As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Summer 2020 Issue
By Enmaria Cuminsky
Rosie Flores’ latest release—a blues and R&B album—shows us that going slow can pay off quite handsomely. We talked to the proudly eclectic guitar picker and singer-songwriter about having a day named after her in Austin, her guitar collection, and her explorations in country, punk, jazz, and the blues that started her off on playing guitar.
Tell us about your latest album, Simple Case of the Blues.
Two of my producers in Nashville, Kenny Vaughan and Dave Roe, had summoned me to town to make this blues record with them in 2012. I’ve been friends with and worked with each of them on separate occasions. I found out about this weekly blues night they had going, so I sat in, and it really clicked. That’s how the idea to make a blues record with them was born.
The album had been in the works since 2012. Did you find that it was a slow process to put together, or did it come rather quickly past a certain point?
Well, when I worked with Kenny and Dave, the tracking process was super-fast, we cut it in two days! I spent a lot of time in pre-production. The process to get it finished was a very long and drawn out time. I wanted to do the overdubs here in Austin. It just took me a while to find the right producer; it was Charlie Sexton. The right studio, Arlyn Studios, and engineer, Jacob Sciba, and voila, it was mixed! Finally, bit by bit, the money came in to master and get artwork paid for. I was fortunate that a few angels helped me along the way and will forever be grateful for that. I really love this record. Everyone did an amazing job for me.
Did you have any particular role models or influences when putting this album together?
My producers on this record, Kenny Vaughan, Dave Roe, and Charlie Sexton, are role models to me. My vocal influences were Ruth Brown, Etta James, and Bonnie Raitt. On guitar, it was Albert Collins, T Bone Walker, and B.B. King.
You’ve been involved with different varieties of music over the years, including country, punk rock, and now blues. What inspired the switch each time?
I started a blues band when I was twenty-one because it’s the first music I started learning how to play the guitar with. My brother and his friends in high school were blues fanatics, and they both were my guitar mentors. We studied blues records by Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters. I saw Muddy play live, and he made such an impression on me to keep playing the blues. I was around nineteen at the time, and I taught guitar at a local music store for a living. So it’s really a circle back to where I started from, to do Simple Case Of The Blues. I’ve actually been playing these bluesy tunes for years with my Austin band, long before the record was finished and put out.
But back up to 1985 to my honky-tonk era. I had a good run in country music when I lived in LA and played the Palomino Club for most of those years. I became a favorite in that LA country scene. The LA punk era happened, and that was a blast. I was living near Hollywood in Studio City—in the right place at the right time. I was unimpressed with where country music was going, with the Urban Cowboy movie take-over into the country bars and clubs. The public didn’t want to hear Johnny Cash or classic Tammy Wynette, which I was used to covering besides my tunes. The newfound “Urban” country fans wanted songs from the movie only!
So I put my cowboy boots in the closet, grabbed a leather jacket, and started hanging out at The Whisky. I became obsessed with the band X with Billy Zoom on guitar, and Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs with Carlos Guitarlos on guitar. There was a danger element and excitement that was missing in country music. Hence, I joined a female cowpunk band called the Screamin’ Sirens as their guitarist and musical director over the next four years. We made a few recordings, and an LP called Fiesta on Enigma Records. We were featured in a movie called The Runnin’ Kind (YouTube has a version of it) and toured around the US for a few years.
My itch to go back to singing lead in my own band and do my country/rockabilly/blues stuff had me start opening shows for Jerry Lee Lewis, John Prine, Elvin Bishop, David Lindley and El Rayo X, Emmylou Harris, and many others. I made a demo with Howie Epstein from The Heartbreakers at his home studio with a board that Tom Petty gave him. I was able to eventually get my record deal with Warner Reprise Records for the Rosie Flores album. They were looking for a female Dwight Yoakam, or so I was told, and I had similar tastes in old country songs like he did. We always talked about trying to bring back this old sound; he did a better job at that than I did. I worked that country scene for about two years, put out a great record, but it didn’t happen for me in the big way I’d hope for, so I turned to rebellious rockabilly, where I could mix rhythm and blues and hillbilly.
Back in the ‘80s, it was different. The stations were more about the Reba sound. Nashville producers had her sounding more pop than classic, but she was the hot ticket for years. I guess for rockin’ country with a female picker, I was too ahead of my time. But to this day, I love the classic sound in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s with Buck Owens, Wanda Jackson, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Jerry Reed, and Gary Stewart. Those days and that sound on the commercial county radio were, and are, totally gone.
I made some very good records, honing my guitar skills and songwriting, with producers Greg Leisz (steel guitar, etc.) and Dusty Wakeman (bassist). Those HighTone records still sound pretty darn good and continue to get airplay to this day on Sirius Outlaw Country and others. My best-selling HighTone CD is Rockabilly Filly, featuring rockabilly queens Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin.
Do you think you’ll stick with blues for a while, or do you see yourself returning to another genre in the future?
Well, I’m working on songs for a follow-up blues record right now. I have learned that it’s quite hard to change genres with the industry, not knowing what to call you or how to hire your act. It’s in my heart and soul to be a guitar player, a singer, and a songwriter, so I just keep doing what I love, and sometimes I go off track and follow my heart because I love great songs, and I need to sing what I want. Why hold back? Rules are made to be broken. For instance, I have a guilty pleasure group, where I spend one night a week singing jazz with the Blue Moon Jazz Quartet. I get to sing the Great American Songbook, and it’s a gas to improvise with the melodies and to riff that way, rather than with the guitar. I haven’t studied jazz guitar enough to play it in the Quartet, and Jim Stringer is insanely great at it, so it’s fun just to be a jazz singer. Since the pandemic, I decided to learn to play piano, so we’ll see what that brings on.
You’re often referred to as “the Chick with the Pick.” Where and when did that nickname originate?
My email address starts with the handle “chickwpick,” so I guess it started there.
I would assume that you’ve gone through many guitars over the years. Do you have a favorite or preference when it comes to buying a new one?
My favorite axe is the SteelTopCaster made by James Trussart. I am starting to look for lighter guitars with good pick-ups, so I’m talking to Trussart about building me a lighter guitar that I can easily carry with me on long road trips. Walking through airports and being on the road with a heavy guitar is not too good on my neck and shoulders these days, although I don’t mind standing on stage with a heavier guitar. Trussart’s workshop puts out such great guitars; it’s almost an addiction—I want more. But I own about thirteen various guitars. My collection is from Gibson to Gretsch and a few acoustics, Martin to Taylor. Thirteen, fourteen guitars, or fifteen if you count my ukulele. Small collection compared to most players I know.
What kinds of music were you exposed to in childhood, and how do you think they’ve influenced your musical tastes today?
I grew up listening to the popular jazz artists of the time, the crooners of the time before rock ‘n’ roll like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, and all the others who were making hit records and were on TV. I learned to sing along with all of it, as a kid. A few years later, in ‘57—with Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis—rock ‘n’ roll caught on like fire, and that’s all you heard on the radio. So that was a very exciting time as a kid in Texas. The funny thing is, I started recording at age seven on a two-track reel to reel tape recorder that my father brought out and egged us kids on. I learned early on what it was that made me smile. A star is born! Haha!
August 31, 2006 and 2017 were declared Rosie Flores Day in Austin. How does it feel to have a day named in your honor?
I was, of course, honored and delighted. It’s an honor bestowed on a few people in Austin who are thanked for contributing to the community in some way. For me, I guess I’d been playing Austin since the Screamin’ Sirens’ era in the early ‘80s, and then eventually moving here in 1988. I moved back and forth to Austin between LA and Nashville a few times, but the third time stuck, and I’ve been here for fourteen years now.