Daily Song Study

Roger Miller – King of the Road

In songs on December 30, 2011 at 10:21 am

Layers are important in songwriting. Today’s tune, for instance.

Enumerating the reasons why this song works is harder than it sounds.

Obviously there is the melody, immensely singable and put to a simple chord progression. Then there are the lyrics and highly original phrasing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Tom Waits record (and predate Waits’ debut by 7 years). Observe also the vocal delivery, rough around the edges but still likable, as is the song’s protagonist.

All of that might be enough, but upon closer examination we can see the production decisions that contribute to its uniqueness. The arrangement is sparse, driven primarily by a jaunty bass line and reverberating finger snaps. Other elements are added strategically as the song progresses, first acoustic guitar and then piano on the key change. Unlike many country songs of the era, there is no backing choir, no steel guitar, no string section. It stands out as much for what is not there as for what is.

And is it even really a country song? Nominally, perhaps, but there are elements of jazz & blues in there, which practitioners like Ray Charles know are “the same goddamned thing exactly.” Truthfully, it’s a pop song, in the purest sense of the word. Popular because it connects easily with the listener.

The fact that all these elements can be combined in this fashion is due in no small part to Miller’s own biography. He served as fiddle player for Minnie Pearl, drummer for Faron Young and Ray Price, and was also proficient at piano and banjo, in addition to guitar. He had spent time in cotton fields, in the army, and as a hotel bellhop while trying to make his name in music.

When someone sits down to write a song, they bring to the table only what they have gathered. Though Miller was only 29 when King of the Road was written, he brought in so much collective experience that this unique synthesis was made possible. He would use that varied palette to construct the tunes for the musical Big River two decades later.

Songs are made of layers because people are made of layers. Add more to one, and more is added to the other.

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  1. Nice out of left field choice for a song of the day.

  2. Serendipity. My son was monkeying around with this box of old cassettes yesterday, and wanted to try playing one. Roger Miller’s Greatest Hits was the most kid-friendly one (narrowly avoided a Carlin tape), so we cranked it up and I was reminded how much I love those tunes.

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