Flower Power

The house owned by blueswoman Mary Flower looks like it could belong to practically any young musician. The living-room walls are adorned with onstage photos of Flower and her musical heroes, along with a small collection of oddball and cheapo guitars; the bedroom contains more axes--a steel-bodied National Tricone and a Gibson acoustic, to be specific--plus additional music-oriented snapshots and a tweed Fender amp; and the bathroom sports a guitar-shaped toilet seat and a handful of finger picks resting on the edge of the sink. In short, the abode would be ideal for a twenty-something bohemian with musical leanings--and Flower says it's perfect for her, too, even though she's a single mother of two twenty-something children who is just months away from celebrating her fiftieth birthday.

"Before my kids moved out a few years ago, the place looked a lot different," she admits. "But I just decided, 'Heck with it. I'm going to do the place like I want it.' I did the family thing and the house thing, and I didn't want any of that anymore. So I went back to the way it was when I was a kid."

Flower has carried out a similar remodeling job on her life: At an age when many of her peers are dreaming of grandchildren and spending their free time toiling in the backyard garden, she's returned to her pre-motherhood lifestyle. A fixture on the Denver music scene for more than a quarter of a century, she now spends six months a year on the highway, bringing her music to fans across the nation--and her efforts are paying off nicely. This year alone, Flower has signed a contract with Massachusetts-based Time & Strike Records to cut a new CD; performed live on a broadcast of the National Public Radio staple Prairie Home Companion; dazzled the competition at this summer's National Fingerpicking Championships in Winfield, Kansas; and filled a slew of slots at some of the country's more revered blues festivals, including October's esteemed King Biscuit festival in Helena, Arkansas. In the process, she's played alongside an A-list of steel-string pros, including John Hammond, Junior Brown, Taj Mahal, Geoff Muldaur and many more.

"My career really has skyrocketed in terms of doing gigs that I had only dreamed of doing in the past," Flower says. "It's been great, and I've had a really successful year--not so much monetarily, but in terms of gigs to die for. And each year it gets a little better. But you always feel like you're working your tail off and you're never quite where you want to be. And coming home is what I call the universal post-touring syndrome--that real hard adjustment from traveling and having incredible things happen to you to being back home, taking out the garbage."

Prior to the Nineties, Flower was doing more of the latter than the former, but that was by choice. A native of Bloomington, Indiana, she arrived in Denver in the early Seventies following a stint in Breckenridge, where she'd performed as half of an acoustic duo that wintered in Summit County. After a visit to the Denver Folklore Center (then on 17th Street in Capitol Hill), she chose to stay in the area, and she quickly became a regular at coffeehouses and clubs, supplementing her income with teaching slots at the Folklore Center. She also toured on the national coffeehouse circuit with Katy Moffatt, a singer-songwriter now on Hightone Records.

Along the way, Flower helped found the Mother Folkers, the ever-popular revolving-door band of Front Range women who've entertained locals since 1973. (Flower left the group in 1993 to pursue her current solo career.) She also got married and gave birth to a daughter, Hannah, and a son, Jesse. Her subsequent divorce made it even more important to her that she give her children a stable environment in which to grow up--and she did. Before she agreed to a gig, she made certain that she wouldn't have to go far to play it.

During this stretch, Flower narrowed her musical focus, evolving from a singer-songwriter with a foot in the blues to a dyed-in-indigo artist with a knack for keenly written folk laments of her own. Confirmation that she'd made the right choice came in 1993, while she was attending a workshop at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. After hearing her play, "the people on staff there told me, 'You need to get out there. You're good. You need to make CDs and get out on the road and get the ball rolling,'" Flower remembers. "That made me realize that I had something valuable, and it gave me a little push. And about that time, my kids were in their later years in high school, and I could see the road opening up in front of my eyes. Once my kids were out of the house, I realized there was nothing keeping me here. It was time to get my career back."  

The opportunity to achieve a long-held musical dream was only one factor that motivated Flower; the fear of an empty nest played a part, too. "I think I was avoiding the withdrawal that a lot of parents go through," she says. "I didn't want to stay home and be miserable with my kids gone, so, by God, I was going to leave, too. But it felt good to be back on the road--to take my stuff and just jump in my car and see places that I've never been before and to be independent. I loved it. I loved it!"

Today Flower is rolling along a musical path pioneered by such legends as Skip James, the Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Blake. "This is not Delta blues," Flower notes. "It's Piedmont blues. Piedmont is more upbeat, almost with a ragtime influence, with a lot of finger-picked melodies and syncopation with the thumb. And it's a little more upbeat and sometimes humorous. Delta blues is slower, and usually somebody dies or somebody's woman left them. Being a female, I can't sing a lot of those lyrics, because the themes don't make any sense for me to sing. There were women doing this, like Memphis Minnie, but it was a male-dominated form of music. It would be really hard for me to don the costume of a seventy-year-old black man who's been drinking heavily. I can't pull that one off, and I don't want to try. So this is where my writing comes in. I use this base and create my own contemporary themes."

This approach is in full bloom on Rosewood & Steel, a 1996 album that features a choice selection of chestnuts and half a dozen finely crafted tunes penned by Flower herself. Like 1994's Blues Jubilee, its predecessor, Rosewood spotlights Flower's restrained but impeccable fingering technique, smokey slide playing and down-to-earth vocals that are stirring without seeming affected. Best of all, her original compositions meet the high standards of her cover selections while baring a few bones and stretching the skin of the blues genre.

The guitarist hopes her debut for Time & Strike, which she'll begin recording during the first half of 1999, will prove to be even more engaging, and she's thrilled that someone else will be footing the bills. But even though Time & Strike is well-regarded among folks in the acoustic-blues field, she knows that blockbuster success is unlikely. "This music has never been mainstream, and it never will be," she says, chuckling. "It's the music of the underdog. I mean, why would anyone want to sing this kind of music? It's hard for me to define why I have this passion for it. I guess it's the challenge of the syncopation and the unusual chord shapes, but it's also the people who make the music. There's something about the people who have decided to carry on this tradition that I can relate to--people who sing this music that used to be sung by oppressed people."

To help keep these traditions alive, Flower spends a large amount of her playing time in front of students; she conducts instructional seminars while touring and serves as a faculty member of the Swallow Hill Music Association when she's in Denver. "I'd be just as happy teaching workshops as I would be performing," she concedes. "There are people all over the country who are way into this music. It's hard to believe, but they want to learn how to play it; they want to get their thumb moving back and forth and get the syncopation going. It's fun, because they get really excited when I come to town."

According to Flower, living in the wide-open West, where tour stops are few and far between, has made her quest even more challenging. "You have Denver and Colorado Springs and Fort Collins--and what else do we have?" she asks. "It would be nice to play a show and drive 45 minutes to the next town. I think a lot about moving to the East Coast, because I could work so easily there."

Fortunately, logistical difficulties haven't dulled Flower's musical enthusiasm. Sitting by her kitchen table, she cradles a weathered flat top and leaps into a reworked version of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" that turns into a bittersweet wonder before she's done. (As she sings the first verse, her dog stretches out on the carpet at her feet, raising a salt-and-pepper eyelid to take in the situation before drifting back to sleep.) A few moments later, Flower slides into a bristling back-porch blues punctuated by stinging chordal fills. "That's pretty raw, isn't it?" she says with a grin. "That rawness surprises people about me, because I look just like somebody's next-door neighbor--like any woman at the supermarket. A long time ago, I used to get this you-play-really-good-for-a-girl stuff, and then recently I've heard, 'You really play good for anybody.' That was a breakthrough.  

"The older you get, the more focused you get on what you want out of life and the kind of music you play," she goes on. "I think it takes years to find it, but once you figure out what you really want musically, you're rewarded for it. I've been working in the trenches for all these years, and I think I'm finally being rewarded for it, too. And thank God. If somebody took away my guitars and said, 'You have to do something else,' I don't have a clue what I'd be doing--selling Avon or some kind of teaching, I guess. And if somebody had told me thirty years ago that I'd be doing what I'm doing now, I wouldn't have believed them."

Clearly, Flower feels younger than her years--which is one reason that she's mildly unnerved by the prospect of reaching the half-century mark. "Fifty is the year of doom," she says. "It's just been ingrained in me that that's the one to be afraid of. But I'm okay with it, and I'm not going to go cry and be depressed about it. I'll kick up my heels when it comes. But I do wonder how I'm going to carry my guitar out on stage with a walker. It would be hard to look cool with a walker."

Mary Flower. 8 p.m. Saturday, November 14, Abstract Cafe, 8250 West 80th Avenue, Arvada, $8, 303-431-2233.

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