Family Man: Frankie Miller
The Greatest Country Singer You Never Heard
By Jimmy McDonough
Reading time 103 Minutes
Cowboy hat, kind face
Cowboy hat, glasses, kind face--the man in the black BMW who’d just pulled in next to me in the fast-food parking lot could have been anybody’s Texas grandpa. I’d met a few big shots in my day, but this time it was Frankie Miller, and I was beside myself. For decades Miller had been my patron saint of the jukebox. His songs had gotten me through many a black night, and over the years he’d grown to rather mythical proportions in my mind.
Frankie brought me down to earth with the first words out of his mouth. Smiling, he rolled down the window and drawled in that rich baritone of his, “Git up here, boy!” The line was from “Blackland Farmer,” Miller’s biggest hit, and hearing that familiar voice in the flesh for the first time might’ve just caused me to faint had I not been too busy laughing. That, I would find, was Frankie’s way of doing things—putting everybody at ease.
Stop here a minute. I have to tell you about a record--“It’s Not Easy.” Written and sung by Frankie in 1961, the first time I heard it was in 1979 or so. I was on the West Coast visiting my folks and the trip was not going well. I was in the doghouse for some reason, everybody was arguing and my nerves were shot. I needed air, and there was flea market nearby. It was huge, but mostly new stuff—knockoff designer jeans, beer koozies, t-shirts with stupid slogans. Table after table, row after row of hot asphalt and fat, unhappy white people, a landscape of despair. This didn’t stop me. I was on the prowl for old vinyl--45, LP, 78. It didn’t Matter. I needed a fix.
After a few dozen aisles in the punishing California sun my mind was numb and I was ready to throw in the towel when a couple of cardboard boxes of albums peeking out from under a folding table caught my eye. “$1.00 each,” read the shaky handwriting. Flip, flip, flip. The usual dog-eared cast-offs of the day—Herb Albert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights, Mamas and Papas, Mantovani, Cheech & Chong, Three Dog Night. One platter caught my eye: a country compilation on Guest Star Records. Everything about it screamed cheap. The cover: a generic illustration of an earnest, very un-country guy strumming an acoustic guitar. Some of the songs and singers listed I recognized, some I didn’t. Like the one listed in a yellow box on the left: “It’s Not Easy” by Frankie Miller. I zeroed right in on it, I can’t tell you why, exactly. I liked the title, I liked his name, so I plunked down a buck. Back at my folks’ place the joint was empty and I was alone with the turntable.
A burning, slightly singed quality haunted the first notes of a rolling pedal steel (Jimmy Day, I’d learn later). It had me imagining tendrils of smoke wafting up off the vinyl. And then came that voice. “Your love grows colder by the day, we’ve reached a parting of the ways,” sang Frankie, slowly, precisely, from a place somewhere beyond sad. By the time that Texas whine crept into his delivery on “Can’t someone tell me just how long the pain will stay before it’s gone,” I was asking myself: who the hell is this guy? Everything about the record was absolutely perfect, down to the two-stepping bass and plaintive honky-tonk piano. The whole thing was awash in reverb, imbuing it with a murky atmospheric glow(1). Had this record been a drug I would’ve shot it into my veins. The hounds of hell were always yapping inside my skull and it calmed me right down. “It’s Not Easy” was my friend. It made me feel a part of the world. I played it again and again. I couldn’t stop playing it.
I had been a connoisseur of sad songs all my life, but there was something a little extra about this one. Maybe it was the combination of humbleness and resignation my buddy Charlie Beesley would see in Frankie’s work. Clearly this was somebody who knew a thing or two about the human condition. At the time, though, I didn't try to decode it—my response was visceral. I just knew I had to hear every note the guy ever cut. I was obsessed with Frankie Miller.
I roped Charlie into the obsession, too. We’d hit every swap meet and mom n’ pop record shop we could find, scouring the bins for that bold, bright yellow Starday label (yes, it has stars) with Miller’s name listed above it mid-left, and if any were found, they were bought—even if one of us already had a copy. We were engaged in serious fieldwork and felt guilty leaving any strays behind. Now, neither of us were experts armed with a complete discography; in fact, we were pretty clueless as to how many records Frankie cut or how many labels he was on. We learned from finding the records themselves, one by one, each 45 another clue, another artifact to be studied, savored and dissected. Of course, finding a novelty number on the A-side was always a major disappointment. We wanted our Miller sad, and we wanted every last drop.
The quest took years, decades, the man himself remaining a mystery all the while. What little we knew came from the back of an import LP that revealed he'd left country music in the sixties and was selling cars somewhere in Texas. Why had this utter genius turned his back on the business? What the hell happened? Although rightly revered by a certain breed of country/rockabilly fanatics, Frankie remains unknown to the world at large. Even today I open books on Texas music and there’s no mention of the guy. Not to mention the fact that he’s returned to country and at 85 years of age, he’s still great.
“THEY TAUGHT ME TO BE HONEST AND LIKE PEOPLE”
Frank Miller, Jr. was born December 17, 1930 in Victoria, Texas(2). “I had probably two of the best parents you could ever have,” Miller told Phil Lynch. “They taught me to be honest and like people.” Although father Norman was a railroad engineer for Southern Pacific for nearly half a century (minus a short break), Frankie, the youngest of three children, says that his mother Valerie “wore the pants in the family. She bossed my dad around pretty good.” (Grandmother Jerusa was a full-blooded Cherokee, which might’ve accounted for Frankie’s striking, jet-black hair).
From Miller’s descriptions it was an idyllic childhood. During the Depression his father was temporarily laid off and the family relocated to Smiley, Texas, where Norman worked on a large poultry farm. Typical of Frankie, he sees the bright side looking back. “We didn’t have a lot of money," he told me, "but hell, we had plenty to eat.” Frankie loved country life and soon became a serious fisherman as well as duck hunter. “I have an attic full of decoys."
Although neither of his parents played an instrument, they loved music, and family evenings at 1109 E. Ash in Victoria were spent listening to border radio—the Carter Family on XERF and Cowboy Slim Rinehart on XCG (“He was a great pitchman. He sold everything, including roach killer”). The first records Frankie remembers playing on his grandparents' wind-up Victrola were Jimmie Rodgers 78s. He was also fond of the big bands, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Older brother Norman was the real country fan, while Frankie was more interested in sports, attending Victoria Junior College on a football scholarship.
Miller even contemplated a career in boxing. His cousin Harlan Haas was in the business and had the connections. “They really wanted me to turn pro,” said Frankie, who fought some half-dozen bouts, losing none. “I had two fights in one night. No one ever fights two fights one night. I whipped ‘em both! I fought two Mexicans and I went over there and they was all hollerin’. South Texas is all Mexican, they were giving me all this bullshit, so I held my glove up and pointed at them. ‘I’m a Mexican daddy,’ I told ‘em.” Miller chuckled at the memory. Frankie does not regret giving up the pugilistic arts. “They had me all lined up, my cousin was doing all the publicity—‘We got some fights lined up for you I bet you’re gonna win!’ He knew in advance. I’m really glad I chose music…I don’t know if I’d even be around if I was in the boxing business. It’s more crooked than music.”
Hank Williams changed the direction of Frankie’s life, with a little help from his brother Norman. “My brother sang just like Ernest Tubb--you could hardly tell the difference. And that’s all he sang--E. T. songs.” Norman taught Frankie how to play guitar and soon he put a backing band together. Hank had the Drifting Cowboys, so Frankie named his the Drifting Texans. Hardcore country became Frankie’s lifelong passion and he would never waver. “I had a standing order at the Victoria music store for every record by Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizell, Carl Smith and Floyd Tillman.” He will tell you that the first two names on that list were his biggest influences.
Miller can vividly describe each of the four times he saw Hank Williams perform. The first was at a baseball field in Corpus Christi. “Only place big enough to hold the people. Man, they had ‘em packed in there, chairs all over the infield. It was night. They had a big semi-flatbed trailer for a stage. Hank was travelin’ with Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours. He had ‘Lovesick Blues’ out and that was the hottest thing in the world. I think he encored five or six times. They had to get security to get him offstage and take him back to the dugout where the dressing rooms were.”
Tagging along with Frankie were his brother Norman and the steel player from their band, Jimmy Summey, who’d played with Williams on the Louisiana Hayride. “Jimmy said, ‘C’mon, I’ll introduce y’all to Hank.’” Frankie describes the vibe in the makeshift dressing room thusly: “Electricity…it was like an electrical current. He was so much a part of my music, I was up in the air just to see him and shake hands with him. He was just a down-to-earth country guy.”
Summey had learned some sleight-of-hand to jazz up performances with Miller’s band. “He worked him up a little magic act. He had a little gal and a trunk.” Summey made the mistake of demonstrating to Williams how to make a quarter disappear. “After a minute or so Hank reached out and took him by the wrist. He said, ‘Jimmy, Jimmy--these people don’t want magic, they want hillbilly.’ Those are the words he said, right outta Hank’s mouth.”
One of the other times Miller saw Hank he was somewhat lubricated onstage and had positioned the mic inside his arm while reaching around to play the guitar. “Had it right in the bend of his elbow, and he’d play the guitar and sing. I guess that’s how he’d keep up with the mic if he was drinkin’ a little. I never seen anybody else do that.”
Frank Miller and the Drifting Texans developed a following in and around Victoria. It didn’t hurt that one of his supporters was a guy by the name of Travis Jacobs, who owned a half-dozen clubs in South Texas. Miller could play this circuit regularly five or six nights a week and sleep in his own bed. The jewel in the crown was the Lone Star Club in nearby Port Lavaca, a great big beautiful joint with wood panels covering the picture windows. “Travis dropped the panels down when we had dances. You could see the moon right out there on the bay.” Bob Wills, Tommy Collins, Carl Smith, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Floyd Tillman were among the many that played the Lone Star Club and Frankie and his boys were the ones backing them up. It was a great education for Miller and a hell of a lot of fun. “Man, I worked down there with everybody.”
Frankie had another great connection in local deejay “Chili-Eatin’” Charlie Lewis. “He was the number one down in that area. Charlie had a lot of power for a small, 500-watt station. It reached everywhere we played.” Lewis heavily promoted Frankie’s shows and for that, “He got a cut, just like I had five musicians instead of four. I made him part of the band.” It was a shrewd move on Miller’s part. “Lookin’ back on it I had a really sweet deal. Every place we were playin’ he hit it hard. Man, he advertised the hell outta those shows.”
Lewis was known to be a bit of a joker. Typical is when Ray Price came to play the Lone Star Club. Not yet a big star, Price was being backed by the Drifting Cowboys, which he’d inherited after Hank’s death. The band was far more famous than Price at the time and Lewis needled Ray about it on air. “We’d ride around in the car with a jug in there and have some drinks. We was listenin’ to Charlie Lewis promotin’ the show—‘Yessir, Hank Williams’ band is going be there at the Lone Star Club tonight, the DRIFTING COWBOYS…with Ray Price. He would just throw Ray Price in there at end like an extra. ‘The DRIFTING COWBOYS are gonna be there…oh, and Ray Price. ‘Finally ol’ Ray couldn’t stand it anymore he reached over, turned the radio off and said, ‘Fuck the Driftin’ Cowboys.’” (It appears the people Port Lavaca weren’t all that excited about the Drifting Cowboys without Hank. Miller was standing close to the stage when he heard this exchange between fiddle player Jerry Rivers and steel guitarist Don Helms: “‘Don, it looks like the gravy is gettin’ thin, ain’t it?’ And old Don looks back and says, ‘It’s getting to be where there ain’t no gravy at all.’”)
Miller and his band had a show on KNAL five days a week. “A thirty minute show at noon. We’d cut it on Sunday, all 5 programs right in a row.” He’d drive around to the towns he was playing Saturday afternoons, stop, put a speaker on top of the car, and start singing a few numbers. “Drew a crowd. That really worked good.” Frankie even played a medicine show that came through Victoria. “They were sellin’ a thing called Keeno. Some kind of concoction they made up—mostly alcohol. It was in a bottle, made ‘em feel good.”
Another advantage for Miller came by way of a partner Travis Jacobs had by the name of Ralph Power. He owned many a South Texas jukebox, and when Frankie wasn’t performing he’d make the rounds with a friend, collecting the proceeds for Ralph. Some of these clubs were on the rough side, and when Miller hit some of the black joints, the reception could get a little frosty. “You put all the good jukeboxes in the white joints--you give us them ol’ whorehouse jukeboxes,” complained one bar owner. At times the reaction was visceral. “We’d come out, and they’d have ice-picked our tires on the damn truck. We’d carry two or three spares.”
Part of the gig involved hitting the South Coast Amusement Company in Houston, owned by the infamous Harold W. “Pappy” Daily, a character best known for managing and producing George Jones for the first chunk of his career. Pappy ran a distributorship that serviced jukeboxes (“biggest one in the state,” said Miller) so Ralph sent Frankie there. “They took me to hear the music, because they weren’t all that hip to what was goin’ on. I’d listen to the new stuff and say, ‘We want twenty of this, thirty of that.’” The jukebox connection paid off once Frankie put out his own records. “He had my record on every jukebox he had. Even the black joints.”
Pappy Daily was the conduit to Miller’s first record deal. Daily dealt with a notorious character by the name of Bill McCall, a Texan who ran a label called Gilt-Edge in California. As far as country crooks go, McCall was the “number one guy in the business,” said Frankie. ”Everybody knew he’d never pay anybody.” Maybe the most illuminating story involving McCall’s thievery concerns “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes,” a song published by McCall that became a country standard. A guy by the name of Slim Willet “wrote the damn song,” Miller recalled. “He was an oil field roughneck out of Abilene. Bill didn’t pay him, Willet got some of his big roughneck friends, they flew to California and went up to his office. Of course the office girl said, ‘He’s not here.’ Willet said, ‘We’ll wait.’ He heard Bill in there and kicked the damn door open. He said, ‘I want my money, Bill, or we’re gonna throw your ass out the window.’ I think ol’ Bill believed it. He hollered to his secretary, ‘Bring the books in—both sets of ‘em!’ That’s how he got his money.”
From the summer of 1951 through early 1952 Miller would cut six singles in Houston for Gilt-Edge. Travis Jacobs paid for the sessions, McCall put them out and while Chili-Eatin’ Charlie made sure they were heard locally, none of them became national hits. Frankie knew there was no money in this deal. “I didn’t care if they paid me a dime,” he told Kevin Coffey. “I just wanted to get some records out.”
Frankie can recall the day boxes of his first single showed up at Pappy Daily’s in Houston. “78’s…I could hold one in my hand. It felt good, you bet.” Then Chili-Eatin’ Charlie played it on the radio. Frankie was “in the car. Charlie gave it a big build up. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life.” Best of all was hearing it waft out of a Wurlitzer jukebox at the Be-Back Club Bar and Grill, one of Travis’s places in Port Lavaca. “When I walked in there someone was playing my record. I said, ‘Damn, that really sounds good.’ You can’t imagine how that feels. Anybody who’s had a song on a jukebox got to get a charge out of that or somethin’s wrong with ‘em. I was walking off the ground.”
Released in the fall of 1951, “I Don’t Know” was the first record written and sung by Frankie Miller. Frankie freely admits that the inspiration was “I Don’t Care” by Hank Williams. Miller’s Gilt-Edge records were raw, unadorned country—Frankie was giving ‘em hillbilly. Many country aficionados prize these releases, along with the early Columbia sides that came next, but, as great as they are, they are too much Hank and not enough Frankie. They just don’t have “the spook,” as the late, great David Briggs would say.
Miller cut a long-lost demo session at Jim Beck’s Dallas studio that would’ve led to Frankie his first major-label deal on Decca, but fate intervened. Miller was drafted. Before shipping off to Korea, Miller was briefly sent to Camp Roberts in California, where he continued to play music with a thrown-together band that played “the NCO club every week and off-the-base towns all around there, music up and down the coast,” said Miller. “Frankie sounded a lot like Hank Williams,” noted fellow soldier and steel-playing bandmate Sonny Trammel. “That was his style.”
While stationed in California he married his sweetheart, Ann Felkins, who'd attended a dance he played at the Avalon Terrace outside Victoria some three years before. “She was a pretty girl. Part Irish, part German. She roped me in. She followed me all the way to California, to the ocean. I couldn’t go any further.” The wedding attendees were Frankie’s fellow GIs. “Our company commander said, ‘We’re gonna have a wedding Saturday and you WILL be there.’ They were.”
In Korea Miller bought a three-dollar acoustic guitar and set out to write a song a week. While overseas Frankie served his country proudly, earning a Bronze Star for “directing fire on the enemy,” but he never stopped dreaming of a music career. A crudely recorded tape he sent home to his brother Norman was recently released on vinyl by Richard Weize Archives as A Letter From Korea. It’s a nifty little moment in time--save one number, Miller never recorded these songs in a studio. They include a salute to Harry Choates (“Lousiana Fiddlin’ Man”), “That’s What You Mean To Me” (a love song to his wife), and a brief but amusing version of a Japanese hit he heard repeatedly on Armed Forces Radio - “China Nights (Shina No Yoru).” Hillbilly translation: “She Ain’t Got No Yo-Yo.”
Frankie was discharged in 1954. His brother Norman had kept the Drifting Texans going, allowing Miller to “pick the band right up when I got back.” And he quickly found himself on a major label due to a friendship with a local Columbia Records executive, Woody Woodward. For his major label debut, Frankie charged out of the gate with two of his best Hank-style numbers--“Hey! Where You Goin’?” and “It Ain’t No Big Thing To Me” “Two in-your-face hillbilly jumpers,” as Miller historian Kevin Coffey aptly describes them.
Frankie started playing the big shows in the area: the Cowtown Hoedown in Fort Worth, the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport, and the biggest of all: Big D Jamboree in Dallas. The Hayride was Frankie’s favorite because it was “so laid back.” Not so with the Grand Ol’ Opry, which Miller played for the first time to sing one of his Columbia singles, “You’re Going To Cry On My Shoulder Again.” When Frankie stepped onstage Faron Young pointed in the direction of a gruff stage manager with a clipboard: “You gotta go over there and clear your songs with him.” Already nervous, Miller did as told. “I forget his name,” says Frankie. "He was Eye-talian. I stood there a long time lookin’ at him with his clipboard.” Finally the guy asked him what he wanted and Frankie said he’d been told he had to clear his songs. “He says, ‘Well, you singin’ anything that mentions whiskey or beer?’ I said, ‘No.’” The guy waved Frankie on, remarking, “Looks like you’re scared to death." "I said, ‘Shit, I am--because I’m talkin’ to you.’” The guy laughed and shook Frankie’s hand. “Faron and all the guys across the stage were laughin’ like hell. He was a rough, rascally old guy but he was really full of heart.” Frankie had broken the ice at the Opry.
Miller was meticulous about his stage appearance. “My hat, my pants, my boots--everything had to be just right when I went onstage. I had some embroidered shirts like Lefty Frizzell had, with beautiful fringe and music notes. I’d buy clothes at Harry’s Western Tailors in Fort Worth. I kept the band dressed all the same--black pants, white shirts, bolo tie.” One night not long after he got out of the service Miller returned to the Lone Star Club in Port Lavaca, but his performance was nearly derailed by upstarts Maddox Brothers and Rose, who were headlining the show. Frankie was onstage when Fred Rose slipped behind him and lifted his pant legs right up to his knees. Everybody cracked up, including Miller’s family members in the audience. “Funny as hell now, but it wasn’t funny then…it just embarrassed the shit outta me!”
Miller’s Columbia career fizzled out after five singles, although Webb Pierce would score a 1955 hit with Frankie's “If You Were Me.” (Webb also demanded half the writer’s credit for cutting it.) Rock n' roll had arrived, decimating the country music business. Miller saw the effects first-hand watching Elvis tear it up at the Louisiana Hayride. “We had a real good country following,” Frankie told Hank Davis. “When he come in there it all turned into teenagers… When he left, hell, we had nobody.” Some tried joining the enemy. In 1956, even Frankie’s buddy George Jones was coaxed by Pappy Daily into cutting some lead-footed rock n’ roll records for Starday under the moniker Thumper Jones. George blamed Pappy. “He was pissed about it,” said Frankie. He was not happy about that Thumper Jones business.”(3)
Without a label, Miller’s career floundered. He cut some demos with a bass player Bob Graves that pointed in a new, more intense direction. The sexy, sly “Living Doll” featured some of Miller’s most extreme singing thus far and “Sugar Coated Baby” (later recorded by Johnny Horton) was nearly as good. Like many uptempo Miller numbers to come, the tempo and swagger suggest rockabilly.
By 1957 Frankie was back in the minor leagues, recording two singles for Cowtown Hoedown Records. It looked like Miller would become just another forgotten country singer drifting from label to label into obscurity. But a highly unusual song that Frankie had recorded on his own at Gold Star Studios in 1956 would catapult him into the big time. The way it got released was an unexpected accident, and the one who made it happen was an eccentric, somewhat crazy songwriter and singer named Howard Crockett.
“DON DIDN’T PAY ANYBODY, BUT HE SURE TREATED ME GOOD”
Howard “Crock” Crockett, aka Howard Hausey, was born December 25, 1925 in Yellow Pine, Louisiana. An injury derailed a promising baseball career, and when Frankie met Howard on the Cowtown Hoedown he’d had some success writing songs for Johnny Horton (“Honky Tonk Man” and “Ole Slewfoot” among them), and was making a go of it as a singer (Crockett, who at times sounded like a low-rent Johnny Cash, recorded for numerous labels and released an album, the beautifully titled The Many Moods Of The Mysterious Howard Crockett.) Hits of his own eluded him. Howard was 6’3,” “dressed all in black and looked sorta like Dracula,” Frankie recalled. Crockett liked to sleep with the light on out on the road and he lived in Fort Worth with not one but two women (one of them an ex), his mother and kids. He was known for promising young hopefuls with stars in their eyes a Nashville career, then taking them into the studio to fleece them. “He was just getting ‘em before somebody else did. And chargin’ more.”
“Everbody loved Crock, but he was a crook,” admits Miller, who on a trip to Nashville watched Howard sell his five songs—to five different publishers. Sometimes he tried the same trick on Frankie. “Howard would do anything for me—or to me,” says Miller, laughing. “He was a funny dude, Crockett was. Man, he was a conniver.”
In 1958 Miller accompanied Crockett on another of his Nashville runs. “It was the height of rock n’ roll and Howard took some rock stuff up there.” Crockett had a demo of an inane (alleged) rocker called “George Washington White,” which Frankie had sung harmony on and which was just as ridiculous as the title suggests. (Miller cracked up recalling the chorus: “George Washington White/Well all right, all right, all RIGHT!!!”) The pair hit Ray Scribner’s publishing company. “Hell, nobody gonna cut that, it sounds like you makin’ fun of those black folks,” drawled Ray.
So much for that idea. Undaunted, Crockett began gabbing to then-Scribner employee Tommy Hill. Brother of singer Goldie Hill, Tommy was another Texas boy who’d worked as a musician and done some solo recording (Frankie, who’d soon be thick as thieves with Tommy, had met him out on the road). Totally out of the blue, Crockett pitched Hill another song, and not one of his. “Howard said, ‘Tommy, you wanna hear a good country song?’ I said, ‘Howard, they don’t wanna hear no damn country song.’ Howard said, ‘Big M’—that’s what he called me, Big M—‘Go down to the car and get that song.’ So I did--reluctantly.”
The song in question was “Blackland Farmer” (also known as “Black Land Farmer”) and it was different from anything Frankie had ever cut. He’d written it in tribute to his uncle Louis Sauers, who had a farm outside of Smiley. “He was my mother’s brother. He farmed all his life, with mules.” Miller had cut a lost solo demo of the song in Fort Worth before redoing it sometime in 1956 at Gold Star in Houston. Frankie assembled a band of six to cut four songs that day, but asked most of them to sit out on “Blackland Farmer.” “We didn’t need anything but a bass, fiddle and my guitar.” No producer, no label, nothing going on. Frankie did it all himself.
It’s a stark, simple number, and Frankie sings the hell out of it. “When the Lord made me he made a simple man/Not much money and not much land,” he wails. This did not sound like Hank Williams--or anyone else, for that matter, but Frankie Miller. There’s certainly nothing fancy about the production, no drums or electric guitar, but the picture it paints is a big one, as wide open as the Texas plains. Mysterious, primordial, you can practically smell the manure. Had there been music videos in those days, John Ford would’ve directed “Blackland Farmer.” It’s an unusual, striking record, enhanced by an ingenious opening: Frankie’s short, piercing whistle and mule call—“Git up heah, boy”—followed by the clip-clop of hooves. Then a strumming guitar kicks in and Miller breaks into his unforgettable humming before the lyrics begin. All of this was done live, no overdubs—“I don’t think we rehearsed it much at all,” says Frankie.
The clippity-clop came by way of a pair of hollowed-out coconuts. “My brother played the horse. I had seen a thing at the movies, some short showin’ how sounds were made on the radio.” They tried the floor at first, but it sounded too harsh, like the horse was walking on concrete. No good. Somebody grabbed a pillow to dull the impact and the result was perfect, as was Norman’s percussive mule-rhythm. “He was a really good guitar player. And did a real good job with them coconut shells.”
Miller had created a masterpiece, but at the time he was so discouraged by the onslaught of rock ‘n roll he sat on the song. “I don’t remember pitchin’ it to anybody,” says Frankie (at other times he’s said he played it for Don Law at Columbia). Miller gave the publishing to Troy Martin, a rep with the Peer publishing company, in exchange for a promise he’d work the song. Nothing ever happened, and the master of “Blackland Farmer” sat in the trunk of Frankie’s Impala gathering dust. For two years.
Then came Crock’s impromptu suggestion to play it for Tommy Hill. Tommy’s “eyes lit up,” said Frankie. Hill also worked for Don Pierce, who now ran Starday. Pappy Daily had co-owned Starday with Pierce, but they’d split up, Daily taking George Jones with him. They divided the songs they owned by flipping a coin as to who would have the first pick. Pierce won the first toss and nabbed “A Satisfied Mind.” He kept winning the tosses--and the hits. “I just clobbered Pappy on that,” Pierce told Miller.
When Tommy Hill played “Blackland Farmer” for Pierce, Frankie was signed immediately. But not before Don clobbered Frankie as well. Once Miller explained he’d given the publishing to a third party, Pierce refused to record the song unless Frankie handed over his composer rights. “Frankie signed it over to him forever,” said songwriter Hal Bynum, co-author of a few Miller songs as well as the Kenny Rogers monster “Lucille.” “Everybody in the business knows Don Pierce never paid a cent in royalties. He was just an out-and-out thief. They say that the only money Pierce ever paid to anybody was to Cowboy Copas. He just loved him. That was a big fuckin’ deal--for Pierce to actually pay somebody the money he owed them.”
Nearly seventy years later, Miller refuses to trash Pierce, which is typical of Frankie. “I wanted a record out,” he said with a sigh. “Don knew how to promote a record, he was a good record man. He did what he said he was gonna do. So I’ve got no hard feelings at all towards Don Pierce. He didn’t pay anybody, but he always treated me good. I really did like ol’ Don.”
The icing on the cake was the B-side of “Blackland Farmer”--“True Blue,” Frankie’s thunderous reworking of Leon Chappel’s 1950 Western swing hit “True Blue Poppa” cut at the same session as its flipside. Chappel used to sit in with Miller’s band in Victoria and Frankie grew fond of the song—but when he decided to record it he added a bridge, not to mention some new lyrics, including the irresistible “I was born in a cave, raised in a den/My chief occupation’s taking women from the men.” Chappel’s version sounds quaint by comparison. Miller gives in to honky-tonk abandon on this number, laying down a wild vocal that could stand alongside any Gary Stewart record. Glenn Barber’s snakey guitar rips right through the vocal and makes the song shake from beginning to end (decades later Barber would write and record the stunning “Yes Ma’am, I Found Her In A Honky-Tonk”). Again, you could almost call it rockabilly—but don’t tell Frankie that. “Hell, if that’s rockabilly, Floyd Tillman was cuttin’ it in the thirties. That’s just country music with a beat.”
The downhome backed with the raucous, the “Blackland Farmer”/“True Blue” single was a perfect first taste of the real Frankie Miller. When it was released in 1959, “it popped real quick,” said Frankie. “They started playin’ it as soon as it come out.” An appreciative Don Pierce would tell Miller that he saved Starday—struggling at the time—from oblivion. “He said, Boy, ‘I was just about on my last legs, we were hurtin’. Then you come along with ‘Blackland Farmer’ and knocked ‘em out.’”
The song shot up the country chart to #5—and did so again when re-released in 1961, even crossing over to pop. Frankie maintains the reason for its second wind was due to a guy who ran Garner State Park in Texas Hill Country, who kept it on the jukebox(4), inspiring kids to develop a dance called the “Blackland Shuffle” (“I still can’t picture anybody dancin’ to that song,” says Frankie). Pierce told Hank Davis it was simply because a Chicago deejay had started spinning it. The song went to #82 on the national Billboard pop chart and Frankie says it was #1 on Houston’s biggest pop station. “I sold 80,000 records out of Houston alone,” said Miller, who even headlined a rock show at the Houston Municipal Auditorium with Roy Orbison and B.B. King. When Frankie stepped out on the stage to sing, “The kids hollered. Boy, it just brought the house down.” Miller now had a bonafide hit, and others were foolish enough to try and cover the utterly unique record, among them Sleepy LaBeef, Wink Martindale and Faron Young (Faron, a pal of Miller’s, never told Frankie he cut the song —“It isn’t very good,” Miller admits).
The success of “Blackland Farmer” led to Frankie touring with his longtime hero Ernest Tubb. “Such a great guy. He just done everything he could to help me. I just loved ol’ Ernest, boy. There wasn’t nothin’ phony about him. I was seventeen years younger than Ernest, and he always said the same thing when he brought me out—‘I’m gonna bring out a young man that hails from my home state of Texas--Frankie Miller!’” When he returned to Nashville, Frankie noticed an immediate effect down at Tootsie’s Bar, then an insider hangout for Music City pickers. “When I first got to Nashville, hell, nobody would have much to do with me. Me and Tommy Hill would go down to Tootsie’s and they would kind of shun ya---‘Just another Texas musician.’” But once Frankie had been out with Tubb and returned to play on with him not only on his Friday Night Ramble, Midnight Ramble and the Grand Ol’ Opry, their tune changed—suddenly the Tootsie denizens were slapping him on the back and asking him how things were in the Lone Star state. “I’d been out with the great E.T.! Ernest was the stamp of approval.”
Onstage, Frankie delivered. He was “just a hellacious singer, and really good onstage,” said Hal Bynum. Johnny Bush, then playing drums in Willie Nelson’s band, agreed. “I was impressed by his style, the way he sang. His voice was unique, he didn’t copy anybody--wasn’t trying to sound like George Jones or Faron Young or Ray Price, he sounded like himself. He was a young, good lookin’ guy, black hair, and he was entertaining. He didn’t just get up there and sing, you know. He would do an Elvis thing, boppin’ around his legs… or comedy, doin’ an impression of Johnny Cash doin’ ‘I Walk The Line,’ but singin’, ‘I keep my pants up with a ball of twine…Say you’ll be mine/And pull the twine.’ It was funny! He pulled it off good.” Promoter A.V. ‘Bam’ Bamford, who’d been central to the career of many a country star including Hank Williams, raved over Frankie’s talent. “Bamford predicted he’d be as big as Hank,” said Bush.
Ott Devine, manager of the Opry, promised to sign Frankie as a regular after seeing him play in Florida. That never happened, but Miller had an open invitation to play the Opry any time he was in town--and when he did, Tommy Hill insisted on backing him up. “I said, ‘Tommy, why do you want to be on the Opry for, they don’t pay anything.’ I think at the time union scale for a song was seventeen dollars and change. He said, ‘Oh man, for the women, Frankie! The women!’” (Apparently Hill had a little black book full of numbers for the opposite sex that was highly coveted by those in the know. “One night at Tootsie’s Faron offered Tommy a grand for it and he turned it down. Tommy didn’t want to get mixed up in that. Faron would be callin’ all them people, and some of ‘em were married.”) An amusing aside: Frankie would write a song with Waylon Jennings about Music City dreamers called “Nashville Bum” (for the soundtrack of the low-budget 1966 movie Waylon starred in, Nashville Rebel) featuring the memorable line “Well, a friend of a friend of mine/Is a friend of Ott Devine.”
Aided by his new pal Tommy Hill, Frankie Miller proceeded to record a string of classic performances for Starday. Hill arranged for top-flight Nashville session men to back Frankie up in the studio, among them Grady Martin, Lightnin’ Chance, Buddy Harman, Jimmy Day, Junior Huskey, Hank Garland, Pete Drake, Jimmy Day and many others. Sessions were initially cut at the famed Bradley studio on 16th Avenue South, then moved into Starday’s own studio when Tommy finished building it. When I admitted that I admired more than listened to his pre-Starday recordings Frankie immediately concurred, agreeing that he hadn’t yet hit his stride. The big change? What he calls “the Tommy Hill sound.”
Miller’s Starday records are tough, hard country, with a luminous, intoxicating sound all their own. As far as Frankie is concerned, “Tommy did it all.” While Don Pierce had input on what songs to cut, he “turned all the music over to Tommy. Hell, he run Starday, really. He run the sessions on all my stuff at Starday and he run the board. He looked for material for me all the time. Tommy was a great friend of mine, just helped me every way he could.” Hill himself played on some of Miller’s records, even overdubbing some rather high harmony with Frankie one boozy Nashville night for his sole gospel session. “Some little bitty studio,” says Miller. “We went in there with a fifth of whiskey--and it sounds like it sometimes! We had a helluva good time.”
The first order of business after “Blackland Farmer” was finding a follow-up. It came by way of another Fort Worth character, Bobe Balthrop, aka Bobe West, a former cop who ran with Howard Crockett. “He was just a little fat guy that was a big fan of Jim Reeves,” said Hal Bynum. Balthrop even managed to get Reeves to record a few of his songs. And after the session Reeves told him not to play the material for anybody until it was released. Balthrop promptly played a cut on a local radio station. “Jim was in town and heard it,” Miller recalled. “He never cut anything else of Bobie’s.” (Bynum felt the Fort Worth scene was a small-time affair: “They were all at each other's throats and there wasn’t fifteen cents in the whole fuckin’ town.”) At the session for Frankie’s “Family Man” there was a squabble between Pierce and Balthrop over publishing. As Pierce instructed Hank Davis, “Records come and go, but copyrights last forever.” Balthrop relented, and the song went on to be Frankie’s next hit, going to #7 on the country charts. It was a jaunty exploration of down-to-earth values built around the memorable line “Gotta bring home the bacon/’Cause I’m a family man.”
Miller scored another winner with “Baby Rocked Her Dolly,” which concerns an elderly protagonist looking back over his life. Although Frankie had just turned thirty the day before the session, he somehow managed to sound wise enough, with his restrained delivery diluting the sentimentality. Kilgore had written the song watching his kids unwrap presents one Christmas morning. He gave it to Johnny Horton, who passed it along to Frankie backstage at the Louisiana Hayride. The song went to #15 on the charts in 1960 and was a favorite of George Jones. “We were working some shows around Shreveport with James O’Gwynn and were fixin’ to go to Bossier City. I’d just cut that thing and had a demo. I played it for George and his eyes lit up. He said, ‘Damn, Frankie—that’s a hit song.’”
Some consider these two singles to be among Frankie’s best, but I think he only got better once he stepped out of the homespun ‘family’ persona inspired by “Blackland Farmer.” This was a guy who could sing anything: ballads, novelties, risqué uptempo numbers…Frankie could do it all. Once at Starday he began singing in a lower register, showing off his rich, beautiful baritone. Miller had great range, dynamic power and a million tricks up his sleeve. That voice is like a hot rod: thrilling at high speed and pretty as hell slowed down. And if the engine hiccups a bit it along the way, well, all the better. Miller is as good a ballad singer as you can name--he wrenches every drop of emotion out without showboating. He can go from the whisper of “A Little Bit’s Better (Than Nothing At All)” to a raucous, swinging Howard Crockett song like “I’ll Write to You” without batting an eye. Listen to the twists and turns Frankie’s vocals take on “Young Widow Brown” or his wry delivery on the humorous “Strictly Nuthin’” (“I’d get my head examined/But she done warped my brain”).
In 1961 came “It’s Not Easy.” Miller has no idea what inspired the song, other than the fact that he was in Waycross, Georgia on his way “to do a show in Americus, Georgia, the worst place in the world. Man, this was about one or two in the morning. I’d driven a long way and I was by myself. Them old roads there, the oak trees were growin’ up by the side of the road…it was dark as hell, it was scary. I wanted to get out of there and I was sleepy--a couple of times it looked like the trees were falling but I was just seeing stuff. And I was writin’ that song in my head as I rode along.” Jimmy Day, the steel player who adds so much to the record (it’s erroneously been credited to Pete Drake, by myself and others) was a Miller favorite. “Oh man, he was a great guy. Typical musician—pillhead,” said Frankie, laughing. “They called him the Swingin’ Albino cause he was real light complected and blond-headed.” The reverb was not put on at Starday. “They didn’t have the echo set up right,” says Miller, so Kelso Herston, a musician on the date who also worked at the new Sam Phillips Studio, had it spread on top there. “I liked that reverb,” says Frankie. Although not a hit, many of Frankie’s peers loved the song, among them Waylon Jennings, which is no doubt the reason his wife Jessi Colter cut a capable version of “It’s Not Easy” on her 1970 debut album.
The fall of 1961 brought one of Frankie’s most unusual offerings: “The Picture at St. Helene,” which opens with the striking line “I met a girl in a cheap motel, her features oh so fine.” An eccentric, atmospheric ballad concerning sin and salvation based on an old Robert W. Service poem, this performance once again proves Frankie is the master of understated delivery. He brings a sort of sophistication and restraint not always found in the music of his peers and never oversells it. “That’s the best thing that’s ever been cut in this studio,” Don Pierce told Frankie the day it was recorded. Starday put Frankie’s first of three albums (there was also a gospel EP) out that same year, Country Music’s New Star. Wearing a bright red western suit with two-tone boots, he looked like a million bucks. “Don Pierce was one of the first ones to start the album craze and he made 'em beautiful,” says Frankie. “The covers were just so colorful.”
Frankie palled around with all the country stars of his era and has the stories to tell. Patsy Cline had been on the tour he did with Ernest Tubb. Traveling on Green Hornet, Tubb’s bus, the group was en route to Colorado Springs after a show in Albuquerque. It was chilly in the Hornet and Frankie had left his coat in a locker. “Man I was coverin’ myself with newspaper and whatever I could to warm myself up. Patsy come walkin’ down the aisle, saw me and said, ‘Frankie, are you cold?’ I said, ‘I’m freezing to death, Patsy.’ She went back and got her big ol’ mink coat and put it over me. As I like to say, Patsy Cline saved my life.” There’s a great shot of Frankie and Ferlin Husky (wearing some sort of skin-tight, futuristic get-up) on tour, functioning as Cline’s support after she’d broken a leg and didn’t want to walk onstage sporting crutches. “She was really a good-time girl,” said Miller. “She carried a half pint of vodka in her purse all the time. But I never saw her take a drink.”
Then there was the night Carl Smith was playing at Port Lavaca and came in with his then-wife June and her legendary mother, Maybelle Carter. Carl said, ‘Frankie, have you met my mother-in-law, Mayball?’ That’s what he called her. Mayball. Carl said, ‘I’ve been tryin’ to get in her pants for five years.’” June was not amused. “June said, ‘Carl, shut that up.’” Frankie cracked up relating the tale. “Yep, that’s just what she said—‘Shut that up.’”
Hank Snow tales? There was the night somebody stole the wardrobe out of Little Jimmy Dickens' car. Being of the same diminutive stature as Snow, he went knocking on Hank’s door to ask if he could borrow a stage suit. “You’ll get no goodwill handouts from the Snow family,” intoned The Singing Ranger, shutting the door in Jimmy’s face.
One night Miller was out on the road somewhere in the Southwest with Snow along with Marty Robbins and singer Arlie Duff. Robbins had taught Duff how to take in a deep breath so he could pass wind loudly. “Marty got ol’ Snow and took him backstage there and said, ‘I want to introduce you to Arlie Duff.’ Snow stuck his hand out and said, ‘I’m Hank Snow, please to meet you, Arlie.’ And Arlie turned around real fast and farted real loud. Snow just looked at him and said, ‘Well, excuse you, Arlie.’ Marty was on floor he was laughin’ so hard. Snow was real straight-laced.”
One of Miller’s favorite tales concerns banjo legend and Hee Haw star David “Stringbean” Akeman. After a show at the Chemical Corn Auditorium in Gary, Indiana, a local approached a few of the acts to ask if they wanted to make a few bucks playing a set at his fabulous nearby club. “Hell, we were always ready to make some extra twenties,” said Frankie. So he, cornpone comedy team Lonzo & Oscar and Stringbean all jumped into a car. “We followed him out to the boondocks. Finally we come to an old, dark-lookin’ club underneath a buncha trees, with a few cars out front. Just a dump. And there’s no one there. We all got up and played a little. The club owner disappeared. The bartender said, ‘Oh, he left about an hour ago with the barmaid. He won’t be back for two days.’ All we got was a few bucks out of the kitty.” Stringbean called his banjo ‘Five,’ and when he’d refer to the instrument he’d stick out all five fingers on one hand. Disgusted, he paused as he exited the joint, gave the five-finger salute and said, “Me n’ Five’ll never grace this doorway again.” Frankie was right behind him, cracking up. “Me n’ Oscar laughed hard, man.”
Crazy Faron Young was another pal. Once, after hearing Frankie's latest, a novelty tune co-authored with Tommy Hill called “The Cat and the Mouse," a disgusted Faron barged into Tootsie’s to tell Frankie and Tommy just what he thought. “'Well, I’ve heard it all. You two sons-of-bitches putting out a song about a damn cat and mouse. That’s as low as you can get.’ He was really pourin’ it on.” Faron thought Miller's talent was being wasted at Starday and wasn't afraid to say so. “He told me, ‘Frankie, you need to go out there and jump on top of Don Pierce’s desk and kick everything off and tell him you’re gonna stay there until he gives you a release.’ I told him, ‘Faron, I’m not steppin’ on anyone’s desk, that’s not me.’ He was a good friend of mine, Faron was.”
Frankie was also close with the great Lefty Frizzell, who he first saw in Victoria filling for absentee Hank Williams. “He was really hot when his first records came out--like Elvis. People would just fill them clubs, they were crazy for him. He was a big influence on George, me and all of us. He had such an original sound. I done a lot of shows with Lefty. I’d get kind of hacked at him because he had all them damn hit songs and he’d go onstage and just clown around, do a verse of this or a verse of that and never finish a song… He’d already soured on the business.”
Frankie was shooting pool with Lefty one night in Port Lavaca when Frizzell’s wife Alice showed up with his cheating on her mind. “He was sleepin’ with the barmaid down there and she knew he was clownin’ around with somebody. Lefty had a big row with her.” Just the sort of thing that might encourage more unhealthy behavior to kill the pain, as Miller witnessed one night in a Port Lavaca motel. “He took a slug o’ that damn vodka and he just kept holdin’ that bottle up there, just guzzlin’ it. He musta drank a half a pint--and chased it with a shot o’ somethin’. I said, ‘Damn, Lefty, how come you’re takin’ so much at one time?’ He said, ‘That way, Frankie, I don’t have to keep runnin’ back for another shot.” Lefty would pay Miller the ultimate compliment when he told a mutual friend, “There haven’t ever been but two country singers: Hank Williams and Frankie Miller.”
Frizzell would drink himself to death in 1975. The last time Frankie saw him was in a Fort Worth motel. “He said, ‘Hell, I gotta lot of shows to do in Louisiana and Arkansas. I’ll pay you whatever you want to do them for me.’ He didn’t wanna do it at all, boy. He didn’t like to perform at all, he got to that point, burned out on it. Lefty just didn’t care about singin’ anymore. He died shortly after that. I wish I had done those shows now. If I’d have known that things would work out how they did, I would’ve.”
“I WAS TURNIN’ INTO SOMETHIN’ I DIDN’T WANT TO BE”
There was one musician Frankie was closer to than any of the rest: George Jones. They met in the mid-fifties, when Miller introduced himself at a Jones show at the Houston Hoedown. They toured together, drank together, sang together—and since they were about the same size, Frankie even inherited some of George’s rhinestone outfits, eventually returning an outrageous one illustrating “The Window Up Above” so it could hang in the George Jones Museum. Jones loved Frankie’s music—I interviewed him not long before his death, and when I mentioned Miller’s name George belted out a line from “Blackland Farmer” (Jones told Frankie he tried to cut the song several times to no avail).
Jones was particularly obsessed with Frankie’s recording of “Young Widow Brown.” He had a portable record player he took out on the road, and got ahold of Miller’s single as soon as it came out. After George played the Chestnut Inn in Kansas City, he talked a bartender into selling him a bottle of hooch. “He took the fifth of whiskey and that little record player and ‘Young Widow Brown’ and set there all night on the floor playin’ that damn record,” said Frankie, who was told the story by Charlie Dick, Patsy Cline’s husband. Jones “liked those fast waltz songs. He’d call ‘em a ‘bright waltz.’” George and Frankie even performed the song together a few times. “We done it over in Dallas one night, and boy, they kept hollerin’. We really hit it good.”
Even this early in his career, alcohol was the hellhound on Jones' trail. Once George threw back a few he was a terror. Miller remembers driving through Texas with J.P. Richardson, a seriously inebriated Possum at the controls. The next time they stopped, George rolled out and a visibly shaken J.P. took Miller aside. “Frankie, get under that steering wheel and stay there. If you don’t start driving I’m gonna catch a bus back.” “He’d drink hard, and for a long time,” said Frankie. “I never did drink like he did. That’s probably why I’m still livin’.” But even at this stage of the game, alcohol wasn't always enough. There was amphetamine. Lots of it. “Everybody took bennies. That was the big thing. I took some to keep drivin’, but I never took ‘em to get high on. George took a ton of ‘em. I seen George take a handful and chase it with a shot of whiskey. Man, I just don’t know how in the hell he kept breathin’.”
Jones seemed able to get himself into trouble no matter what time of day. Early one morning he was checking out of a Cheyenne, Wyoming motel along with Frankie and fellow Texan James O’Gwynn. When the latter two returned to the room to pack their stuff, George wandered off to a joint next door. “We come back and he was in that bar already loaded, standing on top of the damn table sayin’, ‘I can whoop anybody in here!’ There was a lotta big ol’ cowboys in there, they were laughin’. Me and James got him, put his ass in the car and got the hell out of there.”
On another night in West Texas, Frankie and George stepped outside a club to get some air. Across the lot a few guys were hanging out against a concrete wall. Out of nowhere Jones threw a couple of beer bottles against the wall, glass shards raining down on the strangers. “I was sure we were gonna get whipped real bad. They saw who we was after they come over, and let us off.”
Jones went completely berserk one night in Minneapolis after a show at the Flame Club. Miller was rooming with fellow Texas singer/songwriter Eddie Noack. “George was down the hall with a guy in his band, Bobby Bower. We got through with the show, an’ pretty soon everybody was drinkin’ pretty good, especially George and that boy. They was about three doors down. Man, we heard a commotion out in the damn hall, I looked out and George and this Bobby Bower are fightin’ two house detectives. George and Bobby had no clothes on--they was out in the hall just a-fightin’ naked.”
Back in Miller’s room, Noack panicked. “Eddie was scared like hell—‘I know George is gonna get us throwed in jail, I know he is!’ He had a bunch of bennies, Eddie did, and I heard that commode goin' in there. I said, ‘What are you doin’, Ed?’ He says, ‘I’m getting rid of these bennies!’ He was flushin’ ‘em down the commode.”
DeArmand Alexander “Eddie” Noack III was often the third passenger in the car when Jones and Miller ran the road. A Houston native and son of a grifting, fortune-telling mother, Noack was an up-and-coming star in the early fifties. As a songwriter he'd written the sly “Too Hot to Handle” (Frankie would record Noack’s favorite version of the song in 1963) and “These Hands,” a Top 10 Country hit for Hank Snow. Unfortunately, Noack’s greatest moments as an artist would come years later when no one cared, when he’d record stunning numbers like “The Memories Are Restless Tonight” and “Ain’t The Reaping Ever Done” for no-budget labels better suited to song poems than boozy, minor geniuses.
To a certain ilk Noack is most infamous for the exacting depravity on display in his masterful 1968 cover of Leon Payne’s “Psycho,” maybe the greatest postwar murder ballad of all. “You think I’m psycho, don’t you, mama,” sings Eddie, who had an intense relationship with his own mother. She would commit suicide in 1977, three years after Eddie’s wife Maudean shot herself in the chest with a .38 during a marital argument. He kept the nightgown she died in and, according to what Noack’s sister Pat Musselwhite told Andrew Brown, for a year after his wife’s death he’d go to the cemetery and “lay on her grave.” His mother “shot herself in the same way, in the same house, with the same caliber gun as Eddie’s wife,” said Pat. Eddie drank himself to death, dying of a cerebral hemmorage less than a year later.
But all that was in Noack’s inky-black future. Frankie visited Eddie whenever he was in Houston. He recalls going with his cousin to see Noack at a Houston dive called 105 1/5 Main (referred to as One-Oh-Fight-And-A-Half because of all the brawling that went on inside). “We started up the stairs and a bouncer threw this Mexican guy down the damn stairs and we had to get out of the way as he was rollin’ down. He said, ‘You boys come up and have a good time.’ Harlan said, ‘Yeah… Maybe we ought to come back another night.’ But we went up.” This was typical of the rough joints Miller calls “skullbusters.” “I played some that had chicken wire in front of the bandstand. We just played ‘em all.”
Noack traveled a lot with Jones and Miller, and George was fond of needling him. When Hank Snow gave Eddie a leather guitar case embossed with Snow’s name in thanks for writing “These Hands,” Jones fumed. “Snow never gave anybody anything,” said Frankie. “Eddie carried it everywhere he went. Ol’ George gave him so much trouble—‘Carrying around that Snow case like it’s gonna do somethin’ for ya!’’’
One night the three were on the road in a new Pontiac Jones had bought. Noack loved Hank Williams, as did George and Frankie. “George would rib him—‘Hell, he ain’t all that good. I’ve heard him go flat and sharp when he’s singin’.’ Eddie would say, ‘Well I never did.’ He'd just keep pokin' him--‘You don’t really think Hank wrote all them songs?’ Finally an exasperated Eddie dug his fingers into the steering wheel and muttered, ‘George—you are so full of shit.’”
As he often does when he’s savoring a crazy memory from the past, Miller let out a little falsetto “Wheeeee!” after telling the story. “We had some good times, boy. It was more of a relaxed thing. There were no buses then, we traveled in station wagons. It was closer, a camaraderie-type deal. We’d go stop at a grocery store, buy a pound of bologna, some bread, mayonnaise and stop in a roadside park and have bologna sandwiches.”
Miller’s contract with Starday was up in 1961, and although Don Pierce wanted to re-sign him, George Jones threw a curve ball. When Frankie played a Houston show with him, Jones had just signed with United Artists and wanted Frankie on the label. Pappy Daily took care of the details and in 1962 Miller released two utterly stunning singles on UA.
“The Party’s Over” was a concise, 3-A.M.-and-the-joint-is-wrecked Willie Nelson ballad (Miller knew Nelson from the Cowtown Hoedown and was the first person to take Willie on the road). During the recording, Frankie accidently sings the second verse first—a fortuitous accident, allowing the lyric “Once I had a love undying/Couldn’t keep it, wasn’t trying” to quietly grab you by the throat. And how Frankie delivers it! Singing ever so softly, he treats the song as a lullaby of despair, working the words “me” and “misery” like sad taffy.
It is a magnificent performance, and on the next single Frankie followed it with one just as good--another devastating ballad, a Jack Rhodes song called “I Miss Her Every Way.” “I’ve been stubborn, cold and selfish since we parted/Pride has kept me silent as a block of wood,” sings Frankie, and the way he goes up to an octave nearly beyond his range on the word “love” in the song is breathtaking. These subtle, melancholy records are among Miller’s absolute best. And they went nowhere.
“United Artists had a hit—only they didn’t know it,” says Frankie. “They didn’t know anything about country music. That was the most bummer deal I ever got into. We’d go into radio stations and shit, nobody had our records. Finally Pappy used his mailing list for me and George. ‘The Party’s Over’ should’ve been a damn hit song. Nobody had the damn thing.”
In 1963 Frankie returned to Starday. Being on a major label had been a disaster; at least with Don Pierce he knew what to expect. Some peers saw it as a step down. “Frankie was always looking for a father figure to take care of him, like Don Pierce,” said Hal Bynum. “He went back and signed with Starday. And Pierce didn’t pay him. Again.” Bynum will tell you that Frankie blew it when help was offered. Country star Jim Reeves had offered to take Miller under his wing if he moved to Nashville. Although he did rent an apartment there for a year or two when “Blackland Farmer” hit, Frankie had returned home. As Bynum saw it, “He just fucked his career. He’d rather stay down there in that little ol’ frog pond in Texas. He liked everything to be like it was in that little town of Victoria when he was a kid. Frankie never had the drive. The push.”
Miller is unfazed by the criticism. “Hal Bynum said I really screwed up big time when I didn’t let Jim take me up to Nashville. Reeves had his deal goin’, he had enough to handle… I’m not sorry the way it come out.” Maybe Frankie was unwilling to be anybody's pet project. “Everything was gonna be Jim Reeves’s way or it wasn’t gonna be no way at all. I’m sure he wanted to help me. It wasn’t meant to be. Just one of those things.” [Reeves died in 1964 when the small plane he was piloting went down in a storm just outside of Nashville. His pianist, Dean Manuel—who’d played on many of Frankie’s sessions—also died in the crash.]
The first couple of years back at Starday produced some fantastic records. From one session alone in late 1963 come a trio of stunners: Frankie’s definitive version of Eddie Noack’s “Too Hot To Handle,” the Miller-Bynum classic “Out Of This World” (listen to the way Miller winds a beautiful path through “I’ve been drinkin’ here all day, can’t tear myself away/Don’t tell me to go home, it’s the wrong time to be alone”) and the tremendous “A Little South Of Memphis” (originally “A Little South Of Dixie”--Miller cut Tommy Hill in on the songwriting credit for the idea), which would provide Frankie with his last chart hit in 1964, climbing to #34. Ominous, low-moan humming (“Tommy always looked for something I could hum, since ‘Blackland Farmer’ did so good") seemingly more befitting of Van Morrison leads to a few plainly spoken words that could’ve been Frankie on leaving Music City behind. “I got to thinkin’ about home today and my shoes keep headin’ south.”
1964 brought a couple of cool uptempo numbers, “Truck Driving Buddy,” and the Willie Nelson/Hank Cochran song “Mean Old Greyhound Bus,” with great interplay between Pete Drake on steel and Dean Manuel on piano. The solemn side of Frankie is represented by the intense, concise ballad “I Can Almost Forget,” written by sometime-Hayride singer Betty Amos; and the incomparable “It Took A Lot of Love (To Let Her Go),” with its stunning opening: “Shadows fall and I start walkin’/I’m no stranger to the night.”
As gloom junkie Charlie Beesley put it, “A heartbroken man who has been betrayed and abandoned lets everyone in town think he's a worthless guilty dog rather than soil the reputation of someone he hasn't stopped loving by spilling what really happened. ‘Let them blame me, it won't matter/How much more can I hurt?’ I think Miller’s profound personal humility gives ‘It Took A Lot of Love’ its power. And although Frankie's lyrics suggest stoicism and resignation, the low blues moans betray the ache of living day-to-day, one foot in front of the other. Some of my favorite Frankie Miller songs explore similar terrain, like ‘A Little Bit's Better (Than Nothing At All),’ which involves a lovesick soul whose willingness to be hurt seems pathological.”
After this last blast of greatness the well ran dry. Frankie’s last single for Starday (released in 1966), would consist of two novelty numbers, “Fickle Hand Of Fate” and “She’s My Antibiotic (In White), neither written by Miller, who only half-remembers cutting them. “They were kind of demos and they went ahead and put them out.” The studio itself had changed as well—the control booth was moved to the second floor, away from the musicians. “I think I kind of lost interest in the Starday deal."
By the time of that last Starday session, Miller had already decided to quit. It happened on the road. Up in Canada on another package tour with George Jones, Webb Pierce and others, Frankie decided after one boozy night that he'd watched Jones go crazy for the last time. He won’t really specify what happened, but something had given by the next morning. “I woke up, I was sitting in the front seat, George was driving and I was looking out the window. I thought, ‘What the hell am I doin’ in Canada?’ My wife and kids and folks back in Texas…I just got so damn tired of bein’ gone from home, workin' the road. Every night drivin’ three hundred miles between shows. I was just really burned out. I was drinkin’ way too much with Jones—you ain’t gonna be around Jones without drinkin’ too much. All that dopin’ goin’ on…that’s one of the reasons I come home. I saw what happened to him. No, I never talked to Jones about it. I just had had enough.
I was headed down the wrong highway. I was turnin’ into somethin’ I didn’t want to be.”
According to longtime friend Tracy Pitcox, being away on the road was wearing on Frankie’s family, particularly his wife Ann. “She thought the music industry took too much and gave too little. The industry was coming between them, and she wasn’t willing to travel with him. Frankie was gone all the time. He was making a living, but they weren’t rich—he was getting $300 a show, tops. The music was important to him, but not as important as losing his wife and children. Frankie cared enough for his family to give it all up.”
When Miller got back to Nashville, he told Tommy Hill it was over. There was one last single for Stop Records, a label owned by steel player Pete Drake, done as a personal favor—“I’d do anything Tommy wanted me to.” Both sides are tremendous: an uptempo Hal Bynum number called “Pain” and “I Put the Blue in Her Eyes,” a Larry Kingston ballad that Miller just slays. The record, which made little noise, would be his last for decades. “For a while, they’d call me… I had several offers to do some recording, but I never did go back. I just said to hell with it.”
Once he had made up his mind, Frankie wasted no time. He returned to Arlington, Texas, and within a month was working at a Chrysler dealership where one of the big wheels there was a fan. Miller took his new career seriously, applying himself with the same focus he’d given music. “Whatever he tackled, he tackled with all his mind and heart,” said daughter Sandi Wilson. “Anything Dad pursued he was all in.” He ended up spending over three decades with his new employer. “I had a damn good career there. Two brand new cars every year to drive, no insurance or gas to buy.”
As far as his previous career, Miller “shut out country music nearly completely,” said friend Tracy Pitcox. “He just didn’t have anything to do with the music industry. I’ve never asked, but I think he felt if he couldn’t be a part of it, he didn’t wanna have anything to do with it.” Frankie didn’t even listen to it on the radio. “I’ll ask him about different artists from that time, people who had big hits, and he won’t have any idea what I’m talking about.” Sandi said much the same thing. “He just quit everything. I never heard him play his guitar at home. Our family would always want him to play at family events and he just wasn’t gonna do it. I’m not sure why he quit cold turkey like that, but he just quit.”
In 1978, Hans Haagstrom, a fan visiting from Sweden, coaxed Frankie into picking up his guitar to do two numbers for his Super 8 camera. To maximize the sound, “we done it in an automobile spray booth, which is pretty much airtight,” said Frankie. He sings “Blackland Farmer” and the Harlan Howard song “Busted,” his powerful tenor echoing off the walls of the chamber. One can only listen to how great he sounds here and wonder what might've been. But Frankie had other priorities. Even Hal Bynum would admit, “He was a good husband to Ann, and a great father."
In 1997, Frankie retired from Chrysler. It was then that Jimmy Eaves, a local singer who’d been after Miller to return playing a little music locally, coaxed him back up on stage for the first time in many, many years. He sang an old Harlan Howard ballad made famous by Little Jimmy Dickens, “Life Turned Her That Way.” The club's modern technology knocked Frankie out. “They had floor monitors! We never had that when we used to sing--boy, it was so much easier with those to hear. Then Jimmy got me to come to the record shop once a week.” So Frankie started performing at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop No. 6 in Fort Worth every Saturday as well as doing local shows with Jimmy.
In 1999 Miller recorded his first album in decades, The Comeback, for a small local label, Cowboy Capital. On the cover was a smiling Frankie wielding an acoustic while wearing a red, white and blue shirt. A pleasant collection featuring reworkings of his old hits, the most striking thing about the album is the inclusion of four songs Miller cut for Hal Bynum back in 1978 that never saw light of day. Two cuts in particular stand out: “Heaven For The Weekend” (“A damn good country song,” Frankie proclaimed) and “Little Bit Of Jesus,” a Bynum song with a dynamite recitation by Frankie and which, interestingly enough, he regards as “probably the best song I ever cut." (Little Jimmy Dickens, who also recorded it, griped to Frankie, “Shit, I never did get as good a cut as you.”) In 2001, Miller and Jimmy Easley collaborated on a collection of down-home gospel songs, “Singing Gospel Songs The Country Way.” And in 2006, Tracy Pitcox, a lifelong fan, released the first of two albums with Frankie, The Family Man, with When Gas Was Thirty Cents A Gallon following in 2012.
Frankie’s comeback albums have been relaxed, no-pressure affairs, with likable versions of his old hits and songs that never got properly recorded, like Hal Bynum’s “House Down The Road,” as well as memorable versions of songs he’s always wanted to do, like the Jones-O’Gwynn classic “I Don’t Love You Anymore” and Tom T. Hall’s “I Flew Over Our House.” Obviously this is not the Tommy Hill Starday sound, just Frankie looking back and enjoying himself. Although in his seventies at the time, Pitcox marveled that he was like "a workhorse. He was so excited to be in the studio again. Frankie told me a while ago he loves country music so much more now that he doesn’t have to make a living doing it.” Miller continues to play shows around Texas. "It keeps him young,” says daughter Sandi. “I’m glad he’s doing it.”
In 2008 the German label Bear Family Records, who have championed Frankie like no other, put out the crowning achievement of Miller’s career, a three-CD set entitled Blackland Farmer: The Complete Starday Recordings And More. It is just what it says, plus demos, live recordings and interview snippets. Hank Davis, Scott Parker, Dave Sax and Richard Weize did a masterful job producing it. This is the absolutely essential Frankie Miller collection, and the only way it can be enhanced is by tracking down the original 45s and albums.
It was Tracy Pitcox who introduced me to Frankie. A producer, promoter and deejay, Tracy runs Heart of Texas Records, a small empire built on a corral of classic country stars that Nashville may have forgotten, but which Pitcox lovingly promotes and records. A keeper of the flame for classic country, he’s beloved by many an old-guard country star, Frankie included. In 2010 I’d done a radio interview with Tracy promoting my Tammy Wynette biography and, aware he knew Miller, once it was over I started lobbing him question after question about Frankie. “You should ask Frankie that,” he said, and the next thing I knew Pitcox got Miller to call me, and much like anyone who contacts Frankie, we’ve been friends ever since.
I went to Fort Worth and visited Miller at his home in 2011. For some reason, with the kind of artists I write about chaos, craziness and catastrophe are the order of the day. Not so with Frankie. It was drama-free, and a laid-back affair. We tooled around Fort Worth in his BMW, ate some Mexican food (Frankie insisted on paying). I asked his wife Ann a few questions but she gave up little. Was she happy Frankie was back in country music? “Not really,” she said, clearly uninterested in elaborating. She seemed protective of her husband and rightly skeptical of outsiders. “Ann is a good, strong Christian woman who just idolizes Frankie,” says Hal Bynum. Not to mention a great cook. “Eating at their house was like being at the Crackle Barrel,” enthused Tracy Pitcox.
Best of all was tagging along for his weekly appearance at the Fort Worth Ernest Tubb Record Shop. What a low-key event. As Frankie performed his set, people wandered in to buy records, many of them blissfully unaware that they were a couple of feet from one of the greatest country singers in the world. Frankie ran through some of his old numbers and even threw in Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” for good measure. But the stunner was “It’s Not Easy.” A song he’d never performed live, I’d jokingly asked him to do it when I came down there, never in a million years thinking he’d do it. But he dug out his recording of the song and learned it just to surprise me. That’s the kind of guy Frankie is. “I did that for you.”
Because Frankie can plumb the depths of a ballad like few other singers, I tried to find out where the sad came from. With somebody like Jones you didn’t have to look too far; with Frankie it remains a mystery. “He didn’t have the divorces, the family drama that those other guys did,” said Tracy Pitcox. “He’s a total optimist, always happy,” says Sandi. “Maybe he’s seen some of that in his life, but he’s never talked about it.” When I asked where a devastating breakup song like “It’s Not Easy” came from, Frankie had no answer. “I don’t know why I wrote that…I’ve never had any marital trouble, I’ve been married since 1952.
“It all comes from listening to Hank Williams. He put more feeling in a song than you could wrap up in one hundred years, and that’s where I got the heart to do that, those sad songs. Nobody but Hank Williams, boy.”
The pain in Miller’s voice doesn’t sound like second-hand knowledge to me, though. But friends cautioned that there were no secrets to find. “Frankie is a simple guy,” said Hal Bynum. “His favorite thing on TV is the Three Stooges.” Simple I don’t know about, either. Frankie’s a lot like his records—deep, full of grace, no extra stuff. And while he might not always offer a comment, he doesn’t miss a trick.
When we’d gone to the record shop I’d carried Frankie’s guitar out to the car. Ann pointed out I’d put it in wrong side up. “Leave it, it’s fine,” said Frankie, not wanting to embarrass me. “Frankie’s worst trait is that he had to make everybody like him,” Bynum had told me. Maybe. We should all be so lucky to have such a flaw. Anybody who knows Miller will tell you of his genuine kindness. He has a list of people--many of them fans--that he stays in touch with and calls on a regular basis. Frankie’s just a nice guy, and there’s nothing phony about it.
Typical is the favor he did for Bynum many years ago. Hal had a song he wanted to pitch to George Jones, but was having no luck. Bynum is something of a larger-than-life Nashville rebel who’s been known to wear people out. “Do I know Hal Bynum? Man, he’ll get right in your face--and stay there all night,” is how Jones put it to Frankie. “So I pitched the damn song to George,” said Miller. Jones loved it, recording it in 1970, and “The Old, Old House” became something a minor classic. “I should’ve kept that song for myself, but I knew Hal wrote it for George.”
Once back on the country scene, Miller rekindled his friendship with Jones. Frankie was one of the very, very few from George’s wild past allowed to come around. “There was a great love between Jones and Frank up until the day he died,” said Tracy Pitcox, and it extended to George’s wife Nancy. “I saw Nancy Jones tear up a promoter who didn’t have tickets and a backstage pass for Frankie. She never kept Frankie away from Jones. When he changed his cell phone, Nancy would call him and say, ‘Here’s his new number.’ Frankie Miller was allowed anywhere Jones was at. “Frankie told me, ‘I never asked him for anything, I think that’s why we stayed friends for so long,’” said Pitcox. “All Frankie wanted was his friendship.”
When Jones passed away on April 26, 2013, Nancy invited him to the private ceremony. When he arrived, she hugged him. “I hope you know George really loved you,” she told him. “I loved George, too,” said Frankie.
On August 29, 2015 Frankie played Sweden. He and Tracy had flown over for this rare overseas gig and Frankie fans came out of the woodwork. “He did six encores, they wouldn’t let him off the stage,” said Pitcox. “They were chanting for him.” One guy came armed with an endless stack of 45s and albums to sign. When Tracy told him to whittle it down to something manageable, “Frankie just stopped me and said, ‘Give me those damn things, I’m gonna sign them all.’ These young people were moved to tears getting to meet him.” One fan asked Miller to John Hancock his flesh so he could get it tattooed in. “Frankie couldn’t fathom that, his signature forever on some guy’s arm.”
Funnily enough, Frankie did not try the Swedish cuisine, opting for a familiar chain restaurant instead. “He loves Subway sandwiches,” said Tracy. The first day they were there he and Pitcox were looking for somewhere to eat and Frankie “spotted a Subway—‘Hey boy, let’s go there.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m not a connoisseur of foods, but this is the same sandwich you get in Texas.’ Later on, after rehearsal I said, ‘Frankie, you wanna get a bite to eat?’ He said, ‘Sure--let’s go back to that Subway.’ The second day he wanted to go again! You can take the boy outta the country but you can’t take the country outta the boy.”
So many of Frankie’s peers have passed away in recent years—Jones, Cal Smith, Little Jimmy Dickens. It seems every time I call him another buddy is gone, and with them goes more music. Even Frankie’s old Fort Worth haunt the Ernest Tubb Record Shop is no more. Tougher yet is the fact that Ann’s been unwell and being cared for away from their home. This has turned the tables in their relationship. “Ann always wanted him to look a certain way--his clothes were pressed, she took great pride in him looking good,” noted Pitcox. “His appearance was as much her as it was him. In the last year or two, I’ve seen that turn around and he’s the caretaker for her.” Frankie visits her every day. “He’s a very optimistic man—everything is, ‘She’s gonna get better,’” said Sandi. “It’s really weird to see him without her. They did everything together. He’s a bit lost without her.” Frankie doesn’t deny it. “After 67 years together, it’s hard to be on your own.”
I wanted to take his mind off his troubles if I could, and in the course of preparing this story we thought it might be interesting to record Frankie doing his songs acoustically for this site. Just a simple affair: a two-man crew at his house, Frankie and his guitar. I’d join in by way of Skype to prompt the setlist. Frankie was game, although he had a few jitters the day before the session. “I always get nervous recording,” he admitted. I reiterated it would be a low-key affair—“if you’re not happy with one take, we’ll do another,” I told him. “No pressure.” But I was now jittery as well. Frankie was 86 and had enough to worry about. Should I be putting him through this? I didn’t even mention that we were shooting it in 3D!
What I didn’t anticipate that next day was Frankie’s intensity. Not only was he was prepared, he meant business. All I had to do was call out a song title and Frankie tore into it. Besides his old songs, he did ones he’d never recorded, and his funky acoustic accompaniment—admittedly not Frankie’s specialty—only added soul to the performances. His voice was unbelievably powerful; no way did this sound like a senior citizen. Just about the last number of the day was “Blackland Farmer,” and while he tried, it just wasn’t happening. We agreed to knock off for the day and hit it tomorrow.
That following morning Frankie was raring to go. He wanted to do something other than “Blackland Farmer,” a song we’d never even discussed—“Chiseled In Stone,” a 1988 ballad best known by Vern Gosdin, who co-wrote it. Frankie’s performance was riveting. “You don’t know about sadness/’Til you’ve faced life alone. You don’t know about loneliness/’Til it’s chiseled in stone.” He was using this song to express what was going on in his own life, missing his wife, and it was gut-wrenching. When it was over, there was stunned silence in the room. Trust Frankie to throw an unexpected knockout.
I’ll admit it: I don’t know how the hell to end this story. I get emotional thinking about Frankie. I’m no spring chicken, nor is he. Every time I call and he answers, it’s a gift. When it comes to the golden era, Frankie’s one of the last ones standing. I’ve asked him every question I can think of about his life, but I always try to have one more when I call. I want him to live forever.
During the course of our calls he’ll fill me in on how Ann’s doing, or we’ll bullshit about the feral critters he’s feeding in the backyard. (Raccoons and possums.) And of course we talk about country music. Some artists don’t listen to anything besides themselves, but Frankie knows his classic country inside-out, and he’s always schooling me on something new, such as the ballads of Little Jimmy Dickens. So it’s a thrill when I can return the favor. Not too long ago I sent him a CD of some numbers I thought he’d like. I put one of my favorites by Jones on there, a Dallas Frazier song called “Beneath Still Waters.” Frankie had never heard that one and he loved it. It made me feel good.
There was also a duet on there by Jones and Haggard--“Making Believe.” He hadn’t heard it, and here’s another thing I love about Frankie: he’s still in the game and ready to go down fighting. “I’d forgotten about that ‘Makin’ Believe,’” he enthused.
“That’s a damn good country song. It needs to make a comeback. I’ve got a show coming up in a couple of weeks and I think I’m just gonna do it.”
Photos: Frankie Miller, Richard Weize/Hank Davis, Tracy Pitcox, Sandi Wilson, Peter Conheim, Brian Rosenquist.
Thanks to the writers that came before me: Hank Davis, Kevin Coffey, Phil Lynch, Nathan Gibson. Thanks to Richard Weize of Bear Family—once again, their Frankie Miller collection Blackland Farmer: the Complete Starday Recordings and More is essential. Frankie's recent work for Tracy Pitcox's Heart of Texas Records can be found at Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. Jimmy’s website: www.jimmymcdonough.com
(1) Which is why you must hear this performance on vinyl. The only version on CD is missing the reverb. As my wife Natalia says, “the mystery is gone.”
(2) Frank Miller didn’t become Frankie Miller until he was named that by a Columbia Records executive. For the sake of simplicity, he’s Frankie throughout this article.
(3) At one point Frankie and George were out on the road in Texas with J.P. Richardson, A.K.A. The Big Bopper. He was the author of several Jones songs, “White Lightnin’” amongst them, but had defected to rock n’ roll by cutting the panting, hyperactive “Chantilly Lace,” earning himself a smash hit, much to the disgust of his country cohorts. Richardson, savoring the moment, needled Jones by asking him, “George, you think you ever gonna have a hit?” According to Frankie, Jones drawled back, “Well if I don’t, I’m not gonna change my name and sing like a nigger.”
(4) It’s still on there today. Just a few months ago Frankie’s daughter Sandi was visiting Garner State Park, and she called her dad so he could hear it coming out of the jukebox in the background. At the nearby Garner Grill you can order a “Blackland Burger.”