(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The great Roger Miller is now getting a suitable tribute museum that’s fully in keeping with his slightly skewed, off-center way of looking at the universe. He’s being honored with a museum in the little town in way out-of-the-way desolate Oklahoma where he grew up. It’s on Route 66, the legendary road for taking off and being free, which Roger Miller finally did.
Miller, who died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 56, remains one of music’s greatest triple threats ever. He was virtually unmatched as a songwriter, singer and performer. And he often said that much of his inspiration for success came from growing up in true small-town America.
There was only one tree in Erick, Okla., when Roger was growing up, his widow Mary Miller told me. Roger was once asked about Erick, “Where’s that?” He replied, “It’s close to extinction.”
He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but after his father died of spinal meningitis and his mother became ill, a 2-year-old Roger was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Erick. “He said it was the lonesomest place on earth,” says Mary. They had no electricity or phone. They raised cotton and lived off the land. The only things they bought were butter and flour. Roger, she says, “used to joke that they raised ankle-high cotton, because it was so dry there.”
As a child and teenager, Roger frequently ran away from Erick. “He’d go wherever Bob Wills was playing,” says his widow. “Bob got to know him and would point his fiddle bow at him during shows. Roger said he felt that validated him as a human being.”
The museum will receive a soft opening over the next few weeks, says Mary, adding that the official opening likely will be this fall, when it’s not so oppressively hot in sun-baked Erick.
The facility is located in a 3,000-square-foot historic brick building at the intersection of Roger Miller Boulevard (actually Route 66, re-named for Roger for a stretch of highway there) and Sheb Wooley Avenue in the microscopic town of Erick (population: 1,023 in the year 2000). The country artist Sheb Wooley was also from Erick — he was Roger’s brother-in-law — and will have a display section in the Roger Miller Museum. Wooley, who died in 2003, gave Roger a fiddle and encouraged him musically when the latter was 11.
The museum will be roughly divided into five areas, she says: the ’60s and earlier, the ’70s, the ’80s and ’90s, his Broadway musical Big River and Erick itself. Exhibits will include his first motorcycle, stage costumes, much personal memorabilia and many handwritten lyrics. She says he wrote “King of the Road” on the back of an airplane ticket and was inspired by seeing a toy hobo in the airport gift shop. “This will really show the humble beginnings where he came from and what he became,” she says. “Roger always said, ‘It’s not where you come from — it’s where you arrive.’”
Mary Miller told me she still finds little Roger treasures — what she calls “Roger droppings” — in the forms of handwritten notes he left all over the house. “They were little pearls of wisdom,” she says. “I’ll feel so good about finally having a place for Roger’s things.”