It might have been a bit bizarre at first, but Hearth Music’s Roger Miller tribute night at Columbia City Theater Saturday was more lecture series than country show — and that wasn’t a bad thing.
Hosted by Iaan Hughes of KBCS, who has forgotten more about Miller than most of the packed house probably knew coming in, the evening was a solid mix of old footage and photos, Hughes’ commentary and over a dozen bands each playing two Miller songs.
Some acts, like bluegrass upstarts the Warren G. Hardings, did a fine job of combining Miller’s music with their own flavor, while Dean Johnson used his rustic warble to effectively reproduce “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” and “My Pillow.”
As different acts took time to break down and set up the stage, Hughes spoke of Miller as one might speak of a grandfather or other cherished relative. And it’s a pretty impressive story. Miller was hired by country legend Ray Price in 1958 and wrote a huge hit, “Invitation to the Blues,” for Price.
Throughout his career, Miller’s trademark wacky sense of humor was always bubbling just under the surface of his songs, or in many cases not under the surface at all. But he also could write some more serious songs, like “In a World Full of Love,” which Jon Pontrello of the Moondoggies sang to great effect with Pepper Proud. The duo also hit on one of Miller’s sillier songs, “Lou’s Got The Flu,” but they turned it into a slow-rolling blues crawl full of menace.
Occasionally the footage included interviews with other country stars. Willy Nelson (who appeared beardless in an early shot of him and Miller, to the shock of the crowd) recalled Miller’s songwriting process: “Songwriting was a serious thing but we didn’t do that until late at night when we were very drunk.”
The tribute was organized by Mindie Lind, who got her own chance to pay tribute to Miller with her group, Girl’s Night Out. They played a pitch-perfect version of the hilariously absurd “The Hat” as well as “Little John.”
Some of the biggest rising names in the local country scene were on hand in Cahalen Morrison and Annie Ford. Morrison and his band Country Hammer were probably the most traditional sounding as they ripped through reverent versions of “Don’t We All Have The Right” and “Kansas City Star.” Ford, whose excellent self-titled album dropped last month, was similarly on point through “Atta Boy Girl” and “River in the Rain.”
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was just how straight-ahead most bands chose to play their tunes. Even the Low Hums, a self-proclaimed “psych rock band,” couldn’t help but get a little countrified as they played “Tall Trees” and “You Can’t Rollerskate In a Buffalo Herd.”
That no one took Miller’s music in an altogether different direction is telling. Though he hit his peak long ago and died fairly young at 56 in 1992, his songs have endured and his legacy is alive and well, just reintroduced to a new generation.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails