On Rose Gardens: I Never Promised One

I talk about it often but one of my favorite memories is planting a rose bush along side our house with my grandmother. It’s one of those memories that I could describe as one of my most vivid experiences with her. And maybe in some ways the constant reflecting on it has created a more purposeful lesson from it. 

The story goes, that we purchased a rose bush for my mother that we intended to plant one afternoon.  The guy working at the store told us that this one was near death, and as a result we got a certain discount on it.  The rose bush took off into full bloom, and it continued to spread and grow for the remainder of the time I lived at home. 

After my grandmothers death I think we would all look to these different symbols as an expression of her. A  hummingbird floating, a frog crossing along the back yard, a rose bush in bloom. 

I recall in another vivid moment my mother belting out Lynn Anderson’s Rose Garden through our kitchen. My mom wasn’t (and still isn’t) much of a singer. But for some reason I can remember vividly her in several instances singing this song. I recall it playing in the car on one of our many trips to our bay-house. And now I’m listening to it on repeat at my work in Austin. 

There’s something radical about the women in my family. Most of the women I grew up around had no interest in accepting pre conceived roles of what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. Instead they challenged each one of these roles at different parts in their life. And they came out for the most part ahead. 

I can see my grandmother now out of breath at the bottom of our stairwell banging on the banister, her voice hoarse from screaming and chemo. I can recall her waking us up on Christmas so we could go ahead and get it on with, or full course breakfast followed by the inevitable “such as it is” that would come as she finished breakfast. 

Joe South wrote the song. But maybe thats all that can be said about his relation to it. There might be some country purist who can claim some bigger historical connection between him and the song. But it would be near impossible to argue that Lynn Anderson’s version isn’t the real one. 

At it’s core its a radical assertion. In the early 70’s a woman records a cover of a song that says “I could promise you things like a big diamond rings” While women are being embraced across the country, shattering glass ceilings left and right, and dramatically shaping the economic and cultural landscape of our country. Here is a country artist recording an instant hit.

“Lets do it" she starts up the song at Billy Bob’s Texas in 2002. The second her voice belts over the drum back beat the crowd roars with love. She seems in this moment completely aware that this is the song, the song that the women surely dressed in jeans and cowboy hats. Turquoise jewelry and boots had been, like my mother, belting out in their houses. 

Anderson apparently says that the song came out at the right time, that people were looking to recover from the Vietnam years. That to her the song was about taking hold of your life you can make something out of nothing. I wonder how true this is. 

Certainly for my mom this was true, as she sat in the kitchen belting out this tune her mother had just passed. Her life wasn’t exactly nothing, but the death seemed raw and life changing. I remember her on some days sitting around the kitchen cooking and in a moment of quiet she would look out the window and say “I really miss my mom” 

I wonder then what impact the 2002 live record had on people. A year before the country had seen one of the worst attacks on US soil. The country was coming to terms with a new war that unknown to them would extend for another 13-14 years. I wonder if this was on the minds of the screaming fans, letting lose and dancing.

We talk a lot in this country about middle America. Or about the south. We talk about coal mines, and farming, we talk about the poor white suburbs effected by opioids. We talk about conservative values, pro-lifers and church going christians. We don’t talk a lot about my mom and dad, we don’t talk a lot about their music. 

Lynn Anderson and Shania Twain were from Canada. She claimed to be born in North Dakota but in reality was born just north of the border. The Dixie Chicks were forced out through an unruly mob angry at their attack on the president. 

The country music we know today is a mixture of generations of diversity. Pop sounds, rock sounds, blues sounds, folk sounds, indie sounds. Anyone who argues for the ideological purity of the sound is almost always met with a historic example of the very sound they are against. Miley Cyrus can put out an entire pop album then jump right back in to beautiful covers of Dolly Parton.

It would stand to argue that the cultures that love these music are far more diverse than they are expected to be. That the collection of “Middle America” isn’t simply a pure formula, it isn’t just George Strait but also John Denver and Dolly Parton.  Rose Garden is a radical feminist party anthem. It’s a radical example of “covering” where the woman has completely changed the entire principle of the song.

I think a lot about the women of my family, I try to structure my life and center around it. 

I made my mom cry on mothers day, a selfish act of arrogance and hot headiness, the inability to leave well enough alone. The brash angry demanding characteristics of a male center that seems increasingly part of my being.

 I write so much about my mother because I see her in myself. It’s odd the older you get the more characteristics of your parents you take on. I find myself now pacing around the apartment straightening objects and cleaning surfaces. I find myself loud and boisterous around company, reserved and introspective when I’m alone. I find myself never thinking I’m good enough.

When we write about Texas culture, or southern culture, we focus heavily on the male. The rugged masculinity of a perceived wilderness. We don’t write about my mother, who worked her way up in the bank and provided for her family of three. Who with help from a devoted and caring partner who viewed her as every much an equal put three boys through college and built a life for themselves.  We don’t write about the woman who, excited to see kids in the neighborhood for the first time, put on a halloween block party. 

We don’t write about my grandmother, divorced multiple times and walking up to her birthday party (in June 6 months earlier than her normal birth day) in all white jumpsuit glasses hanging around her neck.  

There’s something like this in Rose Garden, the shear destruction of cultural norms with a smile and laugh. There’s something like this in my grandmothers rose bush, the silent mocking of the man who would tell you it will never grow.