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Classic Track: “King of the Road,” Roger Miller

It’s hard to remember back to a time when Nashville’s vaunted Music Row was really just a couple of studios and music publishing houses dotting tree-shaded 16th Avenue. This month’s Classic Track, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” takes us back to the fall of 1964, an era when the top dog on the Row, studio-wise, was CBS’s Quonset Hut, a utilitarian structure that had been one of many thousands of identical small, prefabricated corrugated galvanized steel buildings with semicircular roofs made during World War II.

It’s hard to remember back to a time when Nashville’s vaunted Music Row was really just a couple of studios and music publishing houses dotting tree-shaded 16th Avenue. This month’s Classic Track, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” takes us back to the fall of 1964, an era when the top dog on the Row, studio-wise, was CBS’s Quonset Hut, a utilitarian structure that had been one of many thousands of identical small, prefabricated corrugated galvanized steel buildings with semicircular roofs made during World War II.

“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even called ‘Music Row’ back then,” says the song’s producer, now retired, Jerry Kennedy. “In the late ’50s and early ’60s, some of the houses on 16th Avenue were being invaded by people who were opening up publishing companies and throwing up a funky little studio here and there. It was a neat time. Everybody was amazed at what was happening with the influx of pop artists coming to record and the country artists becoming huge. And it was mostly being done by a small group of musicians and a small group of writers and publishers, working in a small number of studios. It was giving birth in the early ’60s to what became an explosion later.”

When the 19-year-old Kennedy traveled from his native Louisiana to Music City in 1960 to work on sessions for Mercury Records’ Nashville A&R head, Shelby Singleton, he was already a seasoned music industry veteran. He’d signed his first record deal with RCA at the age of 11, cut a couple of singles, and later worked as a background singer, guitarist and songwriter on numerous sessions during his high school years. In March ’61, Kennedy moved to Nashville, and immediately became one of Mercury’s in-house producers, and a bit later, following the label’s acquisition by the European music giant Philips, for the offshoot label Smash. “Shelby Singleton had a lot of faith in me,” Kennedy says modestly. “He turned things over to me he probably shouldn’t have, but we were fortunate that some good things began to happen.

“We did most of the Mercury/Smash/Philips stuff at the Quonset Hut because it was a magic place,” he continues. “It had a great sound I thought we could not get at RCA [Studio B, the other leading studio of the day] or at Monument, which was Fred Foster’s studio downtown in the Cumberland Lodge building—Sam Phillips [of Sun Records] had built that one originally, and it was a good place to make records, but not for the country thing as much.”

The Quonset Hut, as a recording studio, dated back to the mid-’50s, when brothers Owen and Harold Bradley—Owen had worked at radio station WSM as music director of the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts; Harold was an in-demand guitarist—bought a duplex on 16th Avenue South, knocked out the ground floor, and built a basement studio there. They also put an Army surplus Quonset hut behind the main studio to accommodate film work they hoped to attract (from the Grand Ole Opry and others) and called the entire complex the Bradley Film and Recording Studio. As it turned out, the studio in the house (Studio A) proved to be too small for some types of sessions, but the Quonset Hut (Studio B) was just right, so that became their main recording room.

It was undeniably a humble atmosphere. To get some reflective surfaces into the curved structure and to deal with other sound issues, the Bradleys “built walls that went up maybe 10 feet,” recalls engineer Lou Bradley (no relation), who worked as an engineer at the Quonset Hut beginning in 1969, but had been a regular presence there for much of the previous decade. “Then they built this frame that went up to a smaller rectangle at the top, and they had banks of louvres running up the side of this frame—each bank was maybe three or four feet long. They weren’t adjustable, but the opposing ones were pointed differently to diffuse that sound going up. They also put these old theater curtains up there so the sound wouldn’t come back down. That solved the problem of that dome.” Acoustical tile, burlap hangings and baffles also helped control the sound.

The Quonset Hut’s control room was equipped with a custom 12-input, 3-track-capable tube console that had Langevin rotary faders, mic pre’s and EQs. Owen Bradley favored Ampex recorders, Neumann microphones, LA-2A and GE BA-9 “uni-level” compressors, and German EMT reverbs. The studio also had a live chamber and what was called the “drum hut,” which was essentially a drum booth with an open front. The Bradleys sold the Quonset Hut and much of the equipment—including the console, which is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame—to CBS Records in 1962, opting to build a new studio: the equally legendary Bradley’s Barn, in nearby Mt. Juliet, east of Nashville. The Quonset Hut barely missed a beat in the transition and remained a popular recording destination for CBS and other acts up until it closed in 1982.

Roger Miller grew up poor in Oklahoma, and his love of the country music he heard on the radio led him to take up the guitar and fiddle when he was a teenager. During a stint in the Army in the early ’50s, he briefly joined a group led by budding honky-tonk music star (and fellow serviceman) Faron Young, and once Miller was discharged, he migrated to Nashville to be part of the burgeoning country music scene. Over the next several years, he had periods where he worked in bands with the likes of Minnie Pearl and George Jones, and also times when he had to work jobs outside of music—and even outside of Tennessee; he was a fireman in Texas for a while.

Eventually, he caught on as a songwriter in Nashville, landing hits with such artists as Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb and Faron Young. Beginning in 1958, Miller started cutting singles under his own name—first for Decca, then for RCA, with Owen Bradley, then Tommy Hill, producing at the Quonset Hut. But it wasn’t until 1960 that he enjoyed his first minor hit, “You Don’t Want My Love,” produced by Chet Atkins. His success was short-lived, however, and he struggled for the next couple of years, even leaving the business briefly, before returning out of sheer financial desperation. He signed a low-advance deal to cut 16 sides for Smash Records, and his initial sessions for the label, with producer Jerry Kennedy and recorded at the Quonset Hut, produced two Top 10 pop hits (and Top 5 country hits) in the summer of ’64: “Dang Me” (his first Number One) and “Chug-a-Lug,” both light, humorous, down-home numbers that showcased Miller’s breezy charm.

“I actually met Roger the first week I moved to Nashville [in March 1961], at the offices of Tree Publishing,” Kennedy remembers. “Roger and Joe Tex and Bill Anderson—three of the big artist/writers—were there, and Roger came up and introduced himself. I thought, ‘That’s cool he was nice enough to do that.’ Of course, he probably knew I was scouting material for Shelby Singleton. A little later I was a guitar player on a few RCA dates that Chet Atkins produced for him.

“Roger was a genuinely funny guy; one of the wittiest people I’ve ever been around,” Kennedy continues. “Very bright, and he was always cracking everybody up. I always thought he was a free bird. He just needed some room to spread his wings. And when I had a chance to produce him, I kept that thought in mind: ‘We’ve gotta find a way to stay out of the way of these songs and not let the music overwhelm them.’ So we tried to keep it simple, like on ‘King of the Road.’ There’s not very much on there at all.”

Indeed, the November 3, 1964, session at the Quonset Hut that produced “King of the Road,” engineered by the late Mort Thomasson—widely regarded as one the best of the era—is spare as can be, hardly emblematic of the still-developing “Nashville sound.” Though it is Nashville A-listers: Bob Moore on standup bass (most likely miked with an RCA 44 or Altec 639, Lou Bradley suggests); Harold Bradley and Ray Edenton on guitars (perhaps Neumann U 67s “or either a Beyer or Telefunken”); the great Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano (“an Altec 21-B condenser”?); Buddy Harman on brushed drums and tambourine on a low sock cymbal (two unknown mics covered the whole drum kit); and guitarist “Thumbs” Carllile and Tree Music’s Buddy Killen providing the song’s ultra-cool finger snaps (captured by a U 47 generally used for background singers). Miller sang live with the band, probably through a U 67, and added his backing harmony later that evening. Reverb was likely from EMT plates. And though it was recorded to an Ampex 300 3-track (by Charlie Bradley, brother of Owen and Harold), Kennedy monitored in mono, and of course in that era singles were always still mono. “I’m going to guess we did four or five takes of ‘King of the Road’ and went back and grabbed the second or third,” Kennedy says.

“A lot of people don’t know that we had actually recorded ‘King of the Road’ before that session, for a live album,” Kennedy continues. “We went into a club here in Nashville called the Carousel Club, and the place was packed. But the stage was up over the bar, and when we listened back the next day, we had glasses clinking, forks being thrown into dishpans; it was horrible. So we canned it, and it’s probably off in a vault, never to be heard, I hope! But we selected about five or six of the songs off of there to do on his next album, and thankfully ‘King of the Road’ was one of them. To be honest, when we recorded it for that live album, we had not noticed that song as something extra-special.”

But it was. Kennedy says, “Charlie Fach, the head of Smash, called me one day after the acetates went out and he said, ‘Kids, we’ve got a hit!’ I said, ‘Which one?’ He said, ‘That hobo song.’ He couldn’t remember the title but he remembered it was a hobo song. I couldn’t remember what song he was talking about, either. On the drive on the way downtown it hit me that it was ‘King of the Road.’”

In February of 1965, “King of the Road” surged to Number One on the country charts (where it stayed for five weeks), Number 4 on the pop charts, and Roger Miller was transformed into a superstar. He scored several more hits in the next few years, including “Engine, Engine #9,” “England Swings” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd,” and even had an eponymous NBC TV show for a season. His late-career highlight was writing and performing in the 1985 Broadway hit Big River. He died in 1992.