Rosie Flores searched the world to find Texas again
Rosie Flores sits facing the audience at Patsy's Cowgirl Cafe in South Austin, plump, red roses adorning her jet-black hair like a crown, rhinestone boots tapping to the beat. Her version of Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces" fills the air.
Because of severe tendonitis in her left hand, it's been six months since Flores played guitar, but on this balmy, mosquito-swarmed Texas summer night, she's glowing as couples twirl in front of her and her twopiece band. It's also Friday the 13th, and on this notoriously superstitious night, it's only fitting that Flores has returned to the stage, and to Austin. Her life -- and her career -- has been one of luck, some of it tough.
Flores is a storyteller and her past a country song: an endless round of gigs, late nights in rough bars, heartbreak, and miles of road in between. It's not hard to envision her tapping those cowboy boots onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, alongside Johnny, Dolly, or Loretta. At the point in her career that Flores found herself in Nashville, signed to Warner Bros., she lived out that country dream, touted as the "female Dwight Yoakam." Since the label couldn't figure out how to market her, however, she was subsequently dropped.
That changed little in Flores, who's remained an eclectic, punk- and rockabilly-loving country fan who happens to be Mexican-American. Her voice is both elegant and rough, high and lonesome, predestined to waft out of honky-tonks around the world. Always one to go with the flow in order to survive, she's never forgotten her musical foundation. Or the state she always finds herself returning to.
Gilded Palace of Sin
Flores was born in San Antonio, 1950. When she was 7, her father began recording her singing, the youngster drawn to vocalists like Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, and, of course, Elvis. Five years later, her family moved to San Diego, and Flores picked up on the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Since her older brother was a musician and a blues-lover, she looked to him to teach her guitar.
"I would knock on his door and say, 'Can you teach me three more chords?'" she remembers as we sit in the living room of her South Austin home. She runs a hand, nails painted turquoise, through her hair and smiles.
At 16, she fronted her first band, an all-girl psych group called Penelope's Children. Then she tried putting together a rockabilly band in the late Seventies, although, she notes, the guys she recruited still had beards and mustaches and were "San Diego surfers." The band became Rosie & the Screamers, in which Terry Danko, brother of the Band's Rick Danko, played bass. A song she wrote at the time, "Here's to the Barroom," would prove prescient:
"Here's to the barroom
And here's to your dreams
You can bury all your woes
In the honky-tonk scene"
By the early Eighties, Flores was playing the Thursday night talent show at North Hollywood's famed Palomino Club.
"If you were trying to make it, you could get onstage there," she says. "After about four years, I started winning. Then I won, like, eight times in a row, and it was like, 'OK, I think I know how to do this now.'"
The Palomino is also where Flores got tagged "The Rockabilly Filly."
California proved fruitful for Flores. In 1983, still playing with the Screamers, she joined the all-girl, cow-punk, thrash-a-billy group the Screamin' Sirens on lead guitar, along with rock critic Pleasant Gehman. "I had found my people," she grins. Looking through Flores' scrapbooks of show fliers and photos, it's easy to see why. The Sirens were all camp, indulging in over-the-top outfits and equally amusing hairdos, quick-drawing songs about rock & roll topics A, B, and C, much of the subject matter autobiographical.
"I answered an ad in the L.A. Weekly, brought this pink six-stringed bass, and they hired me," she shrugs. "I couldn't play it very well, so I think they hired me on the look of the bass."
Flores pages through her scrapbooks, flipping past her playing with a very young Will Sexton, a September 1985 Spin magazine that boasts an interview with the Sirens, and pictures of the gals playing the infamous Club Lingerie in L.A. ("Boy, if those walls could talk"). Notorious for their wild, panty-flashing live shows, they had a fairly predictable fan base, composed of mainly "older men or really young men."
"When we would play, there would be three rows of men," she chuckles. "The best part was being part of this really amazing scene that was starting in L.A."
Los Lobos, Rank and File, Lone Justice, Jane's Addiction. Flores says that when their record deal came a-callin', the band was conflicted about whether they were just a joke band or not.
"I tried to get them to be better players," she says. "They'd say, 'People already like us,' and I said, 'Yeah, we're good, but we could be really good.'"
The Sirens lasted two albums and roughly as many years. In 1986, she signed to Warner Bros.
"They called me a singles deal," she explains. "That's kind of how they did it in those days. If the single gets lots of radio play, then they go, 'Oh, let's do an album!'"
She cut an album with Dwight Yoakam's longtime producer, Pete Anderson, part of the deal being that she tone down her look.
"The ripped fishnets, the fuchsia hair ... I did need a little toning down. I came in there, and they were like, 'How about one belt instead of three?' I tried to be more of a glamorous biker cowgirl chick, and that's when Manuel came in."
That's Manuel Cuevas, who worked alongside Nudie Cohn. We look through her Cuevas originals, fringed, sequined, and heavily bejeweled C&W suits that could probably knock someone unconscious if wielded properly. Like most ladies, she has a story for every outfit.
"I got to wear the pants Gram Parsons wore on the cover of [the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin]. I could say I finally got into Gram Parsons' pants."
Robert Christgau wrote this review of Rosie Flores' self-titled debut:
"Her slightly husky voice one-third promise and two-thirds self respect, she doesn't even know how to put on airs about not putting on airs. All she does is deliver 10 songs that are worth her while, which from Reba McEntire or George Jones these days would qualify as a miracle."
The 1987 debut yielded the single "Crying Over You," making her the first Latina to have a hit on the country charts and earning her a nomination for Best New Female Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. LP standouts like "God May Forgive You (But I Won't)" and "Midnight to Moonlight" lassoed her country roots, but album sales weren't what the label expected, and a second single fizzled. Two years later, she was dropped.
"I didn't sound enough like Reba McEntire, which is never what I'll sound like," she relates. "I did Carl Perkins and Wanda Jackson songs because I wanted to show I had respect for the genre. k.d. lang came along, and they decided to go with her.
"I was never really good at playing the game in Nashville. I think it's a man's world there. When I finally got my shot, I wanted it to be right. When they got in there and tried to make me someone I wasn't, I never felt right about it. It's like painting a picture, and someone says, 'Can I hold the brush while you're painting?'
"But I don't have any regrets. They put me on the map in a lot of ways. You just move on."
So she moved: to Austin in 1988, then back to L.A., where her HighTone Records career started. 1992 brought After the Farm, and 1995 produced Rockabilly Filly, which is considered one of her best and features two of her idols, Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson, the latter of whom she brought out of retirement that year. More touring. A stint with a shady booking agent and the disappearing money act. More touring. She made a Christmas record. She moved back to Austin. She played around town and put together a local all-girl group with Cindy Cashdollar, Sarah Brown, Marcia Ball, and Lisa Pankratz called HenHouse. Her mother passed away. She started taking pain pills and sleeping pills to cope with the grief. More touring followed.
"I would wake up every day and just think, 'I feel like shit.' Everything hurt. My eyelashes hurt. I had fallen in love with this guy in Nashville, and it was not working for me. ... I'd have to do a shot of tequila before a show just to get through a gig. I was just going, going, going. I had no energy except for getting laundry done and getting back in the van."
When the van broke down in Montgomery, Ala., 2005, she and her band found themselves at Hank's and Audrey Williams' graves. Flores remembers what she thought.
"Someone's trying to tell me something."
Moving back to Austin last year, for the third time, was an act of replenishment for Flores, physically and mentally.
"When I was living in Nashville, it was so easy to just get in the van and tour and tour. I felt like I could cleanse if I could just stop."
So she stopped. And as she did with Wanda Jackson, she's now giving another one of her idols a chance at a comeback. Flores recently produced Janis Martin's new album, recorded in Blanco with Cornell Hurd and Beau Sample, among others, and the singer's story is a familiar one for Flores. When Martin was sweet 16, she was dubbed the "female Elvis Presley" by RCA and was headed for stardom. A year later, she became pregnant, and the label promptly dropped her.
"She was such an incredible talent," Flores remarks. "Even Colonel [Tom Parker, Elvis' manager] wanted her. She was every bit as good as Brenda Lee. They were trying to sell her as this bouncy Goody Two-shoes."
When she was 35, Flores learned she was pregnant. Having just parted ways with the Sirens and on the verge of a solo career, a first-time manager told her this was not wise. Years later, Flores happened to pass the clinic in California where she had gone, and she thought about the son or daughter who might have been sitting in the passenger's seat. Tears overtook her for hours, until she had to play a show later that night. She stands in her kitchen; gig posters, guitars, and memorabilia surrounding her; unmarried and with no children; and she does not seem bitter. More like wistful.
"I know I would have been a great mom," she says. "At the same time, it's like, 'Why did I let this person tell me what I should do?' Well, I think she believed she was doing the best thing. ... I wonder if that was the plan for me."
Whatever the plan, Flores' career has been a slow dance, one of being close to fame for nearly 30 years but never quite attaining the wham-bam success that puts you on the cover of Rolling Stone for 15 minutes. Instead, she's played music that feels right, on her own terms, and during the conversation, the word "edgy" keeps coming up.
"I'm either too edgy or not edgy enough," she laughs, her eyes twinkling. "I don't know that I've ever been too edgy for rock & roll, but I've been too edgy for country.
"I think of myself as a work in progress. I don't know that I've written my best song or recorded my best album. I'm my own worst critic. Writing is my therapy, and a lot of my storytelling comes from a place of humor. I don't know; maybe inside my head I'm a frustrated stand-up comic.
"Still, I've felt driven from the age of 7 to stand in front of the mirror and sing. And I've kept going with the ups and downs. Sometimes I don't know why, but I keep going."
Not for nothing, either. Aug. 31 was declared Rosie Flores day in Austin last year. This summer she taught at the first Girls Rock Camp ("The Girls of Summer," June 29), mentoring a group of teenage girls that, in another lifetime or maybe even this one, could be the Screamin' Sirens. Contributing to and narrating a National Public Radio documentary on the history of rockabilly, she also recently landed a song she wrote for Wanda Jackson on the HBO series Big Love. Currently writing her memoirs, as told through bizarre truck-stop candy she's found on the road over the years, she plans to record three very distinct albums: one in Spanish, one jazz, and a straight-up rock album.
As we sit in her kitchen downing glasses of red wine, she tells me about being punched out by a transsexual drug dealer in a New York City phone booth, about a drunken driver crashing through the front window of a San Diego club she was playing with the Screamers, and about falling and shattering her wrist in London so that she now has four screws in her arm. She shares these things on the eve of heading back out on the road, at age 57, to play more shows.
She's a survivor, and luck mostly has been on her side. And like all country songs that go walking after midnight down the path of heartache and broken dreams, there's another chance at the end.
"There's always a chance for 10 more country songs," she laughs.
Rosie riles Patsy's Cowgirl Cafe again Friday, Aug. 17.
Rosie on dating guys in bands: "I think musicians are dreamy. I won't date guys in my own band -- historically, it's been a major disaster on both ends."
On Nashville: "A town with a soulful history of songwriters, recording studios, and record labels. I believe that George Jones is the last of the great country singers in that city, and I wonder along with him when he sings, 'Who's gonna fill their shoes?'"
On being a woman in a man's world: "Businesswise, at times, I've found it difficult to communicate with the men in the suits without being judged for simply being a woman who knows what she wants and needs to get it. As a musician and artist, I've always been made to feel like one of the boys."
On Austin: "Home is where the heart is; we're a perfect match."
On Rosie: "Perez or O'Donnell? Rosie Flores ... oh, well, she's a different kind of animal. That chick rocks, but man is she goofy. But, seriously folks, I've been blessed and have lead a charmed life while enduring the everlasting struggle for success. Bring it on!"
Single Rose (Durango Rose, 2003)
Speed of Sound (Eminent Records, 2001)
Dance Hall Dreams (Rounder Records, 1999)
Rosie Flores & Ray Campi A Little Bit of Heartache (Watermelon Records, 1997)
Honky Tonk Reprise (Rounder Records, 1997)
Rockabilly Filly (HighTone, 1995)
Once More With Feeling (HighTone, 1993)
After the Farm (HighTone, 1992)
Rosie Flores (Warner Bros., 1987)