Cast musician Rosie Flores in a Western and she'd definitely be an outlaw. While she doesn't sport a black hat or garb (colorful cowboy boots that match her guitar are more her style), the gifted guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist often finds herself at odds with the law laid down by the country-music establishment. San Antonio-born and San Diego-raised Flores seems perpetually on the run, switching record labels, jumping genres, and playing music fit for a bandit. Her brand of Americana spans rockabilly, Western swing, bluegrass, honky-tonk, jazz, and folk, corralling as many critical nods as a guitarslinger could hope for in a career. But hit records still elude her.
Known in the late Seventies on the live Los Angeles scene as part of cow-punk outfit Rosie and the Screamers and then of the power-pop-inspired Screamin' Sirens, Flores signed solo with Warner Bros./Reprise in 1986. Pete Anderson, famed for his work with Dwight Yoakam, produced her self-titled debut. The critically acclaimed album yielded the single "Crying Over You," making Mexican-American Flores the first Hispanic woman to have a song hit the country charts. But album sales were disappointing.
"I was trying to keep my early hillbilly sound. It didn't have as much commercial appeal," Flores recalls on the phone from her home in Nashville, where she moved in 1999. "The woman who was getting singer of the year at the time was Reba McEntire. I was trying to be the new Loretta Lynn." Of course, industry bigwigs tried to change her. They suggested she record fewer of her own songs and more material from the Nashville publishing houses, asked her not to cut any rockabilly tunes, and made bonehead selections of singles. Flores was dropped from the roster in 1988. "I've always had difficult times trying to get people to agree with me creatively," she notes candidly of her major-label experience.
Flores scaled back, releasing After the Farm (1992) and Once More with Feeling (1993) with the well-respected independent HighTone. A high point was the 1995 Rockabilly Filly, featuring guest turns by guitar legend Wanda Jackson (who played her first gig on the same bill as Elvis in the Fifties) and more-obscure rockabilly vocalist Janis Martin. Filly, which moved a modest 10,000 to 15,000 units, has been her biggest seller. After a tour with country superstars Asleep at the Wheel seemed to broaden Flores's commercial appeal, Rounder gave her debut a second shot in 1996, re-releasing it with six bonus tracks and the title A Honky Tonk Reprise. That label's interest ended three years later, after it put out her much-lauded live set, Dance Hall Dreams. Flores admits, "Nothing's been huge for me. I've never hit the 200,000 mark."
For Flores the numbers have never caught up to the praise. Case in point: Her 2001 Speed of Sound is her most diverse and distinctive outing yet. Coproduced by Flores and guitarist Rick Vito, the album boasts sizzling rockabilly rug-cutters, torchy ballads, and pure country tunes penned by Marshall Crenshaw, Buck Owens, Robbie Fulks, Johnny Cash, Vito, and Flores. Yet despite critical kudos, this stellar release may be Flores's first and last with Nashville-based Eminent, a label currently facing financial trouble. Given her commercial track record, she says she plans to record and release her next project, an acoustic album, on her own.
After decades of slogging away in the studio and onstage without gaining the recognition she so richly deserves, what keeps Flores going? "The live shows," she answers easily, reflecting on the 118 days she spent on the road last year. "I've got a really great band. It's still so much fun to do it. I haven't really burned out on getting into a van and heading down the road with a bunch of guys and laughing."
Passing through Florida this Saturday, Flores will make her first-ever stop in Miami to play at Churchill's. She pledges good-time dance music will be on the bill: "I know the Mavericks did real well down there. If they like them, they'll like my show." The Miami-cultivated Mavericks, who hightailed it to Nashville in the early Nineties, racked up a slew of pop-tinged country hits before packing it in.
Flores plans to hang on. "There's been a couple of times when I've said, I'm quitting. This is too hard. I don't want to struggle anymore. I want a steady job, even if it means I have to cook in a restaurant or something,'" she reveals. "But I can't seem to get away from it. I gain so much pleasure from the performing and the people I get to hang out with that it's just something I can't leave. If I have to spend the rest of my life just getting by financially, I'm afraid I'd have to just do it. I'm still out there dreaming and fantasizing about where I'm going to go with all of this. So as long as it's fun, as long as I'm healthy, I don't see any reason to stop. It's just an enjoyable ride."
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