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  • Dashboard Poet:Roger Miller
  • Brian Carpenter (bio)

He who lives by the song shall die by the road.

Roger Miller1

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Even before he became the “King of the Road,” Roger Miller reigned as the undisputed king of the dashboard poets. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the Roger Miller Museum.

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Even before he became the “King of the Road,” Roger Miller reigned as the undisputed king of the dashboard poets. By his own recollection, he composed his first solo hit, “You Don’t Want My Love,” on the road from Fort Worth to Nashville. “Just driving along by myself,” Miller described the process, “sipping a little wine here and along the way [to] keep my spirits up.” His first top-ten hit, “When Two Worlds Collide,” came about in Miller’s Rambler station wagon during an all-night drive with Bill Anderson. “In those days we didn’t have these little tape recorders like you do now,” said Anderson, “so we had to stay up all night singing it to each other, all the way down there, so we wouldn’t forget it.” Miller’s classic ballad “Husbands and Wives” initially took shape, fittingly enough, while he and his wife were “driving down the freeway one night.” “I just started singing it,” said Miller, who wrote the rest of the song on a ride home from the Los Angeles airport with friend Don Bowman. “Thanksgiving Day, no traffic, it took thirty or thirty-five minutes, and he was humming and tapping on the dashboard,” said Bowman. “He didn’t say a word all the way there . . . [H]e got out and walked in the house, picked up his guitar and sang ‘Husbands and Wives.’” Then there was “King of the Road,” inspired by a sign (“Trailer for Sale or Rent”) that Miller saw hanging on the side of a barn one night on his way to Chicago. The song sold over one million copies and won him six Grammys in 1966.2

Miller’s only serious rival behind the wheel may have been his old friend and fellow traveler Willie Nelson, who reportedly wrote three hits—“Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”— over a two-week stretch as he drove back and forth, night after night, to a club on the other side of Houston. “Some of my best writing, I think, is done when I’m driving down the highway by myself,” said Nelson. “My mind is clear and open and receptive. Then something will happen . . . A song will start. The good ones come quickly, and then it’s over.” Like Nelson, Miller did some of his best work on the road, or some variation thereof, becoming perhaps the only person in the history of recorded music to write a top-twenty hit (“A World So Full of Love”) on the back of a riding mower. Call it highway hypnosis or some sort of equivalent meditative state, there was something about laying hands to the wheel that freed up the songwriter in his mind.3

Miller’s habit of dashboard composition— which also produced “Fair Swiss Maiden” and “Invitation to the Blues,” a number-three country hit for Ray Price— may not have been uncommon among traveling musicians of his day, most of whom were forced by necessity to write whenever and wherever they could find the time. But it’s all the more impressive considering Miller’s well-documented driving habits, which would qualify as erratic by any standard. As William Whitworth noted in his 1969 profile for The New Yorker, “Miller has the manual dexterity for driving but not the attention span. Every few minutes, bored with simply staring at heavy traffic, he would begin reading a note from his shirt pocket, examining the instrument panel on the dash, or checking to see what was tucked under his [End Page 117] sun visor. [His drummer Jerry] Allison saved us from certain death three times by hollering at Miller just in time to get us off a collision course.” Whitworth wasn’t alone. Kris Kristofferson recalled a last minute dash to the Nashville...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 116-131
Launched on MUSE
2014-11-12
Open Access
No
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