Jeff McCord with Frankie Miller
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 Saturday night, they had a show, and then they formed this little record label and put out some stuff with a few guys that were on there.
JM: By this time—I’m curious—after these Columbia records came out and you’re recording for Cowtown Hoedown and stuff, were you starting to feel that you were really building a following in Texas, or did you feel like you were spinning your wheels?
FM: No, I didn’t ever feel like I was spinning my wheels, I always loved country music and that’s what we did. There was always a core of people that stuck with country music, and it’s like I say, the label that I recorded for in Fort Worth helped me along until I got a good contract with Starday. And I had a very successful run with Starday.
JM: Talk to me about ‘Blackland Farmer’ a little bit. It’s a very different sounding record for a country record, I love the song, and I had heard it many years ago, and it was so great to hear it again, but at the same time I have to feel like it was rather unusual for its time, do you think so?
FM: Yeah it was, it was very unusual, it had the horse hooves walking in the background, and the whistle in there, and when I took it to Nashville there, rock and roll was still big, and I let a friend of mine hear it up there, a guy named Tommy Hill who worked for Starday, and his eyes just lit up. So he took it out the next day to the man that owned Starday, Don Pierce, and Don was with Four Star Records in California, so he knew of my work. So when he heard that he gave me a contract the next day. And I was with Starday for a number of years. I recorded Blackland Farmer in Houston, Texas, in like 1956, so I had the master of that for two or three years before it ever came out.
JM: So what was released on Starday was what you recorded originally?
FM: Uh huh, oh yeah. The guy that picked it up first was a guy named Tommy Hill. He heard what we cut there in Houston, right. And he took it right to Don Pierce out at Starday, ‘cause he was working part-time for Starday at the time, so he took it out with them, and Don really liked it and gave me a contract.
JM: Now how did you get the idea to make such an odd-sounding record?
FM: I wrote that song for an old uncle of mine, who lived in South Texas, and he was a farmer all of his life—he worked a farm. And mostly with mules. Later on he got a tractor, but most of the time he worked his farm with mules. And I’d go down there in the summer and stay on his farm, you know, so I wrote this song for him, ‘cause he loved that farm, you know, and I didn’t have any idea that I’d ever do anything with the song, I just wrote it mostly for him.
JM: So you were rather surprised it got the reaction it got, I suppose.
FM: Oh yeah, sure I was, you bet.
JM: Now the liner notes in this new collection—the Starday Recordings—sort of make Blackland Farmer out to be your first truly distinctive recording. Obviously, Hank Williams is an big influence of yours, and I’m sure there are others, but do you agree with that or not?
FM: Yeah that was the first thing that I had that really … I had some records that drew some national attention, but not anything like Blackland Farmer.
JM: But do you feel like it’s the first one where you found your own style?
FM: I think mostly it was. It pretty well nailed me down to doing that type of song. I cut some more stuff in a family-type vein, you know, and it all goes back to ‘Blackland Farmer’.
JM: So how did this song change your life once it became the success it was?
FM: It put me in the country music business big time.
JM: What was your life back then? You were basically going from show to show, and headlining…
FM: Yeah. I’d go here and there and play different clubs and all. I was a performer, got in the national charts, well I was playing with the big boys then. I toured all over the country.
JM: I know you and George Jones were great buddies.
FM: Yeah we were. We went many miles together, me and George. Willie Nelson also, Willie was a good friend. I was the first one to take Willie on the road from Nashville, when he moved to Nashville.I was living in Nashville, when Willie come up there. I knew Willie from down here in Fort Worth, and I was doing some shows when he moved up there, I was doing a lot of the Army and Air Force bases, you know, and I’d carry a band with me, and Willie come to town, he wasn’t doing anything, he went out with me, I was the first one to take him on the road.
JM: How ‘bout that.
FM: He’ll tell you the same thing, you can ask Willie, and he’ll tell you the same thing, I’ve heard him say this more than once. Of course this was before Willie—he wasn’t anything like the Willie Nelson he is today. He had just come to Nashville just getting started writing, he was writing then.
JM: Were you spending most of your time in Nashville during the years you were on Starday?
FM: Yes, I lived there.
JM: And tell me about the Starday sessions themselves. Listening to this music is I don’t understand why it’s as obscure as it is these days. These are top-notch country records. Why do you think it is that they haven’t stayed in the vernacular like a lot of country music has?
FM: Well they were … they were, at the time they was released, for a certain period of time they were popular, and then they put ‘em back in a vault, and they’ve been in the Starday vault for years and years and years until Bear Family Records finally made some kind of deal with Starday, the owners of Starday now, to take these masters and put ‘em out in this box set.
[Bear Family] started this thing probably three or four years ago, to put out this set on me, mostly with the Starday, but they couldn’t make any kind of deal with the people who owned Starday, for some reason, they owned all the rights of them, they just had them in their system and didn’t want to do anything with them until recently. So the guys from Bear Family kept hacking at ‘em and they finally went ahead and made a deal with them, put ‘em out.
JM: When this Bear Family collection started getting put together, had it been a long time since you had heard this music?
FM: Oh years and years and years. Some of them I didn’t even remember recording. Yeah, I’d forgot altogether about recording some of ‘em. I also have a new CD on Heart of Texas Records down in Brady, Texas.
JM: Yeah, you’ve made a couple of records for that label, right?
FM: Yes, and they’ve just released a new one called Line Up the Louisiana Hayride, which I was a member of the Hayride and they just brought that out, I don’t know, three weeks ago or so. And these were taken off the old Louisiana Hayride tapes from ’59 and ’60, the old tapes that they’d kept, you know, they kept ‘em, brushed ‘em up. He put out I think it was 15 songs on that…Tracy Pitcock is the owner, I don’t know if you know Tracy or not, but he’s the owner of Heart of Texas Record Company. And he went to Shreveport and dug through these tapes ‘til he found the songs that he wanted to put out of mine. ‘Cause I was on the Hayride when Presley was there.
JM: That’s great. I love that there’s this resurgence in your music, because it’s wonderful music and people should be able to hear it, and I’m grateful to Bear Family that they’ve collected all this stuff and put it out. And Heart of Texas Records as well. At the end of your sessions with Starday, you kind of quit the business for a while, did you not?
FM: Yeah, I left. I left Nashville, I moved back to Texas.
JM: What prompted that?
FM: I was tired, very, very tired and sick of the road. Being gone away from my family. Had two daughters and a wife and I just, I had all I could take of it. I told ‘em, “I’m going back home.” And I came back, and I didn’t do anything in the music business for 25, 30 years.
JM: And during this time did you miss the music business, did you think about going back to it?
FM: No I really didn’t. I was out of it, and when I retired, some of the guys, they’d been … I recorded a session after I retired for Stop Records, a guy named Pete Drake there in Nashville. He wanted me to do a session, Tommy Hill was working for him at the time, and they brought me back up there and I done a session, they released one record. The other one they didn’t ever release, it was in the can, but they have it in this, an earlier CDs of the Bear Family deal. So I wasn’t out of all it altogether, pretty well out of it, but I didn’t play anywhere anymore.
JM: So, is Tommy Hill the guy who got you back in to performing again?
FM: Tommy did a lot to help me, he was always a lifetime friend of mine ‘til he passed away, Tommy was. Guy here in Fort Worth named Jim Eaves, has a band here. He met me and wanted me to come out and sing some with him, so I started doing that—pretty soon I was back singing again, back to business.
JM: Didn’t realize how you’d missed it, I guess?
FM: Yeah, I really did, I’m really having a lot of fun now.
JM: That’s great. Now, I know you’ve shown up on records from Floyd Tillman and Cornell Hurd recently as well, so, how much are you performing these days? I know you’re what, 78 years old now, is that correct?
FM: 77! But I perform every week. The weeks that I’m out of town—I’m here and there, you know—but when I’m in town, I work every Saturday at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop out in the historic stockyards in Fort Worth, with Jimmie Eaves band. We work at the record shop itself. Fact I just got back from Nashville, Monday morning. I’d been up there since last Wednesday, I done the, what you call Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree. I hosted that last Saturday, there in Nashville.
JM: So hearing these old recordings again, what was your reaction to them? Do you think they hold up pretty well?
FM: Oh, man, they, those things that Bear Family put out, they sound better than a 45 does, better than the old 45’s used to. ‘Course the playback that you use now are a lot better too, the machines that you play ‘em back on. But they’ve done, really a bang-up job putting these things out, in this box set, they really did, they made ‘em sound good. It surprised me, it really surprised me the sound that these things have, from that long ago, you know.
JM: It did me as well. And a lot of the music I had not heard before, which also surprised me, because a lot of reissue labels, you know, they’ll end up reissuing stuff that’s rather obscure for a reason. But I think this music has a lot of appeal, and I’m surprised that so much of it is not better know than it is. Why do you think you’re not as well-known as your contemporaries?
FM: Well … ‘cause I left Nashville, I got out of the business for about 25, 30 years. I left when I still had a recording contract and everything. Man, people would have killed for a recording contract. But I come back home and just got out of it. If I had just stayed in Nashville … see I got out before the big boom hit in country music, which was in, I guess the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. All during the ‘70s country music was really booming in Nashville, and I got out before that era, you know. If I’d just stayed in there I probably … I think with what I do, I think I could of rode it out and been a lot bigger artist than I was. I’ve been told that over and over and over and over.
JM: Any regrets on getting out of the business?
FM: No, I really don’t have any.
JM: Describe to me what the road was like then, I think a lot of people don’t realize how hard it was.
FM: Well, for one thing, that was before buses. We traveled in cars. And a lot of times we pulled a trailer, we had instruments, and sometimes we was in station wagons with the instruments in there, and the bookends were sometimes four, five hundred miles apart. You’d do a show in say one town, and the next town was 400 miles from there. And you had to get there to do a matinee at two o’clock the next day. So you didn’t get much rest, and it was really a grueling thing. I went all the way through Canada before, with Jones and that bunch, you know.
JM: And this was before the days of interstate highways and things like that.
FM: That’s true, you went right through everything. Now, you know, with the buses and all … I see George every once and a while, I go out and we’ll sit on the bus and talk for a while. But these guys, now with the buses and all, Willie too, I’ve been on his buses—you know it’s the way to go, it’s really great if they can do that. But back then, they’ve paid their dues, they went through it. They really did.
JM: That’s the truth. Well, what are your plans, do you plan to record a new record any time soon? What’s next on the horizon?
FM: Yeah, I’m working on some stuff that I’m going to do for Heart of Texas Records. Another CD. Right now I don’t need anything out, I’ve got enough out right now, but probably in 6 months or so, we’ll probably go in and cut another CD for Pitcock’s Heart of Texas Records.