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Waylon Jennings, ‘Rose in Paradise’ — Story Behind the Lyrics

Tom Hill,

Jim McBride talked to The Boot about ‘Rose in Paradise,’ the last No. 1 song for Waylon Jennings. Kris Kristofferson sings the song as a duet with Patty Griffin on the Waylon tribute project, ‘The Music Inside, Volume 1: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings.’

Stuart 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 Stuart 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 RIP! 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 deejays 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.

That song was a hit more than 20 years ago, and I’ll bet a week doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t bring it up to me. Not too long ago 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!” Chris Young cut it. While he was recording it, Willie Nelson was in the studio, and Willie came in and sang on it. I’d never had Willie’s voice on anything of mine. And now Kristofferson cut it for the Waylon tribute project. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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