Roger Miller — “King of the Road”
Although I love song lyrics, the success of a good lyric is as much in its delivery as it is in the words themselves.
Well-judged, but simple, words delivered with emotion can make a multiple-platinum record. Clever words delivered without emotion become a footnote in music history.
So it is with one of my favourite examples of how to deliver a good song well— Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”.
Both artist and song won multiple Grammys back in 1966 based on their contribution to music during the previous year. And, just to show what an idiosyncratic record it was, “King of the Road” won in both the Country and the Rock and Roll categories. It rather defied classification.
Roger Miller was probably best known as a Country singer, although songs like “King of the Road” and “England Swings” were big pop hits. Novelty hits, some might say, but some of the biggest selling records of the mid-60s nonetheless.
If you listen carefully to the original recording of “King of the Road”, you’ll notice it starts with finger clicking not unlike the intro to Peggy Lee’s “Fever”. There’s a honky-tonk piano in the background. The syncopation, in the hands of another performer, might be considered jazz rather than country.
Over the top of all that we get an unfashionably deep vocal, admittedly more Country in feel, telling the tale of a hobo who’s living from day to day criss-crossing America in the hope of finding a way to earn a couple of bucks during the day to fund somewhere to sleep for the night.
The vocal delivery is just perfect. There’s a knowing weariness to the way the words are sung, perfectly judged to reflect the struggle of living a rootless, hand-to-mouth existence. He’s tired of travelling but doesn’t know any other way of life.
Unlike some Country songs, life on the road isn’t painted in overly romantic terms. Freedom is much more enjoyable when you’ve got some money in the bank and a place to call your own. The reality of life for a drifter is about as un-romantic as you can get.
We really feel it when Roger Miller says:
Two hours of pushing broom buys an eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road
By all accounts, Roger Miller was a funny man, with a one-liner or a quip never far from his mouth. His lyric “a man of means by no means” is a very clever line, and the cherry on top comes from the ironic use of “king of the road” to describe someone down on his luck.
Sadly the other thing that was never far from Roger Miller’s mouth was a cigarette. A habit that killed him when he was only 56.
Society has changed since the 1960s and smoking is frowned upon in most places these days. I’m not sure you’d get away with recording a lyric like this today:
Trailer for sale or rent
Rooms to let fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets
I ain’t got no cigarettes
I smoke old stogies I have found
Short, but not to big around
However back in the mid-1960s, seemingly everybody smoked, so I’ve always taken this as a faithful observation of life in the ‘60s rather than a subliminal commercial from the tobacco companies.
Leaving aside its phenomenal commercial success, “King of the Road” deserves to be remembered for Roger Miller’s wonderfully observational lyrics, his distinctive bass voice, and the way he captures the reality of a hand-to-mouth existence on the road.
It’s a matter of fact song, neither glorifying nor pitying the life of his song’s hobo hero.
When times are tough, rueful comedy is often an escape hatch. There’s probably no better example of that in popular music than Roger Miller describing a rootless hobo as a “king of the road”.
If you need a reminder, here’s Roger Miller to tell his story…