A Labor of Love: Rosie Flores, Janis Martin, and The Blanco Sessions
It’s a sweltering August day, and Rosie Flores has just hauled 60 boxes of LPs and CDs to the post office. Despite the heat and exertion, the 61-year old sounds bubbly as a teen as she enthuses, “Today is a celebration. My living room no longer looks like a shipping room!” The boxes are going out to supporters who contributed to Flores’ Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to release Janis Martin’s final recordings, The Blanco Sessions. For Flores, producing one of Martin’s albums has been a labor of love that’s taken nearly twenty years from conception to release date. But there’s nothing she, a fan and friend of the late rockabilly singer, would have rather done.
She first became aware of Janis Martin while living in Los Angeles in 1979, soon after making the switch from performing country music to playing rockabilly: “I was telling a girl in San Francisco about my band. She said, ‘Do you do any Janis Martin?’ I said ‘Who?’ She looked at me kind of funny and said, ‘If you don’t know who Janis Martin is, then you don’t know anything about rockabilly,’ and walked away. I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to find out who Janis Martin is!’”
“I didn’t know if Janis was alive or dead,” Flores remembers, but she went to her local record store, and found an LP in the stacks. It was love at first listen. “She had these wonderful guitar players Grady Martin, Chet Atkins–who was producing her–and Hank Garland, one of the greatest guitar players from that era. Right away, I was drawn not only to her voice, but to the sound of her recordings and the way they were arranged.”
Flores immediately started learning Martin’s songs and performing them at her shows. She soon found out that Martin was alive and working at a country club in Danville, Virginia: I called up the club and asked for Janis Martin and they said, ‘Oh, you mean Janis Whitt. That’s her married name.’ She was tickled pink. She said she got a few calls now and then, and she always appreciated that people remembered her.” The two women struck up a friendship, exchanging letters and phone calls. And when Flores went to record her Rockabilly Filly album, one of the first phone calls she made was to Martin.
Janis and fellow rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson both appeared on Rockabilly Filly, but while Wanda agreed to tour with Flores, Martin wouldn’t give up the security of her day job to return to the music business fulltime. Even so, in the brief time she spent in the studio with Flores, Martin made an impression. “I was blown away that she hadn’t recorded in thirty years,” remembers Flores. “I was so intrigued with how the sound of her voice had mellowed over the years.” She immediately floated the idea of producing an album for Martin, but it wasn’t until a decade later, when Martin retired from her country club job, that their plans began to come together.
In 2007, a grief-stricken Martin (her son had died that January from a brain aneurysm), joined by Rosie Flores and Bobby Trimble of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, traveled to Blanco, Texas began to work on the new album.
“Janis said that her throat was hurting, and she showed me a lump that had formed on her back, but she didn’t want to disappoint me, so she showed up anyway,” said Flores. “Her plan was to at least get the music done, and if her voice wasn’t good enough, she’d come back later and do the vocals…but we got to the studio and it was like this magic happened. She just woke up and rose to the occasion. She forgot she was sick; everything came back to her. Of course, she was smoking through the whole thing.”
The high, pure voice that had recorded songs like Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” decades earlier had aged a bit, and there was a growl that hadn’t been there before. But Martin hadn’t lost a step during her recording hiatus; most of the vocals on The Blanco Sessions were done on the first take. The whole album was cut in two days. After hearing the rough mix, Martin told Flores it was the best record she’d ever made, a statement that left Flores “crying tears of joy.” The pair began developing plans for a tour following the album release; Janis was particularly excited about the new hairdo and look she had planned. Two weeks later, she told Flores that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
“Three-fourths of me wanted to believe that she was going to be okay,” explains Flores. “But part of me was really scared. She just declined really quickly. I tried to look at it like, ‘At least she’s not suffering.’” Martin passed away in September 2007, just a few months after her time in Blanco, and Flores vowed to find a way to get her last album released.
She shopped The Blanco Sessions to every roots label she could, but they were all “afraid to take a chance spending money on someone who had passed away.” So, in 2010, Flores figured she’d raise the money to put the album out on her own. However, she broke her arm, an injury that set her back financially. But then she learned about Kickstarter, and in June of 2011, more than 300 backers contributed $16,500 to help Flores release the record. “I don’t know if I’ll ever make back the money I put into this,” she admits. “But it’s not that important to me. It’s more important that her legacy gets out there and that people hear what she’s done in her past and what she did at the end. It was all so good.”
“Good” is an understatement. The Blanco Sessions is a fantastic record, with Martin barnstorming through covers of songs like Ruth Brown’s “As Long As I’m Movin’,” and Dave Alvin’s “Long White Cadillac.” A big Kentucky Headhunters fan, Martin also recorded her own versions of that band’s covers of “Oh, Lonesome Me,” and Bill Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.” There’s even a torchy version of “Sweet Dreams,” something that’s a bit of a departure for the woman who Flores says described herself as a “raunchy grandma.” It’s an album to be proud of, and one that will hopefully cement Martin’s place in the rockabilly pantheon.
Rosie, whose new record Working Girl’s Guitar (out October 16 on Bloodshot Records) includes the Martin song “Drug Store Rock ‘n’ Roll,” will soon head out on a tour to promote both her record and The Blanco Sessions. She’s taking along the lessons learned from her idol: “Janis would tell me I needed to rock out more. She’d say, ‘All that singer-songwriter stuff is pretty, but you need to rock out. That’s when you kick butt.’” That’s one of the reasons I did all of the guitar playing on my new record. I decided that I was going to make it as rockin’ as I could. I wish she were around to listen to it; I’d have loved to have gotten her opinion on it. Maybe she’s up there hearing it, you know?”
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