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The Nashville Scene

(Issue Date: July 8th, 1999)

Heading East

Spirited L.A. singer looks to settle in Nashville

Rosie Flores

July 8 at Dancin' in the District

By Michael McCall

When Rosie Flores arrives in Nashville this Thursday, she'll do more than prepare for an evening performance at Riverfront Park as part of Dancin' in the District. She'll also begin looking around for a place to live. After more than two decades in Los Angeles--where she's long been one of the most popular members of the city's club scene--Flores has decided to move to Nashville. That decision says a lot about changes taking place in the two American music capitals; but as Flores is quick to point out, it also says something about her as well.

"Whenever I'm there," she says of Nashville, "it's never long enough. It's always a sad experience when I leave. It always feels wrong. A lot of people I love live there, and I'm always saying, `I'll be back soon, I promise!' When I leave L.A., it's not like that. So I'm moving to Nashville for the simple reason that I'll be able to get to see my friends and work with people I like and respect. I figured it was time for me to stay there, at least for a while, and see what happens."

It wasn't an easy decision. Flores loves Los Angeles, and she has always been embraced by the city's music scene and by its seen-it-all entertainment press. "I'm a big fan of the weather and the film community and the whole creative scene there--especially how the rock and country worlds mix and crisscross a lot," she says. "But I've done everything I can do in Los Angeles. The pace in Nashville just fits me better, maybe because I'm older."

Flores began considering the move five years ago, when she saw Greg Garing and BR5-49 performing the kind of country music she loves on Lower Broadway. The crowd that gathered in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and Robert's Western Wear suggested to Flores that Nashville had changed significantly since the mid-'80s, when she first spent extensive time here--an experience that didn't quite work out so well.

Indeed, one of the reasons Flores is considered a leading light of the '90s alternative-country crowd is because Music Row failed to embrace her when it had the opportunity. The Mexican American singer recorded a fine major-label debut in 1987 for Reprise Records, but country radio didn't play it, and Flores quickly parted ways with the record company and with Music Row.

Looking back, it's easy to see why Flores believed she had a chance to make it as a mainstream country hitmaker. At the time, several like-minded acts--Dwight Yoakam, Patty Loveless, the O'Kanes, Foster & Lloyd, Sweethearts of the Rodeo--were enjoying success on radio and on the sales charts. Moreover, the so-called neo-traditionalist movement was the dominant trend of the mid- to late '80s, and Flores was (and still is) particularly gifted at putting an energetic spin on traditional country sounds.

As it turned out, though, her music, her look, and her personality had a bit too much of a rock flair for Nashville in the '80s. Country radio preferred its traditional music smoothed over with a pop gloss and presented with a mild-mannered, Middle American flavor--hence the successes of Randy Travis, the Judds, Ricky Skaggs, and Ricky Van Shelton. When Flores gave the same musical form a sexier edge and a bit of rock 'n' roll vitality, Music Row just didn't know what to do with it.

That's too bad, because Nashville missed a chance to broaden its audience to include a hipper sound--one personified by Flores, Steve Earle, Kevin Welch, k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, and others. There shouldn't have been any reason why Flores couldn't have flourished alongside George Strait and Reba McEntire, but it wasn't to be.

That setback didn't stop her from continuing to record and to tour. Before she'd ever come to Nashville, she'd enjoyed a long musical career, first as leader of the L.A.-based roots-rock band Rosie & the Screamers in the late '70s, then as guitarist, singer, and primary songwriter for the outrageous, punk-influenced, all-female band the Screamin' Sirens in the early '80s. After her one Nashville album, she kept going, recording for such alt-country mainstays as Hightone and Rounder Records.

Through it all, Flores' grasp of traditional American music was obvious. A talented and tasteful guitarist, as well as a singer who can wring loads of personality from her breathy and urgent soprano, Flores has always tapped into a wide variety of roots-music styles. Rockabilly, Western swing, honky-tonk shuffles, blues, zydeco, acoustic folk, Tex-Mex waltzes, and conjunto all figure into her music.

Her recent album, the recommended Dance Hall Dreams, finds her working with collaborators from Nashville, Austin, and Los Angeles to create a collection that's both deeply personal and highly entertaining. Joining forces with co-producer Ray Kennedy (who has played a similar role on recent works by Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams), Flores continues to explore her love of rockabilly, covering Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love." She also pens a jumping tribute to Sun Records ("It Came From Memphis"), an ode to barroom music halls ("This Ol' Honky-Tonk"), and an exceptional Texas shuffle ("Bring It On"), which she co-wrote with Radney Foster, who adds harmony vocals.

But Flores can be counted on to come up with compelling takes on what she calls "hillbilly bop." What makes Dance Hall Dreams different is how personal several of the songs are. There's one about the death of her father, "Who's Gonna Fix It Now," in which she both honors him for his role in her life and begins to look at the responsibility that she has come to assume for herself. Just as memorable are "We'll Survive," about conquering obstacles and continuing on, and "From Where I Stand," about self-identity and the positive aspects of maturity.

"I wanted this album to be a look inside my soul," Flores says. "The last one [Rockabilly Filly] was about me paying tribute to the past. I wanted this one to be more about who I am now. I wanted to make sure it had a lot of heart and soul in it too. For me, making records is always a process about being true to oneself."

That heart and soul, along with her distinctively reedy voice, is what gives Flores' albums such a strong identity. It's also what's missing from many mainstream Music Row recordings these days.

"One of the reasons I fell in love with country music in the first place was how recognizable all the artists were," she says. "Back then, they all had a distinctive sound, and they had such big personalities that went along with their music. You heard the real timbre of their voices--it wasn't all loaded down with reverb and effects and the stuff that music is put through today. There was a real honesty to it back then."

That word--honesty--is an important one to Flores. "I've had the same basic sound since my first record came out," she says. "I've never had to change what I felt was the best I could be or compromise what I thought was the best that I could sound. And I'm proud of that. I've always felt that it was good to be alive and to be making music. I've always had that."

Got any leads on homes or apartments for rent? If so, call Rosie Flores' voice mail at (213) 243-8903.

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