Veteran honky-tonkers head north to open for Reverend Horton Heat at the Chameleon Club on Thursday.
Watson, with his deep baritone voice, great white mane and tattooed sleeves, is always dressed to the nines in suits that would make Elvis jealous. Flores has her custom turquoise James Trussart (her “baby”), cowboy boots and red lipstick. The two are the unsung heroes of true, real-deal country music or, as Watson calls it, “Ameripolitan.”
Just what is Ameripolitan music? Think original music with roots influence. Think honky-tonk, outlaw, Western swing and rockabilly music. Think Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tammy Wynette. Think Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens and Hank Williams. Think music that’s meant to get you out on the dance floor with your partner – pretty much everything popular, mainstream “country” music isn’t, but should be.
It’s a term Watson coined years ago over breakfast at a casino in Wisconsin with promoter Phil Doran. They decided the country tag had been tainted for far too long, to the point that most people didn’t know what real country music was anymore. They decided to take country with them and fold it into a new genre.
“Ameripolitan didn’t mean anything – you didn’t draw any conclusions,” Watson says. “We wanted to start with a clean slate.”
Ameripolitan artists honor, preserve and build on this original music tradition. And the term appears to be gaining ground – the second annual Ameripolitan Music Awards ceremony will be held in Austin this February. Last year’s winners included Flores for best female rockabilly act, the Reverend Horton Heat for best rockabilly group and Elizabeth Cook for best outlaw female.
Watson and Flores are longtime friends whose paths have overlapped and crisscrossed for decades, both loosely following a similar trajectory from Texas to California to Tennessee and, finally, back to Texas.
“If it wasn’t for Rosie, I never would have gotten out of Pasadena,” says Watson.
Born in Alabama, but growing up outside of Houston with a truck-driving father who moonlighted as a country singer, Watson has been writing his own songs and playing guitar since he was a teenager. It was in the mid-1980s that he met Flores through a mutual friend and heeded her advice to move west to Los Angeles.
He got a gig playing in the house band at the legendary Palomino Club and recorded a few singles before packing his bags again and heading to Nashville for a spell. But it didn’t take long for him to realize his brand of country music wasn’t quite in the vein of Music City’s commercial machine.
Back on familiar ground in Austin – a city known for appreciating independent voices – Watson went on to release songs like “Nashville Rash,” calling it like it is: “I’m too country now for country, just like Johnny Cash/ Help me Merle, I’m breakin’ out in a Nashville rash.”
“It sounds trite, but you have to be true to yourself. If you start trying to do what other people want it all falls apart,” warns Watson.
He’s a prolific songwriter, with some 20 albums released to date, covering the usual country subjects – heartache, drinking and trucking. His 2013 El Rancho Azul, recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio, garnered top-notch reviews and a spot performing his audience-inspired “I Lie When I Drink” on The Late Show with David Letterman. Last year also saw the release of Truckin’ Songs Trilogy, capturing the spirit of the open road, which wasn’t difficult for the hard-touring Watson who plays some 300 shows a year.
Flores was born in San Antonio and raised in a family that encouraged her singing and helped develop her musical talent at a young age – her father recorded her when she was just 7 years old, while her older brother taught her guitar licks.
Fittingly, one of the first songs she learned to play was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Who would have predicted that 40 years later she would be part of the American Music Masters paying tribute to Berry at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? As Rolling Stone raved, she was “one of the most impressive acts of the evening. And the only performer brave enough to playfully attempt a duck walk.”
Her family moved to Southern California when she was 12 years old, and it was there that she was immersed in surf and garage rock.
“I borrowed my brother’s gear and started an all-girl band for the school show,” she says. “It was a bit more of a man’s world back then. They didn’t really know how to deal with a young chick rocking out.”
Of course, times haven’t changed that much in the music industry. Instead of fighting it, Flores just keeps on strumming. “We can’t make it go away, so as a woman playing guitar, you just have to be even better than average. You have to prove yourself more,” she says.
She recorded her first self-titled solo album in 1987. Yet, despite breaking onto the Billboard country chart, Flores notes, “It was difficult for country radio to figure out what to do with me. [They] couldn’t wrap their heads around how to market me.”
So, while she never had the breakout success of her mentors and contemporaries – Wanda Jackson, Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt – she’s garnered their respect and has built up a steady following, selling out shows across the country. She’s also been wholly embraced as an Austin legend. August 31, 2006, was deemed Rosie Flores Day by Mayor Will Winn, and the following year she was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
On Flores’ most recent album, Working Girl’s Guitar, she played all the guitar leads and finally caught the attention of various guitar publications.
“It only took til my 60s to being taken seriously as a guitarist and for people to write about it,” she laughs.
What’s up next? “I would love to make a record with Earl Slick – he played on John Lennon’s last record. We met at the Chuck Berry tribute and played in New York a few weeks later and discovered we are very similar.”
Over the past year and a half, she’s also decided to shed her guitar to focus on another instrument – her voice. As part of her Blue Moon Jazz Quartet playing a few originals and a lot of standards, she loves getting to be heard.
“I don’t have this huge Janis Joplin type voice, so with my rock band, drums and my loud guitar and bass, it can be difficult to rise above that,” she says. “With this, every nuance is noticed.”
Flores and Watson can most often be found in the Lone Star State, holding court at Austin institutions like the Broken Spoke, the Continental Club and Ginny’s Little Longhorn – the honky-tonk famous for its Sunday Chicken Shit Bingo and now owned by Watson. They both tour steadily here in the U.S. and abroad, from England to Spain – even Japan. But, as Watson notes, “It’s rare we get up that way, for sure.”
Dale Watson and Rosie Flores open for Reverend Horton Heat at the Chameleon Club (223 N. Water St., Lancaster) on Thursday, January 15. 7pm. 21+. $18 advance/$20 at the door. Click here for tickets.