Never fond of self analysis—he feared it would disturb his creative “free fall”—Miller often likened his approach to songwriting to a cat having kittens, “something you went off under the porch and did yourself.” But judging from Miller’s own description of his method, he appears to have been more of what Willie Nelson has called a “song-singer,” that is, someone who “sang songs in progress over and over until it came out right.” As Miller himself once explained, “I’ll take the first line and I’ll sing it, like running up to a wall, and just before I hit that wall the second line will come to me, by forcing myself to sing it. Eventually I find I’ve gotten the wall to move enough to show me the whole song.”9
Miller often likened his approach to songwriting to a cat having kittens, “something you went off under the porch and did yourself.”
Just as important to his method was making sure that everything “hooked up,” by which he meant that the lines not only rhymed, but that everything else did, too—vowel sounds, consonants, syllables, the sorts of things English majors go to school to study but which Miller picked up listening to Hank Williams records. As an example, Miller cited Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” noting how the first line, “Busted flat in Baton Rouge,” with its series of hard B s and Ts, hooks up nicely and rhythmically with the third line, “Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans.” “I love the ‘as’ that picks up ‘flat’ and ‘bat,’” said Miller. His contemporary, Harlan Howard, likewise noted an invisible thread of fifteen R sounds running through Hank Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart”—from the triple Rs in the first line, “I try so hard my dear,” to the “terminal ‘heart’” at the end of the first verse. “Once these words are put together this way,” said Howard, “they don’t come apart.”10
Perhaps it was a similar succession of sounds—“Trailer for Sale or Rent,” with five Rs in that one line alone—that caught Miller’s ear that night on the way to Chicago. Looking back over Miller’s first draft, it appears that he was trying to match this bit of found poetry with lines remembered from other signs (“Rooms-to-let 50¢,” “No Bath, No Pool, No Pets”) that he might have come across on the road. By the final draft, he’d polished the third line (“No bath” became “No phone,” neatly turning the first “no” back on itself) and fixed the fourth line by un-fixing it, replacing the proper “I’ve got” with the more in character “I ain’t got,” which also connects with the other T sounds (trailer, rent, let, fifty, and so on). Then there is that succession of alliterative B s (but, broom, buys, by, bit) and that sly lyrical switchback— “I’m a man of means by no means”— which he matches with another—“every lock that ain’t locked”—before the song is through. Miller may have preferred to work quickly, but he clearly did his homework here. As “hooked up” songs go, this one is about as tight as it gets.11
Of course, what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the stage or in the studio. What makes “King” work—Bob Moore’s ambling bass, Pig Robbins’s bluesy piano fills, those famous finger snaps contributed by Miller and publisher Buddy Killen—is the delivery, that syncopated snap that allowed Miller to wring the most out of every syllable of every word. The trick was that kick, that slightly disarming little hitch that set everything just off the beat but right in the groove. Sung this way, “every handout in every town” became “ev-er-y hand-out in ev-er-y town.” Not a word or beat was wasted. This swinging approach may have been an odd choice for a song about a hobo, but then so was Miller’s approach to “Dang Me,” which turned a character who sounds like one sorry son of a gun (“out all night and runnin’ wild / woman sitting home with a month-old child”) into the life of the party. In Miller’s hands, the traditional tear-in-my-beer ballad became a riotously-riffing talking blues. Likewise, with “King” Miller managed to reinvigorate the hobo ballad as he slipped on that “old worn out suit and shoes” and made it swing.
Not that this sort of character was new to country music. Indeed, in some respects, Miller’s hobo was just a cousin to that fellow in the old slouch hat in Pete Graves’s 1953 classic “Just a-Bummin’ Around”—the drifter with a “million friends” who’s “as free as the breeze” and says, “I’ll do as I please.” But Miller took it a step further, recasting his hobo as a well-connected man about town, who knows “every engineer on every train / and all of their children and all of their names.” He’s a connoisseur with humble but discriminating tastes (“I smoke old stogies I have found,” he says, “short but not too big around”), whose cosmopolitan swagger and worldly élan place him more in the company of charming Tin Pan Alley ne’er-do-wells like the hobo mayor in Lorenz Hart’s “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!” (“The road is your estate,” wrote Hart, “The earth your little dinner plate”) than any of Woody Guthrie’s earnest, road-weary pilgrims. More freewheeler (“I don’t pay no union dues”) than freeloader, Miller’s hobo mostly steers clear of the social commentary found in Jimmie Rodger’s “Hobo’s Meditation” and Guthrie’s “Ramblin’ Round.” Guthrie’s rambler lamented that his life on the road had kept him from being a more respectable fellow, but Miller’s man has no such regrets. He may be a “man of means by no means,” but his voice tells us he’s got more than enough—talent, street smarts, endless good humor—to get by. He’s a “king,” not in spite of the road, but because of it. So was Miller. With “King of the Road,” the old road dog had come into his own.12