Rosie Flores – More than a cowboy’s sweetheart
Flores’s departure from the group dovetailed with the rise of the New Traditionalist movement, which was neither new nor traditionalist, but nevertheless helped artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett find a commercial foothold. “Dwight [Yoakam] came on the scene, and even the Stray Cats, and it was like, wow, there’s kind of a country thing going on that’s not just country-punk,” Flores remembers. “It was like, ‘Hey, I can do that.'”
At last, Flores signed a record deal with Reprise, enlisted help from Yoakam compatriot Pete Anderson, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Howie Epstein (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), and set about making her first solo album. Brisk, heartfelt and irresistible, Rosie Flores is still her finest work, and its doleful cover version of Harlan Howard’s “God May Forgive You (But I Won’t)” her finest moment.
But after an initial flurry of promotion, Reprise seemed to lose interest quickly. “I was a little too rock for country, or a little too traditional [for rock],” Flores says. “I wanted to be Kitty Wells or Loretta Lynn. That’s why that record didn’t get airplay; it had too much of a twang to it. What I remember is [hearing a story about] someone at the label who goes up to the head of promotion and says he’s excited about Rosie’s record, and the guy says, ‘Really? I don’t really get her,’ and it was only at that moment that I finally realized why I wasn’t on the radio. And at the same time I was getting all this great press.”
A week after the release of each of Flores’ singles to radio, label reps would call and tell her, The single is dead, nobody likes it, don’t bother. “It was absolutely heartbreaking to me. I wouldn’t know what to do. I would say, ‘Let’s get out there on the road,’ but we couldn’t really tour because no one knew who we were because we weren’t on the radio. It was so frustrating. Everything I asked for [it would be], ‘No, that’s not the way it works.'”
Flores moved to Austin, put together a now almost legendary band that included steel guitarist Junior Brown and bassist Terry McBride (McBride and the Ride), and began preparations for her second record. Reprise dropped her soon after, suggesting she find a label that understood her. “They told me they’d tried everything, and I’m like, ‘Well, you could try promoting me,'” says Flores. “They could have given me a second chance. It was good riddance, in some ways.”
Flores wound up on HighTone, releasing three albums — After The Farm (1992), Once More With Feeling (1993), and Rockabilly Filly (1995), — making several videos, and touring the world. “HighTone was pretty good for me,” Flores says. “They did videos, they put me out at the forefront of Western Beat, which was what we called Americana back then.”
Her three HighTone outings (the first two co-produced by Greg Leisz) were solid if unspectacular, cementing her reputation as a rockabilly and western swing queen even if they didn’t demonstrate her mastery of either form in quite the same way her debut had.
In 1996, Rounder Records (Flores’ current label) reissued her Reprise debut, retitled A Honky Tonk Reprise and containing half a dozen additional tracks. In ’97, Watermelon Records released A Little Bit Of Heartache, a collaboration between Flores and rockabilly great Ray Campi that had originally been recorded in 1990. Also in ’97, she toured as a guitarist and singer with western swing torchbearers Asleep At The Wheel.
Flores’ reputation as a duet and songwriting partner rose even as her solo career stagnated. Frustrated by her seeming inability to capture the vigor of her live performances on record, she called on Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle’s “Twangtrust” producing partner) to record Dance Hall Dreams live, in front of an audience of friends and family, over two days in January 1998 at Cibolo Creek Country Club just north of San Antonio. It was originally conceived as a traditional live record, but much of the audience noise was removed — and copious studio overdubs were added in Nashville — largely at the urging of Rounder co-owner Ken Irwin.
Debate over the issue, and the attendant need for additional recording time, pushed the record’s release back for close to a year. “In the end it worked out OK,” Kennedy said. “[Irwin’s] a nice guy, but he should’ve just stayed out of the way….Rosie’s been in the business a long time; she deserves to have a lot of creative freedom.”
Dance Hall Dreams contains tracks inspired by the death of her father (“Who’s Gonna Fix It Now”), politics (“We’ll Survive”), and her love of both Memphis blues (“It Came From Memphis”) and country (“This Ol’ Honky Tonk”). It ranks as the most personal of her records (save for an able rendition of the old Wanda Jackson hit “Funnel of Love,” there are, atypically, no covers), if only because Flores figured she had nothing left to be afraid of.
“All those fears that you have when you’re a younger woman, like the fear of the unknown, I don’t have those anymore. I mean, I’ve lost a father, I’ve been ripped off, the love of my life dropped me. All these mountains that I’ve had to sort of climb over and come out on the other end, I’ve been there, and I’ve done it.”
A particularly proficient guitarist, Flores is in the somewhat queasy position of being an elder stateswoman of the honky-tonk guitar, becoming something of an institution before she gets to actually be famous for anything. Among the new alternative-country converts trickling into her shows in the past few years, “A lot of guys are showing up to watch me play guitar these days, and that’s really cool, that a woman can be an inspiration to guys.”
Indeed, Flores has come a long way since that 16-year-old who idolized Jeff Beck and picked up a guitar “because no other chicks were doing it” at the time. “[Lately], I’ve kind of looked behind me to see where I’ve been, and I looked ahead of me to see where I’m going, and it looks okay,” Flores says. “It’s not scary to me anymore.”
Freelance writer Allison Stewart lives in Chicago, mostly, where she has a little extra time on her hands now that Michael Jordan’s retired.