter of what he started with.

“Man asked me the other day, ‘Why don’t you just sell the cows?’ Well, we did that already,” he said with a laugh. Now he’s selling land.

One of Charlotte’s daughters came in with her friends on the way to a softball game.

Frank No. 1 stopped her and said, “I know there’s grass spurs in your yard, so how you keep them outta your feet wearin’ them flip-flops?” It was nice to see that the ancient art of expressing affection through teasing had not entirely died.

A wise child, she did not take the bait.

“Your daddy been dove huntin’ yet?” he asked another of the girls.

“I don’t know,” she replied, wriggling behind the counter, “I’m concentratin’ on pie.”

The more I listened, the more it made sense that Roger Miller hailed from Erick, a country town where humor and hardship go hand in hand, where in fact one is never to be had without the other. Like the boy so poor that all he had to play with were words, the folks from Erick were experts at finding something to laugh about in the direst circumstances. Erick might look like it was dying, but it sure had a pulse.

“You know the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee?” Frank No. 1 asked me and Frank No. 2, who had just told me that he had retired to Erick from Wisconsin several years ago. We waited for it. “A damn Yankee sticks around.” I took the hint.

As I paid my check, my eye fell on a handout beside the cash register. The flier announced—in the same weekend as the hog hunt!—the “1st annual Little Miss & Mr. Roger Miller Beauty Pageant,” in which “All you need to compete is a Cute Fall Outfit,” and “Everyone that enters will get a fall themed crown,” although “Mr. & Miss Roger Miller will be crowned with a special crown, sash, & gift.”

I didn’t stop smiling until I was back on the interstate.