Rosie Flores, known these days affectionately by many as the Rockabilly Filly, has had several careers: Punk rocker, cowpunk alt-country badass, potential country star, rock and roller, and rockabilly queen. Born in San Antonio, she spent her teen years in San Diego before striking out to find a career as a performer, writer, and guitar player.
Over the last four decades, the Bloodshot recording artist has released 14 albums and is set to release her fifteenth, Working Girl's Guitar, in the next few months. As a producer, she has just finished an album on legendary early rock and roll singer Janis Martin, known as "The Female Elvis."
Flores' trio will be rocking the Continental Club Friday night. Rocks Off caught up with her at her home in Austin.
Rocks Off: You began playing in your early teens. What was playing the guitar about for you at that age?
RF: I got in it for mental health. I was shy. I started a band so I could be more well adjusted and social. I started standing up a little straighter, grew a bit of confidence, lost my baby fat. Now it's medicinal. I get high with this inner feeling that makes me feel good. I think that's what happens if you do something you love.
RO: Caught your show in Austin a few weeks back. You seem very energetic and you're still going at it like you love it.
RF: I've been into health foods since college, I'm very conscious of my diet, vitamins, just taking good care of myself. I never got addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Call me uncool, but I feel good. And I like the journey that I'm on. It always helps to like what you're doing. I certainly never made it to big star status, but my message is to empower, and I think that also makes me feel good about performing and about myself.
RO: Career-wise, you were in Los Angeles for years rocking out and doing your country thing, then you went to Nashville. What happened?
RF: I met and got to play with a lot of cool people in L.A., people from all kinds of music, country, rockabilly, rock, folk. I was pretty popular in L.A. and I was dating Dwight [Yoakam] for a while. The woman at Warner's who signed Dwight sort of had stars in her eyes and signed me to a country deal.
But then it just seemed like that scene was dying. I'd met Lucinda and she kept telling me to move to Nashville, that it was a cool town for musicians and for being in the business. We had the Blasters, Dwight Yoakam, X, but that L.A. scene just seemed to be playing out, so I went to Nashville and did like it. So I moved there.
RO: What happened with your country career?
RF: Well, when they got me in the studio, they started laying down all these rules: you shouldn't do rockabilly, you shouldn't play much guitar, you don't have to do your own songs. In a nutshell, they wanted me to be Reba and I wanted to be Kitty Wells.
But I got to make some records, and I got a little airplay. I moved to Nashville. I played the Grand Ole Opry, I did what I thought you were supposed to do. But to be a female trying to do legitimate country music, you had to know how to fight and I didn't know how to fight.
But I had a real good shot at being a country star. They even had me working with Rick Zito from Fleetwood Mac. I had Billy Bremner on one of my records. And I'd be shopping in Nashville and people would ask for autographs.
But the bottom line to me was that the radio guy at Warner's didn't like what I was doing, so he never pushed me that hard. And airplay is what it's all about at that level of country.
When it didn't work like I wanted it to, I went through a bit of depression because I felt jilted. I didn't know if it was because I was Hispanic or because I didn't have a high-enough-powered manager, what was it? I just came to feel that I could never get over the hump of getting air play. I spent seven years in Nashville, but it just never happened and I eventually moved to Austin and got back to rock and roll.
RO: But you're frequently name checked when people talk about the alternative-country movement.
RF: That's really who I am in a way, because I like rock and roll and country and punk and rockabilly. They took the punk and rock and roll parts out of me when I was in Nashville to some extent. But once I wasn't with Warner's anymore, I went back to rocking and to playing real hard country, mixing it all up.
RO: We've just heard the Janis Martin record you produced and it's a winner. Tell us about the project.
RF: I've always been a bit obsessed by the early women who came into rock and roll. It's such a man's world, even today. I went and found Janis living in Washington state twenty-some years ago and got her to sing on one of my records, Rockabilly Filly. That was at the same time I approached Wanda Jackson, who had been retired for 20 years. I guess you could say I coaxed both of them out of retirement to sing on that album.
About 2004 Janis retired -- she'd been the manager at this golf club all her adult life -- and I told her I wanted to do a record on her. So I did a lot of scrounging for the right songs and did some garage-quality demos of the songs for the band we brought in, just did a lot of the pre-production so when we finally got in the studio we could really go. We cut all 11 tracks in just two days.
RO: What attracted you to Martin?
RS: Her story, mostly. Her first RCA single sold 750,000 copies and she was only like 15 years old. Elvis was sending her flowers. Colonel Tom Parker wanted to manage her, but her parents were afraid he'd work her too hard.
This was right about the time Elvis collapsed from exhaustion in New York. Then when she got pregnant, they just dropped her and it was over. She wasn't just a great talent, she had a great story.
RO: You didn't play guitar on this one?
RF: I love playing guitar, but I wanted to be a full-time, hands-on producer on this one and have someone else do the playing. My job was to make her feel comfortable and to get the best take we could. I actually like producing records; I've either produced or co-produced almost all of my records.
But again, that's mostly a man's world. Very few women get the opportunity.
RO: Ms. Martin died not long after the record was finished. Did you know she wasn't well?
RF: The last few years of her life she was complaining about being lethargic, not having her usual vitality. And when she finally showed up in Blanco for the sessions, she said she was feeling flu-ish.
I'd done a bunch of home cooking ahead of time to take there, and we put her in this very idyllic cabin and that seemed to make her feel a bit better. She sounded great during the sessions and doing the record definitely made her happy.
But she showed me these lumps on her back and I told her she had to go get those checked out. When she finally did, they told her she was terminal. It was stage-four cancer. She only lived about four more months after we finished the record.
RO: So did she hear the final product?
RF: I would send her the latest mixes and she was just thrilled with them. She used to send me these little thank-you gifts. I really cherish those.
RO: She sounds great on the record.
RF: She had such an amazing voice and a presence when she sang. I think the recording brings that out.
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RO: What about your next album?
RF: It's finished and will be out pretty soon. It's called Working Girl's Guitar.
RO: That's a great title.
RF: It's a funny story. I sold one of my guitars to Ritchie Mintz. When he first came to look at it, he said, "That's a working girl's guitar." It had been beat up pretty good over all the years I played it. Anyway, the next day he called me and said he'd written this song called "Working Girl's Guitar" and did I want to hear it. And I just loved it. He actually said he didn't write it, the guitar did. But the song just so fit who I am, I had to do it.