55 Years Ago: Roger Miller Hits No. 1 With ‘King of the Road’
Fifty-five years ago today, on March 27, 1965, Roger Miller's "King of the Road" hit No. 1 on the country charts. Produced by Jerry Kennedy, the song appears on 1965's The Return of Roger Miller, and is an ode to the freewheeling road lifestyle.
The protagonist of "King of the Road" hints at doing nefarious things to get by (he knows "every lock that ain't locked when no one's around") but also knows all the shortcuts to surviving on a tight budget: "I sing, 'Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let, 50 cents / No phone, no pool, no pets / I ain't got no cigarettes."
Miller recorded "King of the Road" on Nov. 3, 1964, enlisting Buddy Killen to play guitar and Thumbs Carlisle to contribute snapping fingers. As a result, the song has a loping and, at times, even slightly jazzy vibe.
According to Miller's website, the musician spent only six weeks writing the song. Lyrical inspiration came from his travels on the road: He saw a sign on the outskirts of Chicago that said "Trailers for Sale or Rent," which spawned the first verse, and then was able to finish the rest of the song after spotting a "hobo in an airport gift shop" in Boise, Idaho.
However, SongFacts also points out that on The Mike Douglas Show in 1969, Miller gave a slightly different account of how the song coalesced: "I was doing a show in a place you have probably never heard of called Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and I saw a statue of a hobo in a cigar shop were I was staying," he said at that time. "I purchased it and took it to my room and wrote the song."
"King of the Road" spent five weeks atop the country charts, and was a crossover success: It also topped the Billboard adult contemporary chart and landed at No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song cleaned up at the 8th annual Grammy Awards, too, winning Best Contemporary Rock 'n' Roll Single, Best Contemporary Rock 'n' Roll Vocal Performance, Best Country & Western Single and Best Country & Western Vocal Performance -- Male. The Return of Roger Miller also won best Country & Western Album.
Over the years, "King of the Road" has been covered dozens of times, notably at the 1995 CMA Awards ceremony, when a galaxy of country stars -- including Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakam, and Dolly Parton -- did a version to commemorate Miller's posthumous Country Music Hall of Fame induction. In 2018, artists such as Parton and Eric Church appeared on a Miller tribute called King of the Road: A Tribute to Roger Miller.
A 2020 concert tribute to Miller and his music, King of the Road: Celebrating the Music of Roger Miller, which was to feature performances by Nelson, Toby Keith, Trisha Yearwood, and Jamey Johnson, was unfortunately canceled due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.