Rosie Flores – More than a cowboy’s sweetheart
“I don’t want to say that I don’t feel pretty,” says Rosie Flores, in her mid-40s after more than a quarter-century in show business — though, as she will tell you, it feels a lot longer on both counts. “It’s just the fact that I’m older. I have these wrinkles, and I can’t show my belly button like [Shania Twain] can. I mean, I have a tummy, you know?”
Among female country singers of a certain age and position, Shania and her belly button tend to come up in conversation in some form or another, though Flores, who has waited her entire career to be one-tenth as lucky as Twain, and is still waiting, is nicer on the subject — or at least, more oblique — than most.
Over the years, Flores herself has been no stranger to sparkly costumes and vigorous record-label promotion, though in her case, needless to say, it produced considerably less commercial results. If you think, say, Kelly Willis, on her third label after a decade of industry runaround, has had it rough, trying being Rosie Flores, who is nearly a generation older, has bounced from the indies to the majors and back again, and isn’t even blonde.
“I do have my — what’s the word for it? I don’t want to say I complain, except to my close friends, but it does feel like the record industry has become more about how young and pretty you are than what you have to offer,” says Flores. “Why does it have to be all about how you look? And I’m talking about the guys, too. To me, Lucinda Williams is one of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever seen. Her personality is so great; why can’t that be what she’s judged for? Why do people have to look like models?”
Since her self-titled solo debut in 1987, Flores has been tagged, at one time or another, the next Loretta Lynn, the female Dwight Yoakam, the new Brenda Lee, and next year’s k.d. lang. That some are now calling her the next Lucinda is ironic, given their common roots in Los Angeles’ storied “Town South of Bakersfield” country-rock scene of the mid-late ’80s, and the fact that the music industry has little understood what to do with either of them.
Like many country singers of various subgenres, genders and age groups, Flores is hoping Williams’ success will be the rising tide that lifts all boats, hers included. “It’s totally been an inspiration to watch how successful she’s become, although I still don’t know that country music has totally accepted her,” Flores says. “Hopefully the success of Car Wheels On A Gravel Road will change things for everyone, but [if anything], it’s more important for me to get people to show up for my gigs than to get played on the radio.”
Flores’s latest, Dance Hall Dreams, is a potent mix of rockabilly, country, roadhouse rock and blues-inflected pop that has, as all Flores’ records seem to, a palpable sense of nostalgia. It’s a resolutely old-fashioned and decidedly un-hip country record that seems too honky-tonk for contemporary Nashville and too old-fashioned for much of the alternative-country crowd. Flores hopes the resurgence of traditional swing might also prompt a re-examination of her work. But in a culture driven by watered-down, Gap-ad swing, is anyone still looking for a Sweetheart of the Roadhouse?
“I think the younger kids are bringing it back,” she says. “They appreciate things like bluegrass or rockabilly or even traditional music. Between radio programmers and disc jockeys and people that are signing acts, they’re [bringing it back to] young people. Usually, young people haven’t even heard of Dolly Parton, or at least they’re not familiar with her earlier stuff, or even like the early Mickey Gilley stuff. But now, I’m definitely noticing a younger audience coming to my shows, and also an intellectual sort of college audience.”
A singer since the age of six with the two-track tapes to prove it, Flores was weaned on Elvis Presley, the Ink Spots and Brenda Lee. She first picked up the guitar at 16. “When I was 16, Jeff Beck was my idol. I thought I was really cool playing the guitar because no other chicks were doing it.”
Flores started playing out a short time later with Penelope’s Children, a psychedelic-country all-girl band. Penelope’s Children played parties, Marine base lounges, and, most memorably, a strip club called Les Girls. “They didn’t make us play topless, but we did wear hot pants and cowboy boots,” she remembers. “We thought we were big stuff because we were making 80 bucks a week.” That was enough to pay the $5,000 equipment store loan taken out by Rosie’s father.
Penelope’s Children played frequently around Southern California until Flores met a guitarist, fell in love, and left the band to form a duo. “I discovered the beauty of playing with men, and to me that opened up a whole other door,” she says. “We were like George and Tammy.”
Flores eventually joined another all-girl band, and then another, a seemingly infinite variety of Flores-fronted outfits of various lineups and descriptions; Rosie & the Sirens, Rosie & the Screamers, Rosie & the Riveters — always Rosie & something, so many even Flores doesn’t remember them all.
She does remember spending three years in the early 1980s touring as a solo acoustic opening act, opening for artists like Jerry Lee Lewis and Taj Mahal. She tried unsuccessfully to get a record deal, got lonesome without a band, and eventually quit altogether to become a cook, a time she remembers fondly, if not necessarily well.
One day Flores read an ad for a local cowpunk outfit, the Screaming Sirens!, whose dual exclamation marks were presumably meant to ensure audiences of their ferocious intent. “They needed a bass player, and I really couldn’t play bass, but I could fake it,” Flores recalls. The Sirens toured the country, became if not famous than at least novel, and released an album titled Fiesta! on Enigma Records in 1984.
The surprisingly poppy Fiesta! was derided as “transparently fake country-rock” in Trouser Press and elsewhere. Flores left the band a short time later; the Sirens — whose other best-known alumna is Pleasant Gehman — continued briefly without her, with dwindling success.