Roger Miller – ”King Of The Road” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Brendan Briggs

Brendan is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer. In 2022, he released his first album "Dive" under the name "Arctotherium".

“King of the Road” is a slice-of-life description of a hobo’s lifestyle. The lyrics focus on how the man is poor, transient, free, and happy. He doesn’t let the judgments of others or his lack of money get him down. Instead, he embraces the freedom that comes with his lifestyle and takes pleasure in life’s simple joys.

There are two stories in circulation about how Roger Miller wrote the song. In one, Miller wrote the song in Boise, Idaho, after staring at a statuette of a hobo. In another, Miller was inspired to write the song after seeing a sign reading “trailers for sale or rent” near Nampa, Idaho. Either way, a personal encounter with the lifestyle of drifters seems to be the plain inspiration for the lyrics.

In this article, we’ll perform an analysis of these witty lyrics to decipher their intended meaning. We’ll also take a look at the songwriting story and the universal message that is accessible to anyone. Without further ado, let’s dive in!

“King of the Road” Lyrics Meaning

The lyrics start by bluntly letting us know the drifter’s situation. His environment is decorated by things like “trailers for sale or rent” signs and advertisements for cheap rooms. He has “no phone, no pool,” and “no pets” in his room. Basically, he lives a very bare life, at least in material terms.

He’s fine doing the little work it takes to get by in this world. “Two hours of pushing broom” affords him the “four-bit room” he needs for shelter. He’s extremely poor or, as Miller puts it, “a man of means by no means.” This doesn’t bother the drifter, who instead takes great pride in his freedom. He calls himself the “king of the road” because the road (his travels) is his real domain.

The next verse talks about the traveling the man is so proud of. He describes hopping in the “third boxcar” of a “midnight train” headed to Bangor, Maine. He may not have a fancy “suit and shoes,” but he’s exempt from “union dues.” Simply put, he cares a lot less about his possessions than he cares about his experiences.

He can’t even afford to buy his own smokes and instead relies on “old stogies” left behind by others. However, the lyrics make us wonder if he doesn’t enjoy them more than the finest Cuban cigars. Once again, he declares himself “king of the road” and moves into the song’s bridge.

In order to support his nomadic lifestyle, he’s had to befriend “every engineer on every train.” He butters them up, even going so far as to learn the names of their children. It’s unclear whether he’s really a friend to these engineers, but he certainly uses their relationship to get by.

Other knowledge that allows him to survive includes his memory of “every handout” in every town. He also lets himself into unattended places sometimes, remembering “every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around.” This drifter is a survivor who doesn’t mind forcing the world’s hand at times to get what he needs.

At this point, the lyrics repeat themselves. In summary, “King of the Road” is about enjoying freedom, focusing on life’s simple pleasures, and being decidedly non-materialistic. This is a message that can resonate with many – especially those who have had to do without luxuries in life. It’s safe to say that this appeal is no small part of the song’s success.

The Story Behind “King of the Road”

Roger Miller simply had the gift of being a hitmaker. It wasn’t uncommon for him to write while traveling, using very simple things for inspiration. The products of his process are well-known exemplars of the mid-1960s Nashville sound era. Examples include “Dang me,” “England Swings,” “Engine Engine No. 9,” and (most famously) “King of the Road.”

Regarding “King of the Road,” reports vary as to what the specific inspiration for the lyrics was. Miller himself told various versions of the story at concerts, leaving the exact facts a bit unclear.

One story says that, while staying at a hotel in Boise, Idaho, Miller wrote “King of the Road” as he stared at a statuette he bought. The statuette depicted a hobo, which prompted Miller to write about his reflections on that lifestyle. This appears to be the less common version of events, but it is a point of pride for the people of Boise.

A more mainstream story (which Wikipedia and other cites take at face value) is that Miller saw a sign reading “Trailers for Sale or Rent.” As we know, this is the opening line of the lyrics. In this version of events, the sighting occurred in Nampa, Idaho, while Miller was traveling. However, even this detail is not consistent 100% of the time – Miller moved the location of the sighting several times at different concerts.

It sounds like Miller knew almost as much about living a nomadic life as some drifters do. This may have caused some confusion regarding the story of his signature song, but the general inspiration is still the lifestyle of hobos.

Regardless, “King of the Road” can only be considered a smash hit. It topped the Billboard US Country Chart and helped make Miller a household name. Interestingly, R.E.M. covered the song with their own infamously disjointed version. The tune has also been featured in several movies, including Talladega Nights, Lost and Found, Brokeback Mountain, and more.

The next time you play this timeless hit, let these pieces of music history make it even more special!