Flores rushes out of the gate – November 1995
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Flores rushes out of the gate  Print

By Joel Bernstein, November 1995

Rosie Flores has done it all. She's been rock 'n' roll, mainstream country, alternative country, and now rockabilly. She's been part of groups, and she's been solo. She's been on major labels and independents.

Through it all, she's never had a major hit record, nor is she the name most people think of when discussing alternative country.

And yet, she's put together a lengthy body of work that's solid as anyone who's better known or more critically acclaimed.

Flores' latest, "Rockabilly Filly,"(Hightone), not only has a pure retro rockabilly sound, but features the two queens of '50's rockabilly, Janis Martin (known back then as "the female Elvis") and Wanda Jackson (who dated the male Elvis). Also featured is a forgotten figure from the early' 80s rockabilly revival, who is also a descendant of rockabilly pioneers. Rocky Burnette is the son of Dorsey, nephew of Johnny, cousin of Billy (and yes, the Burnette brothers really did name their kids Rocky and Billy) and hasn't been heard from since his one hit record "Tired Of Toeing The Line." He met Flores around that time. When Flores decided to return to rockabilly - the music she played in her first group, "Rosie and The Re-boppin' Screamers," back before she made records - it seemed natural to give him a call.

Rosie is touring in support of the album with Jackson, who is almost 60 now. "She's got a lot of energy, a lot of soul," Flores said from her California home, "She's an evangelist with her husband. They do gospel shows, but also rockabilly tours in England and Germany."

Jackson and Flores met in 1986 when Rosie was one of her backup singers in Los Angeles, "We stayed in touch, wrote letters back and forth," Flores said. For the album, she travelled to Wanda's home in Oklahoma City and Janis' home in North Carolina to record their parts. (Flores had intended a non-rockabilly tour earlier this year with labelmate Heather Myles, but a broken wrist suffered last fall not only cancelled that, but threatened Flores' guitar-playing career).

The original "rockabilly revival," led by The Stray Cats in the '80's, always seemed more rocky than billy. Rosie's album, and some other recent rockabilly efforts, have a more authentically retro sound. "I thought (The Stray Cats) captured the spirit of rockabilly in a modern way," she said. "A lot of what makes it sound that way is technique and instruments - Eddie Cochran guitar, stand-up bass. Brian Setzer (of the Stray Cats) is one of my favorite guitar players. I wouldn't want my record to sound like that, but I appreciate where they were coming from."

"I didn't want it to sound like a modern rockabilly record," she said. "We tried to do it as close to the way they did it (in the '50s). We recorded live, with only a couple of overdubs All analog. Tape slapback. We spent a lot of time getting the sound right before we cut anything."

The album also contains some '50's style straight country, including Lefty Frizzell's "Stranger" and a haunting version of Butch Hancock's "Boxcars" on which Flores sought (successfully) to get a Hank Williams feel.

Like many "alternative" artists, Flores has some ambivalence about major labels versus independents. "I would like to have major distribution," she said. "It makes it easier to find the albums in stores. But my relationship with (Hightone) is really fine. I have a lot of say, a lot more creative control. I hire the photographers and people to do the artwork. I pick the band, the songs. With majors, they tend to guide you a lot more, to make you fit within their format. 'She plays lead guitar, let's make her another Bonnie Raitt.' That's not a picture of how I perceive myself. I want to be a rockabilly artist. That's a dirty word around major labels."

But Flores was on a major label and thinks that but for a trick of fate, she might have been - at least for a while - a country star.

In 1987, she released an album on Reprise. Three singles made the country charts, but the most successful, "Crying Over You" only reached 51. Flores thought the hit song on that album was Harlan Howard's "God May Forgive You (But I Won't)."

But her label would never release it as a single because Lyle Lovett had just had a hit with "God Will," a song very similar both musically and lyrically. "That was my first disappointment with Reprise because they didn't stand up for me on that," she said.

Lovett actually was going to take Howard to court until it turned out that Howard's song had been written five years earlier and never recorded because, as Flores put it, "No one had the guts." These long out-of-print Reprise recordings will finally appear on CD early next year. The package will come out on the Rounder label and will include non-LP tracks. Flores is currently writing the notes for this reissue, tentatively scheduled for February.

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