Capable of selling a honky-tonk weeper with unspeakable tenderness, throwing down volcanic rockabilly bombshells of devastating impact, as well as on-the-spot hard-rocking improvs you’ll hear nowhere else, Rosie Flores effectively reopened a path through American music that had been sealed off in the wake of mopey, folkie chick strummers like Joni Mitchell and goopy pop sirens like Carole King. Rosie swarmed into her sound with so much charm and velocity that she was the spearhead for a grassroots reinvention of the “girl singer,” creating a foundational context that today carries such heavy-hitters as Gretchen Wilson.
“I used to be one of the only girls doing this,” Flores recently said. “But now there’s lots and lots and lots of girls—and they come to me thinking I’m a legend!” (A peal of luminous laughter follows.)
Legend? Damn, Rosie, come to think of it, y’are. Strutting out of the crusty heart of the early-1980s Hollywood rock & roll underworld as lead guitarist for the Screamin’ Sirens—a coven of cowpunk hellions whose ribald stage antics and rabid after-hours appetites assumed near legendary proportions—Rosie had no clear-cut peers, but she always had more bang than the Bangles and more get-up-and-go than the Go-Go’s. While the Sirens—decked out in lurid wardrobe that mixed trash-punk gear and frilly rodeo cheesecake—roared a brand of supercharged honky-tonk rock, Rosie distinguished herself with a stinging, expressive guitar that spoke an elegant and audacious language which often seemed to operate at a level rather farther above the Siren’s resolutely raunchy focus.
Born in San Antonio and raised in Southern California, Rosie had been playing since she was a young teen, banging away with a psych-garage slant that prepared her well for the untrammeled excess of post-punk Tinseltown that the Sirens epitomized. By the mid-‘80s, she was ready for a serious solo trek, a move that coincided not only with the New Traditionalist breakouts of Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs, but also with her winning the prestigious Best New Vocalist award from the Academy of Country Music. The brilliant guitarist-producer Pete Anderson, who helped put Dwight Yoakam on the map, was in, and so was Harlan Howard, the Dean of country music songwriters.
“I’d been signed to Warner in ‘86 and went back to Nashville to find a few songs,” Rosie said. “Harlan wanted to help me because I was doing that traditional style and he wanted to bring that back. So he invited me over and said ‘Here’s one Reba turned down—because she didn’t have the guts to do it.’”
The song was “God May Forgive You (But I Won’t)” an almost radically harsh piece of honky-tonk psychology that became the centerpiece of her superb debut album; Rosie was on her way, in high and mighty style. The album went the familiar route: a critical success, but Warner, busy with Travis’ chart-busting success (which directly resulted in Billboard’s adoption of the new SoundScan method to track sales) didn’t go out of their way to promote Rosie, and she soon found herself a free agent on the indie circuit.
But her greatest achievement came a few years later, when she wooed Wanda Jackson, the ‘50s rockabilly empress who carried a mixed race band and dated Elvis Presley, back into the studio. Jackson, prized for classics like “Let’s Have a Party” and “Fujiyama Mama,” had turned her back on her wild youth and adhered for years to a strict gospel-only policy—until Rosie came into the picture. They recorded and toured together, and Flores’ winning Jackson back was a culturally significant breakthrough on par with Dwight Yoakam coaxing Buck Owens out of retirement. Her affiliation with Jackson won Flores an increased hepwise currency that took her around the world, and ultimately, back to Nashville.
In Music City, “Everybody in town knew I wasn’t like them, and if I took songs to a publishing company, they’d listen and say ‘Wow, what a cool style—but I don’t hear any Faith Hill songs here’” Flores said. “I don’t want to write Faith Hill songs, though. If she gets hip enough to do my stuff, that’d be great, so I write songs from my own heart, mostly just for myself.”
Nashville wasn’t for her. Last year she moved to Austin, a town that not only welcomed her, but recently, by official mayoral proclamation, celebrated an official citywide Rosie Flores Day. And Flores still carries on the campaign: she just produced a new album by Janis Martin, arguably the rockin’-est female rockabilly of them all (never heard of Janis? Probably because she turned up pregnant at 17 and RCA dropped her like a hot turd), but she is in no way limited to that throbbing retro style.
“It’s always been more exciting to reinvent myself,” she said. “My new album is definitely going to be more on the rock & roll side—when I was a teenager, my idols were Keith Richards and Jeff Beck—I had the fuzztone pedal. I never wanted to get stuck in a rut, because it’d be so boring. It’d be like painting and using just two colors—you can’t express yourself. For me, the joy of creativity is being able to reach up into the sky and use the entire spectrum.”
Rosie Flores & the Slidewinders at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com. Sat., 8 p.m. Call for cover.