194. Roger Miller – King of the Road (1965)

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It was well under a year since Labour narrowly got into power in the general election, but already the Conservatives were fighting back, making big gains in the local elections on 13 May. Four days later saw tragic events at Cambrian Colliery when an explosion killed 31 miners. On 19 May, West Ham United became only the second British club in history to win a European trophy, defeating West Germany 2-0 at Wembley Stadium to take the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Toppling Ticket to Ride after three weeks was another song about travelling. Roger Miller’s charming country tale of a hobo, King of the Road was a very different beast, however.

Miller was born into poverty at the height of the Great Depression in January 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. His mother died when he was only a year old. His father was unable to support the family and so Roger went to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Miller was an introverted dreamer, and began making up songs from a young age. He fell in love with country music, and a relative bought him a fiddle. Desperate but broke, he stole a guitar when he was 17, but turned himself in the next day. He enlisted in the army to avoid jail, and while in service he became the fiddler in the Circle A Wranglers.

Upon leaving the army he moved to Nashville and auditioned for the influential Chet Atkins. He was so nervous he sang in two different keys, so Atkins asked him to come back later. Miller went to work at a hotel, where he was soon known as ‘the singing bellhop’. He met with George Jones and was introduced to music executives, but Miller chose to marry, start a family, and become a fireman. He later claimed he was only there for two fires, and slept through the second, so decided maybe music was the life for him after all. He returned to Nashville and soon found himself in demand as a songwriter, with Jim Reeves among those recording his material.

Miller signed with Decca Records in 1958, and then RCA Victor in 1960, but his waywardness increased, and despite growing success he ditched the songwriting, and his wife, and became a dedicated wild child instead. Eventually he had ambitions to become an actor, but was short of money and signed a deal with Smash Records in exchange for cash. He wrote Dang Me in four minutes, and both that and Chug-a-Lug were huge country hits and made the top ten in the Billboard chart. Miller had discovered a knack for writing simple, humorous country hits, and his career was transformed. When it came to writing King of the Road, he recalled driving one day and seeing a sign that read ‘Trailers for sale or rent’.

Despite being normally wary of country music, I don’t see how anyone could dislike King of the Road. At a push, you could argue that the life of a tramp is probably not half as fun as Miller’s song suggests. But it’s tough not to be won over by the imagery he conjures, and that weather-beaten, wry voice of his fits the character like a fingerless glove. It comes across like a not-too-distant cousin of Sixteen Tons, which had been a number 1 for Tennessee Ernie Ford ten years previous, due to the finger-clicking, dark humour and empathy for the underdog. The subject matter was also inspired by a hobo Miller met at an airport, and considering the singer-songwriter’s upbringing, it’s fair to say Miller identified with the tramp’s way of life. He wasn’t blindly romanticising such a lifestyle. I first became aware of this song thanks to REM, who disowned their cover.

The hits continued for Miller, including the wry, timely England Swings. 1967 saw his popularity wane though, and his TV series was also cancelled. In 1973 he voiced the rooster minstrel Allan-a-Dale in Disney’s animated animal version of Robin Hood. Much maligned over the years for looking cheap and ripping off earlier Disney features, I won’t have a bad word said about it. I saw it at a young age and will always have a soft spot for it, and that’s partly down to Miller’s three songs from the movie – Whistle-Stop, Oo-De-Lally and Not in Nottingham.

Miller stopped writing songs in 1978, but in the early 1980s he received an offer to write a score for a Broadway musical based on the 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had never read the book, but when he realised it was based in rural Oklahoma, he felt inspired once more. Opening in 1985, Big River was critically-acclaimed and Miller won the Tony Award for Best Score.

As the 90s began he co-wrote and provided backing vocals to Dwight Yoakam’s hit It Only Hurts When I Cry and embarked on a tour, but it was cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Miller’s carefree past caught up with him, and he died in October 1992 aged 56.

Written by: Roger Miller

Producer: Jerry Kennedy

Weeks at number 1: 1 (13-19 May)

Births:

Journalist Christina Lamb – 15 May
Presenter Jeremy Vine – 17 May

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