The Victoria-born country star, now 77, had a stellar career in the fifties and sixties that is all but forgotten—but his emergence from retirement, along with a deluxe box set, Blackland Farmer: The Complete Starday Recordings, and More (Bear Family) may just change that.
Jeff McCord: You were born in Victoria, is that correct?
Frankie Miller: Yes, Victoria, Texas.
JM: In 1930?
FM: ’30, and grew up there. Was there for twenty … let’s see. I guess 22 years. Twenty-one years, I went to the Army.
JM: At what point did you start playing music, I understand your parents were not musicians, but your brother was.
FM: Yeah, my brother was, he was a musician, and he taught me how to play the guitar, and I started learning the guitar when I was in high school, I think, my senior year—junior year, maybe. High school.
JM: Do you recall when you had your first band, were you out of high school by then?
FM: Yes, it was the year I graduated, I formed my first band in Victoria, and we played—I was going to college there in Victoria, and we played for the college dances and played at all the local joints.
JM: When did you get your first break? What got you out of Victoria and made you decide that this is what you wanted to do as a career?
FM: I got my first recording contract when I was, I think I was 19 years old. With a company out on the coast called Four Star Records. And that happened through Houston through a man there in Houston had a record distributing center. Harold “Pappy” Dailey was his name. he was the real good friend of George Jones, his kind of mentor. And he sent some stuff off for me to Four Star, and they gave me a contract, and I’ve been in ever since.
JM: Now Pappy’s got a bit of a reputation, I know. Did you get along with him?
FM: Oh yeah. He was always a friend of mine, Pappy was. I recorded for Four Star, and then later on he signed me up to United Artists Records. When George went to United Artists, we was doing a show and he was there.
JM: And Pappy was one of the founders of Starday Records as well, was he not?
FM: Yeah, he was, he was one of the founders and later on I went to Starday, I was with Starday, I don’t know, 11 or 12 years I think it was.
JM: So you got this contract with Four Star when you were 19, and you made some sides with them, I know that Bear Family Records has released some of those, not so long ago.
JM: Yeah. What happened with those records, were they very successful, did they lead to …?
FM: No, they weren’t very successful, but they got me in the business. You know I was, I was big on all the jukeboxes down in Victoria and Calhoun County.
JM: But it did get you places like the Big D Jamboree.
FM: That was later on. I was drafted in the Army, and when I come out of the Army I got a good contract with Columbia Records, and then things started picking up.
JM: You were in the Army for a couple years, during the Korean War, correct?
FM: Korean War, right.
JM: And that kind of sidelined your career for a while.
FM: Yeah, it sidetracked me.
JM: But you came out and you got the contract with Columbia. And how did things go with them? I know you recorded a few sides for them over a couple years?
FM: Yeah, I recorded a couple years with Columbia and then … That was about the time that rock and roll come in so strong and country stuff was almost out of business, so…
JM: Talk to me a little about that, because I know that by 1956 you weren’t on Columbia anymore, and that was about the year that Elvis Presley hit it big—what was it like to be a country singer in those times?
FM: It was tough. So many of the stations quit playing country music, they were playing rock stuff, and a lot of the clubs also that we played in, switched over to rock. It wasn’t easy for us.
JM: I know that country started to change somewhat then, because rock and roll was getting to be so successful, and you heard less of the sort of slow, country ballads, which you recorded quite a few of early in your career. Did you make a conscious change in that direction, a little more up-tempo in your music?
FM: Not really. I recorded a number of up-tempo things, in fact the people over in England, I was over there a couple years ago there, they still play my stuff. They call it “rockabilly,” but it was just hillbilly songs with beats, that was all it was. They call it rockabilly.
JM: Just a little bit sped up.
FM: Yeah, there wasn’t, I guess quite as much as the … like the Hank Williams and Lefty Frizell stuff, it was kind of more upbeat stuff.
JM: I guess it’s fair to say your biggest success was with ‘Blackland Farmer’.
FM: Oh yeah, with Starday, that was my big one, right.
JM: It was a few years after you got off Columbia before you got another record contract. What went on in those years, and why do you think you had so much trouble …?
FM: I played, you know, shows and clubs, I stayed in the business, and we started up a small label down here in Fort Worth, had a couple releases on them …
JM: What was that label?
FM: It was called Cowtown Hoedown Label. There was a show in Fort Worth called the Cowtown Hoedown, and I was member of that, which was every