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Honoring Musical Roots

Rosie Flores is back for tribute to Elvis Presley, an enduring influence.

January 03, 2002|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rosie Flores never got to see Elvis Presley. Back in 1977, when she was leading an obscure San Diego band called Rosie & the Screamers, the young roots-rocker had finally made plans to see Presley live when his tour was to pass through Southern California that year. But he died before ever leaving home.

Presley's impact on her love of music was already secure, going back to the day an older cousin introduced her as a Texas toddler to the hit "Teddy Bear." Flores has also frequently made the pilgrimage to Graceland, Presley's Memphis home-turned-shrine, since moving to Nashville two years ago. And with so many Elvis recordings, and so many Elvis movies, Flores feels like she's seen him after all.

"You feel like you get to know him every time you go into Graceland," says Flores, who joins a big roster of colleagues Sunday at the 17th annual Elvis Birthday Bash at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. "Then you see all of his awards, and it makes you cry. You look at these walls and walls of trophies and awards and gold records. Man, this guy did this in such a short span of his life. "He's become such an important legend to Americana and to roots music and rockabilly," adds Flores, 51. "He really is the King. That name seems to be suiting him more and more. And I find this all over the world."

That continued influence will be on display at Sunday's House of Blues celebration. Flores has appeared at the annual tribute nearly a dozen times and will be joined this year by rockabilly locals such as James Intveld, Big Sandy and Billy Swan.

"It will be good," Flores says. "You can't go wrong with Elvis' material."

Flores hardly needs an excuse to show her roots. Since the early '80s, the singer-guitarist has been a fixture in the Los Angeles music scene, mixing straight-ahead country with rockabilly and blues. Her regular set list still includes songs by the likes of Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Tammy Wynette and Buck Owens.

"It was something different," she says of performing what came to be called roots music. "And I've always been a kind of a little bit of a rebel. If something is too popular, I turn away from it. I like stuff that's on the edge."

Back then almost no one was doing such ancient rock 'n' roll songs as "Be Bop A Lula" and "Shake Rattle and Roll."

"I really don't do any of that stuff now. It's cliche. I try to do in my live shows stuff that's a little more obscure."

Alongside accomplished locals such as Dwight Yoakam and Dave Alvin, Flores has long been an energetic and dependable champion of the traditions of American music. After moving to Nashville, she found a community of roots-based artists not unlike the scene she remembered from '80s Los Angeles, including singer-songwriters such as Jim Lauderdale, Lucinda Williams and Duane Jarvis.

For all its reputation for ignoring country music traditions in search of a lucrative crossover sound, Flores found a surprising respect for history in Nashville. While venerable L.A. institutions such as the Palomino faded away, in Nashville Flores can still see Loretta Lynn at the Grand Ol' Opry or run into Brenda Lee at the grocery store.

She spends her nights at the "seedy clubs" of downtown Nashville, where she might catch Bonnie Bramlett or Delbert McClinton onstage. It's not unlike the times she could see the Blasters or Los Lobos or Levi Dexter on the Hollywood club scene.

"There's that buzz where everybody's hanging out and playing," says Flores with a smile.

It was in Nashville that Flores found the direction of her jazzy recent album, "Speed of Sound," which owes much to her own rediscovery of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald and other "jazzy lady crooners."

The smoky sound of the album was suggested by longtime friend and guitarist Rick Vito, who produced it for Eminent Records. "I can sing a country song and twang as hard as Loretta Lynn if I want to," Flores says. "But the challenge is gone out for me. So I really like the bluesy jazzy side."

The closest thing to straight country on the album is a rave-up of Johnny Cash's "Country Boy," which was released as a single. Her version, she says, was inspired by childhood envy for her brother, who got to go camping and fishing with their father. She's had her revenge, living the lifestyle of the country boy she once imagined. "Because I didn't become a housewife and managed to stay single and without children all these years, I've kind of let that come true," Flores says. "I can go anywhere and do anything I want, and I'm still kind of foot-loose and fancy free."

The Elvis Birthday Bash, Sunday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $15. (323) 848-5100.

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