Rosie Flores Keeps Rockabilly Legacy Alive

Rosie Flores and Janis Martin were born only about a decade apart, but the career paths that ultimately brought them together couldn’t have looked more different.

A teenaged Martin was heralded as “The Female Elvis” in the mid-50s but was forgotten by all but diehard rockabilly record collectors after marriage and motherhood brought an end to her young recording career. Flores would discover Martin’s music in 1979, after years of leading punk bands and before landing a record deal out of the same rocking neo-traditional country scene as Dwight Yoakam. Over the next three decades, Flores made a string of solo albums for indie labels and lived the life of a road warrior.

Just months before Martin succumbed to cancer, Flores got her into the studio to cut one last album, The Blanco Sessions. Flores has spent this year promoting both Martin’s spirited swan song and a new album of her own, Working Girl’s Guitar. With a surf rock instrumental, a tribute to her road-worn instrument and a jazzy acoustic cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” Flores’ latest is meant to spotlight her energetic playing, and the very idea that she is, and has always been, quite the capable guitarist.

CMT Edge: I read that part of what appealed to you about playing electric guitar as a teenager was that you knew of so few girls doing it. Is that true?

Flores: Yeah. At the time when I first started, I was 16. … I already loved singing. I had done like a singing group when I was 13, like a girl group, you know, three-part harmony.  … And when my brother’s band formed, they would invite me to sing with them. I would be singing to the record player in my bedroom and the guys would say, “Why don’t you come sing along with us?”

I got this really crazy idea. I thought it was really crazy because I’d never heard of an all-girl band before, in 1966. … I knew other girls that played guitar and I knew a girl that played drums. She used to play the snare at the opening where they were raising the flag in the morning. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get all these girls together and see if my brother would let us use their gear?” I asked everybody and everybody said yes.

Our name was Penelope’s Children. We were named after Odysseus’ wife in mythology. Everybody was trying to be psychedelic in those days. We had [business] cards that said, “All girls! Girls? Yeah, Girls!” I always felt like I was the leader of something new at that point.

Even now, playing electric lead guitar seems to have masculine connotations, though there have to be more women doing it than there were back then. Is that something you were thinking about when you chose Working Girl’s Guitar as the album title?

I don’t think in terms of minority. I just think in terms of this is who I am and this is what I do. It’s almost like when I was in Nashville and I was recording for Warner Bros. In a way, I was a minority. I think I was the first Hispanic woman to be on the country charts. But I didn’t think about that until later.

I really don’t have time to think about, “Oh, this might be something that would intimidate men or be masculine.” For one thing, I’m pretty feminine. I wear a dress on stage and my fishnet stockings and have my hair piled up with tons of makeup. I’m more the feminine side of it, more like a Bonnie Raitt than a Joan Jett.  … I want to be unique, but I want to be myself so that I can feel comfortable in my own skin. Sometimes I’ve thought, “Well, I wish I could be somebody else, so I could be more famous, or whatever.” [laughs] But when it comes right down to it, I’m more comfortable in my skin if I just dress like me and talk like me and play like me.

Wasn’t the title track of Working Girl’s Guitar written by a guy to whom you sold a guitar?

This was the year that I broke my arm and I didn’t have much money. I asked [my massage therapist] if he would be interested in buying one of my acoustic guitars. I’m always forever my whole life selling instruments to try to pay rent and whatnot. … I showed it to him and he said, “Boy, this guitar is no wall-hanger. This is a working girl’s guitar.” I went, “Yeah, it is a working girl’s guitar. That’s exactly what it is.” He said, “This is your tool and you’ve been all around the world with it. It’s been in trunks of cars and planes, right?” I went, “Yep.” And he goes, “I want to buy it because it’s got your soul in it.” … The next day he called me up and he said, “Your guitar wrote you a song.”

… We were tossing around a couple titles for the album. One of ‘em was gonna be Whole Lotta Rosie because that was the first time I was playing all the guitars [on an album]. But then I thought, “You know, Working Girl’s Guitar is really a great title, because it’s all about this guitar playing every song on this record.” So that’s why on the cover you see the guitar is the star. I’m trying to make a point, because a lot of people out there, even my fans that come to see the shows, they come because they like my songs and they like my voice or whatever. They always come up to me and say, “I didn’t know you were a guitar player.” I’m like, “Really?” On all my records, the liner notes say that I’m playing here and there. But they don’t know. I thought, “Maybe if I just play all the guitars, maybe they’ll get it.”

You made The Blanco Sessions with Janis Martin just four months before she passed, but her voice sounds so robust on it. I wasn’t expecting quite that level of vocal punch.

Isn’t that wild? But, see, that voice was the voice she was putting out there for the last 10 or 15 years. She would go to rockabilly festivals and she would sing so robust and so strong. It was such an amazing voice, I just thought her voice needed to be recorded. When I recorded her on my Rockabilly Filly CD for Hightone Records in 1995, that was when I realized she had this whole amazing voice that was so different than her first RCA Records. I was like, “Janis we’ve got to come back in here and make a whole record with you. Your voice is killer.” … I kept after her for about 10 years, and finally when I moved to Texas, I found a little studio and I found the guys that I thought would be the best band for her, with Bobby Trimble who helped me co-produce it.

We didn’t know that she was sick because she didn’t sing like she was sick. She did complain of headaches, and she did say that she wasn’t feeling up to par, but she was gonna come anyway. She showed up and delivered. About two weeks after she got home, she called me and told me that she had gone to the doctor and found out she had stage four cancer. It was just so depressing and sad. It was sad, but at the same time we were all like, “Well you’re gonna beat it because nobody sings like that that isn’t gonna live forever.” Everybody tried to be as positive as they could. But it was scary. We lost her in four months. It was very sad. But it was also at the same time very gratifying and rewarding that I had gotten her last record done before she died.

Martin’s early career began and ended while she was still a teenager because a married and pregnant singer could no longer be sold singing those youthful, carefree rockabilly songs. The image and the music were supposed to match. When do you think those perceptions changed? And what’s it feel like to do that same sort of youthful material at this point in your life and career?

Back in the ‘50s, you weren’t supposed to be having children when they were trying to promote you as a jump bop teenager. So I think it ruined their plan. And I think RCA Records and her producers were very upset about it because she was such an amazing talent. That was just the way of the ‘50s. You couldn’t mess with somebody’s image like that. … I think back in the ‘50s, that was really a hard thing that a woman had to deal with. I know talking to Janis and Wanda [Jackson] both, it was like you had to keep your image up. You had to have your parents on the road with you. It was hard enough to be a girl out there because they were going to start already trying to slander you, you know?

That era of the music — we’re hanging out at the drugstore and we’re rockin’ to the ‘50s beat and we’re having our soda pop — that was such a cute little era that was going on in the ‘50s. It was all about the teenagers being rebellious. You had James Dean and you had Elvis and they were slicking grease in their hair. Girls were all the sudden just swooning and falling in love and just being rebellious, right?

Well, so, when we do those songs now — just like I recorded “Drugstore Rock ‘n’ Roll” and Janis recorded the Ricky Nelson song [“I Believe What You Say”] — what we’re doing is we’re paying tribute to what it was like back then. … There doesn’t have to be a rhyme or reason to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s just all about music that makes you feel good. In the true sense of rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll, it’s really all about the bop. That’s what we loved about it and that’s what we’re trying to keep alive.