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Story Behind the Song: Waylon Jennings, ‘Rose in Paradise’

In the early 1980s, Stewart Harris and Jim McBride wove a mysterious love story as they wrote “Rose in Paradise.” In January of 1987, Waylon Jennings released the song as the first single from his Hangin’ Tough album, and it became his final No. 1 hit; the tune stayed at No. 1 for one week and spent a total of 19 weeks on the charts. 

In the nearly three decades since, the song has been covered by Chris Young and Willie Nelson, as well as by Kris Kristofferson on a Jennings tribute album. Below, McBride tells The Boot about how the track came to be.

Stewart Harris and I got together at CBS Publishing back in 1982, and we couldn’t think of anything to write, so we started talking. I was telling him about this house back home, outside of Huntsville, Ala., where, in the 1800s, this lady named Rose lived. She had five well-to-do husbands, and they all died mysteriously. They took her to trial, and they could never prove that she poisoned any of them.

I knew a family that lived in that house, and they said there were five nails in the hallway when you walked in, and, supposedly, back in the day, she had all five of their hats on those nails. The lady moved off to Mississippi after the second trial; she was found innocent both times. After she moved to Mississippi, people lost track of her.

I was telling Stewart how spooky the house was. My friends who lived there said there were ghosts. So I’m telling him this story, and after I finish, he starts telling me low-country ghost stories — he’s from South Carolina. So we go to lunch, and we decide, when we come back, we’re gonna write ourselves a ghost story.

I don’t know where the title came from. It was two years later that I notice the initials for “Rose in Paradise” are R.I.P.! I don’t even know which one of us came up with the idea. We started telling this story of a pretty young girl in Georgia and this rich guy, and the next thing you know, we had finished this song. We took it in to our publisher, Judy Harris, and played it for her, and she said, “Where did y’all go to lunch?”

I sang the demo but did it much slower than Waylon’s record. Randy Howard cut it first, but it didn’t get released. Then Toy Caldwell from Marshall Tucker Band cut it, but it never got out either. One day, Don Lanier brought Loretta Lynn by the CBS office to listen to songs, and at one point, Judy said, “I know this song is not for you, but let me play it for you.” She played “Rose in Paradise,” and Loretta said, “Oh lord, that would be good for Waylon.”

So Don calls Waylon, and they play it for him, and he said, “I just got through recording not long ago, and it’s probably gonna be a year before I record again, but if those boys will put that song under a rock, I swear I’ll cut it whenever I go back in studio.” You know how many times that happens and then the song don’t get cut? Several months later, Waylon cut that song. I think it was the first song he cut with Jimmy Bowen, and it was a single. It was his last No. 1 song.

We were getting phone calls from DJs all over the country wanting to know if the woman was dead, and we said, “I don’t know, we just wrote the song.” We told them, “We don’t know what happened to her. There’s a chance she’s buried out there, but maybe not. We don’t know if the guy hired a good-lookin’ gardener to put her to the test or not.” We had people talk to us about doing a screenplay, but that never happened. They didn’t do a video because they said they didn’t want to give anything away.

But the coolest thing that happened: Chet Atkins did a Cinemax special, and he had Waylon on there. So I have a tape of Waylon doing “Rose in Paradise” on this special with Chet, and Mark Knopfler playing guitar, Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers singing backup, Michael McDonald playing piano and Terry McMillan playing harmonica. [Editor’s Note: This performance is embedded above.]

That song was a hit [many] years ago, and I’ll bet a week doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t bring it up to me … I had a couple young writers come up to me and say, “When I heard that song, I knew I had to move to Nashville,” and I told them, “I’m gonna pray for you, ’cause I don’t want to be a part of you coming up here and starving!”

This story was originally written by Vernell Hackett, and revised by Angela Stefano.

NEXT: Is Traditional Country Music Dead?

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