When it comes to melancholic meditations on marriage, few songs are as cutting and incisive as Elvis Costello’s achingly beautiful ‘A Good Year For The Roses’. Featuring the English singer’s signature wit and barbed phrasing, lines like, “A 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” read like all time-classic Costello.
It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that those words weren’t actually penned by Costello. Instead, they were written by American country songwriter Jerry Chesnut, whose songs found a home with country legends like Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Waylon Jennings. Some of his songs even crossed over to country-adjacent acts, like Elvis Presley’s take on ‘T-R-O-U-B-L-E’ and Tom Jones’ take on ‘It’s Four in the Morning’.
But when it came to ‘A Good Year for the Roses’, the original recording was almost exclusively for a country audience, thanks to its rendition by The Possum himself, George Jones. Jones’ initial take is much like his most endearing hit, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’: slow, wistful, and filled with heartache. Although not much of a pop success, the song became well acquainted with American country artists and those who followed country music around the world.
English punk rock might have seemed like the furthest possible scene from American country music, but someone as focused on emotional structure and lyrical meaning as Elvis Costello was sure to pick up on just how potent the storytelling songs of classic country music could be. When it came time for Costello to record his fifth album, Almost Blue, he decided that he was done with his early sound and sought to purposefully expand his audience’s tastes. On the original pressing of the album, there was even a sticker that read “WARNING: This album contains country & western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners”.
Unfortunately, most of the songs didn’t quite translate as well as Costello might have hoped — but ‘A Good Year for the Roses’ sure did. With its lush backing harmonies contrasting Costello’s expert deadpan as he recounts the final moments of a relationship on the verge of collapse, ‘A Good Year for the Roses’ was a wonderfully languid change of pace that pulled off for Costello. The song landed at number six on the UK Singles Chart and led to many listeners associating the song with him instead of Jones.
It’s a shame that Jones and Costello never got to duet on the song during Jones’ lifetime, especially since Jones recorded a duet with another singer, fellow American country star Alan Jackson, in a clear try at chart success rather than artistic achievement. “Alan was white-hot on the radio, and programmers wanted his voice,” Jones explained in his autobiography. “But some didn’t want his if they had to take mine. The vast majority of Alan’s other single records have gone to number one. His duet with me was his first not to crack the top 50”.