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The Nashville Scene

Rock -n- Recuperation

Rosie Flores talks about her love of rockabilly music

By Michael McCall

Three experiences made Rosie Flores decide to devote an entire album to her love for rockabilly music. All of them involved Nashville, although a sidewalk in London also assumes a major role. Two of the experiences were highly enjoyable; one was fraught with pain and fear. But all of them came together, in convoluted fashion, to give the singer a sense of personal renewal.

The story begins in the summer of 1994. Flores spent several weeks in Nashville, writing songs, visiting with friends and soaking up atmosphere. While in town, the Los Angeles resident caught the beginning of the Lower Broad revival; she became an immediate, devoted regular at Greg Garing's performances at Tootsie's and at BR-549's night-long rave-ups at Robert's Western Wear. "That whole scene down there really inspired me," she says of the honky-tonk, traditional country and rockabilly mix put forth by the two acts. "I've always loved that music, and I've always performed it. But my last two albums moved away from it a little bit. When I got to see what they were doing, and saw how people were reacting to it, it made me start thinking about how I wanted to go back to doing more of it."

After leaving town, Flores stayed in touch with Garing and with singer-guitarist Chuck Mead of BR-549. While she was in Nashville, she'd spent time with Garing listening to his 78 rpm record collection. "He was very influential on some of my song choices, whether he knows it or not," she says. Mead sent her a compilation tape of old rockabilly songs when he discovered her intent to make Rockabilly Filly, her outstanding new album on HighTone Records.

Flores' experience overseas wasn't so enjoyable, however. In the fall of 1994, while on tour in England, she rushed down an ancient cobblestone street in downtown London with a large duffel bag of laundry cradled in her arm. She was running late, and the street was slick with rain. While making a turn to dart across the street, she slipped on a curb. Her feet flew outward, and her body fell back toward the ground, the laundry pressing down on top of her. When she extended her arm back to break her fall, her palm landed at an odd angle on the curb. She could hear the bones break beneath her. "It sounded like an explosion," she says.

With hand in cast, however, she went through with her London concert, performing with Nashville-based fiddler Tammy Rogers. "It went wonderfully," she says. She flew from London to Nashville for her next concert, which didn't go so well. The pain had intensified, and she felt awkward onstage leading a band without her guitar. She visited an orthopedic specialist the next day. "He looked at it and said, `This kind of break might need surgery.' I was like, `What?! You've got to be kidding!' " She canceled a Midwest tour and went to stay with her parents in San Diego.

A California specialist gave her the bad news: Delicate bone fragments in her hand were moving back and forth. Without surgery, her hand wouldn't heal correctly; it would undoubtedly affect her guitar playing--and there was a possibility that she would no longer be able to play because of the pain. So Flores agreed to undergo surgery involving pins, screws, and an external fixator device to make sure everything stayed in place. "For eight weeks, I was Robo Rosie," she says with a laugh, before her voice grows more serious. "It was so painful. I kept telling them, `If I'm having to put up with this much pain, this is going to have to work.' But we didn't know how it was going to affect my guitar playing. The screws were right where I use my wrist the most. The only way I could get through it was to stay positive. I put every bit of mental positive framework into it I could. I thought, `This is going to heal. It's going to.' "

When the pins first came out and Flores tried to play guitar, she encountered a lot of pain. She continued her therapy, hoping for the best. Her first big test came in Nashville, where she had accepted Pam Tillis' invitation to perform on a Live at the Ryman Auditorium special for TNN. Also on the bill was '50s rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, who is one of Flores' idols. "As soon as I started to play, I knew I was going to be fine," she says. "And I was. I went through all the rehearsals and the taping without any problems. That's when I found out for sure I can do this again, that I could play guitar all night and it wouldn't hurt."

For Flores, the evening's highlight came when she backed Jackson on her classic barnburner, "Let's Have a Party." When Flores tore into a solo, Jackson scooted over to her and let out "this wild rockabilly scream," the singer recalls. "She said, `Oh, yeah! WOOOOO!' It was an incredible thing."

It was then that Flores knew two things: She could play guitar again, and she would be doing a lot of it. Her experience with Jackson that evening helped her decide it was time to make an all-out rockabilly effort. "I thought the timing would be right," she says. "I saw what was happening in Nashville, and back in L.A., there was this rockabilly scene happening again."

Rockabilly Filly returns Flores to her earliest love. The 13-track album concludes with a 30-second vocal that was recorded by her father when she was 7 years old. It features her belting out "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," a tune identified with Fats Waller that became a million-selling hit for Billy Williams in the 1950s. The young Flores sings it with unabashed openness, but it's her ending sign-off that's most revealing. As the fairly straightforward pop tune builds to a climax, she lets out an ecstatic "Oh, yeah"--just like Wanda Jackson did onstage at the Ryman, just like any rock 'n' roller would.

"My affinity for rockabilly started when I was a child," she writes in the liner notes for her new album. At age 16, she started an all-girl band, Penelope's Children. In 1978, after attending a Levi and the Rockats rockabilly revival show, she founded Rosie and the Screamers, which blended fierce rockabilly with touches of honky-tonk and hardcore country. In 1984, she joined the Screamin' Sirens, an infamous L.A. country-punk outfit, of which she was the only musically adept member. By 1986, amid the first wave of the young country movement, Flores signed with Warner/Reprise. The following year, she released her first solo album, which received loads of positive press but little radio airplay or sales promotion.

"Rockabilly has always been a part of what I do," she says. "I know it's kind of a retro thing. It puts you back in a certain time, and I had decided at one point that I didn't want to be locked into just that. I appreciate the genre, I know how to do it, but that doesn't mean I can't write folk songs or R&B songs. I want my artistry to be open.... I'll always keep it rootsy, but I want my writing to be able to go in different directions."

Once Flores made the decision to "go all-out rockabilly," as she puts it, she intended to indulge herself fully. She invited Jackson to take part, and she sought out Janis Martin, a rockabilly cult figure from the late '50s. Flores flew to North Carolina to visit Martin, who occasionally takes part in British rockabilly revival shows but hasn't recorded since 1959. "It was the first time she put headphones on in a studio," Flores says of their duets on Rockabilly Filly. They recorded two of Martin's old gems, "Blues Keep Callin' " and "Hard Times."

Flores spent three days in North Carolina with Martin. "It was a dream come true," she says, "getting to sit and talk about what it was like in the '50s with Elvis and everybody else, what it was like to be a woman in the '50s, the prejudices they had to deal with, the sexual problems they faced." She also had similar conversations with Jackson, who briefly dated Presley. "It's great to see these ladies surviving all of that. They still have a big place in their hearts for music."

Another dream of Flores' came true when Jackson agreed to join her for several shows, one of which was the memorable marathon of a performance the two put on at the Ace of Clubs Nov. 28. As bandleader and guitarist, Flores proved brilliant all evening, playing her heart out for two-and-half hours while exposing the wide range of her instrumental abilities. She opened with several high-energy songs and culminated in a blistering "You Tear Me Up" prior to bringing her idol onstage. Jackson, as Flores said, "is still a showgirl." The two tore through "Rockabilly Fever," "Stupid Cupid," "Mean, Mean Man," "Honey Bop," the country ballad "Right or Wrong," "Rockin' Little Angel" and "I Gotta Know."

Flores then slowed things down with a couple of solo songs, including a memorable take on Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." The band returned for two more songs, and then Jackson rounded out the evening with a high-energy finish, blistering through Presley's "Hard-Headed Woman" and a growling "One Night With You," "Fujiyama Mama," "Let's Have a Party," "Rip It Up" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." At one point, she thanked Flores for bringing her in front of the young crowd. Flores replied, "Are you kidding? Wanda Jackson, singing with me? It's a dream come true." Then, before striking another rockabilly chord, Flores flashed a wide smile that said it all.

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