A Good Year for the Roses

George Jones with LoveI believe it was The Atlantic magazine that carried a one page short story on its last page. And in its writer’s guidelines, it said it was looking for stories with the impact of a whole novel. The one story I remember was amazing. It was about a man whose wife had just died. And going through her things, he found a collection of illustrations of their son who had been killed in an accident when he was quite young. Apparently, every year, she went to a forensic artist to get an update on what he would look like. She told the artist that he had been kidnapped. It’s a heartbreaking story — not just that she never got over the loss but that she hid it from her husband for years.

There are songs that have a similar power. One of those is Jerry Chesnut’s country classic, “A Good Year for the Roses.” It’s so evocative. What’s especially great is the use of lipstick traces. First, it’s on the cigarettes in the ashtray. And then we get this beautiful mixture of pathos and bitterness:

And the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee
That you poured and didn’t drink
But at least you thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.

The other aspect that maybe is specific to me: the chorus about only being able to talk about trivialities when you want to talk about something deep. I know everyone has had that experience. But it has long been a painful irony that I can write but not really talk. Of course, in “A Good Year for the Roses,” Chesnut makes the obvious truth concrete in the second verse, “I guess the reason we’re not talking — there’s so little left to say we haven’t said.” By the time it reaches that point, talking is worthless.

But “A Good Year for the Roses” really is a novel in a song. You can listen to Chesnut do part of the song, but here is the whole original by George Jones:


Yes, I know that Elvis Costello did this song on Almost Blue. And I love his version and that album. But even the biggest Costello fan has to admit that he didn’t do much with any of those covers. The production and performance are often identical — which I believe was the point. Regardless, I think it is far more likely that readers of Frankly Curious are familiar with his version than Jones’ version, much less Chesnut’s.

8 thoughts on “A Good Year for the Roses

    • Interestingly, the song was not based on a break-up. The writer, Jerry Chesnut, was really into growing roses. And one year, it was really bad. A friend told him not to worry about it, that it just wasn’t “a good year for the roses.” I find that amazing that he could take a random line and turn it into such a poignant song. But I’m an old softy.

      • Yes you are a softy but it is still a good song that does pack a lot of meaning into it. Although I am not surprised a random line could inspire a great song like that. Carly Simon once said that the line “he walked into the room like he was walking onto a yacht” lead to her writing “You’re So Vain.” I always thought that song was not about the guy (Warren Beatty or whoever) but about a woman coming to terms with being dropped for someone else abruptly and realising what a jerk he was so maybe she was dodging something really bad there.

        • I have no idea what the lyrics are to that song, except for the refrain. I just always liked the way the line doubles back on itself. “Chuck E’s In Love,” as I recall came from Tom Waits saying that exact phrase to Jones while talking to some friend of theirs — telling her the news that he had just learned.

      • But you know how that works. You can agonize and agonize over how to write about some deep personal experience and never get it right. And then you bump into something totally unrelated and suddenly you’ve got your “hook” to write your thing. Doesn’t mean it’ll happen again anytime soon. But it can happen!

        • Stephen King calls the creative process magic. To me, it’s like there are mice running around in my head; I just decide to follow one. So I guess why I find it interesting is that I am a distinctly introverted writer. Surely the external reality affect the mice. But I’m not aware of that. Every idea seems like I’ve had it forever. So that’s why I find it remarkable. It’s so different from my process — such as it is.

  1. I always assumed the title refered to the fact that roses grow well in manure, so at least it’s good for the garden, even if everything else is going to sh…

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