For Ambur Rockell, it's all one crazy mix. "I guess I've lived a rambling life so far," said the 20-something, who creates wildly popular honky tonk paintings from her studio at the Art Colony on North Main Street.
"I grew up in California," she said. "I was born in Sacramento and moved when I was a kid to Southern California, so that's where I grew up. I was kind of a beach girl, but we'd spend summers in Bakersfield, so I was a beach girl part of the year and a country girl in summers, hence 'Backwoods Barbie.'"
The road to Eureka Springs was a long and twisty one. "I got the traveling bug," she said. "A lot of my friends and family were leaving California, and I wanted to be closer to the honky tonk music I loved, so I gave away everything I had except for my makeup and nail polish and headed for Austin."
Rockell said she always loved to paint. "But I didn't think I was any good," she said. "No one was really into it; I never sold anything. But I got to Texas, and I ended up painting with makeup because that's what I had to work with. As soon as I started painting my honky tonk heroes, everyone started buying them right and left. I had a huge art show in Austin that went really well. That was my first art show."
That first painting opened a new chapter in her life as an artist. But why use makeup to paint?
"I'd given away everything, including my paints," she said. "I didn't feel like I was a very good painter, but I felt like painting one day, so I painted a picture of Dolly Parton with makeup and nail polish because that's all I had available. It was just for fun. Because it was Dolly Parton, it seemed appropriate to do it in that way. Then I posted it on Facebook and someone wanted to buy it."
And they have continued to buy it ever since. "Interestingly, not too many people here in town know me or my art," she said. "It's all online, from around the world."
Moving from Texas to New Orleans changed her work further. "My work got more complex, instead of just being folky and hillbilly and country," she said. "It exposed me to a whole other level of weird Americana. Voodoo, jazz funerals, alligators. Plus my suitcase got heavier with nail polish everyone donated for my paintings!"
The move to Eureka Springs came about through a friendship with musician and band manager Gina Rose Gallina, another longtime Eurekan transplant.
"She would have me house-sit for her in Texas when she was on tour," Rockell said. "She had come back here and I called her up one day. I wanted to leave a bad relationship and New Orleans -- though Louisiana is very cool. She said come here, it's a great place for starting over. It came together almost too perfectly. People were putting together money to put me on the bus. I left town overnight and woke up in my fairy tale land. I felt this huge weight come off my shoulders when I got here. Somehow this town is healing to me."
Lil Miss Bur, as her friends call her, is also a singer, guitarist and songwriter. "I am recording songs in November," she said. "I'm going back for a visit to Texas. Before I left down there, I met a brilliant guitarist named Danny B. Harvy. He's played with everyone, including my hero, Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame queen Wanda Jackson. Right now one of his projects is a supergroup called The Head Cat, which includes vocalist Lemmy of Motörhead and drummer Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats. I met Danny in Austin, and he knew I wanted to sing."
Her first recording with Harvy came about just as she was just about to leave town. "I was in the parking lot about to leave town crying," she said. "I'd just said goodbye to my boyfriend and his cat -- the cat was why I was crying -- and Danny picked me up with my five suitcases and a couple of my paintings. We recorded 'Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad' by Tammy Wynette as a kind of audition. He said if I passed, then he'd record my whole album, and I passed!"
She was bound for New Orleans a few days later. "I've been on a kind of crazy road ever since, and writing songs about it along the way," she said. "So now it's a year later and we're going to record. All the songs for the upcoming album are ones I've written. He did give me one condition: the album has to be all 'bad girl songs.' So it has a theme."
The painting and music have come together in one project Rockell is particularly proud of. "I have a good friend named Kuzzen Wyldweed who filmed hours and hours of footage of performances of the late rockabilly legend Hasil Adkins," she said. "He connected to me through the honky tonky world, and he likes the folk appeal of my paintings, so he asked me to do some promo paintings, to paint Hasil and a lot of the other people involved in the film, including Hank Williams III, artist Joe Coleman, Crazy Amy, the dancing outlaw Jesco White, and all these other people inspired by Hasil."
Rockell said she is happy to take commissions for artwork and has a Paypal account set up for that purpose. "In Eureka I haven't really sold anything to anyone," she said. "But I can be reached through my email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or through Facebook.com/Amburrockell. And the page for the Hasil documentary is Facebook.com/mybluestarmovie."
Her main goal right now is to save up money for her Austin trip. I'm taking a huge leap of faith on this album and would like to have a home to come back to. Eureka is my first love and a source of inspiration to me, more than Austin or Nashville. It's my rock."