Stephen Rey's house looks like something out of a Wild West movie. Fronted by a bulky wooden gate, it's 102 years old and designed like an old saloon, with sun-bleached blue paint on the exterior and hand-crafted woodwork inside. On the roof at the front is a steer's skull, whose empty eye sockets gaze out onto 30th Street in South Park.
Only a man like Rey could live in a house like this. The very definition of a badass, he makes ladies swoon and men want to, well, be him. With a lean build, '50s movie-star looks and lots of gnarly tattoos, he radiates working-class cool as he bangs out old-fashioned rock 'n' roll.
Though he's a skilled carpenter, Rey's been plying the local bar and club circuit pretty much full-time lately. He fronts a trio called Stephen Rey and The Sextrash, who sound as grimy as the name suggests. Several nights a week, he plays bass for local R&B icons Lady Dottie and the Diamonds. Recently, he started Two Wolves, a bare-knuckles honky-tonk duo featuring drummer Anders Larsson. And he's been working on duets with his girlfriend, jazz singer Erika Davies.
When I met Rey at his house on a recent Wednesday, he emerged at the door in cowboy boots, blue jeans and a wife-beater. As tough as he looked, his soft side came out when he put on a rough mix of a song he recorded with Davies and Larsson, "Why Donít You Lie?," a '50s-style pop tune by The King Khan & BBQ Show. Over some swooning guitar and a simple beat, Rey's deep, sensitive croon offered a lovely complement to Davies' birdlike call.
Asked how the collaboration came about, he sounded like a man smitten.
"It just kind of happened. We tried it and it just clickedómelted," he said. "It's just another extension of our lives. You know, like everything we are here and now, right now."
Some of San Diego's rootsy bands give me a certain fatigue. I groan at the sound of a mediocre blues-rock riff or country-folk cliché. But as I talked with Rey in his backyard, I was rapt. He's a manly man, with strong values and years of experience working on cars, motorcycles and his own house. He's also sensitive, thoughtful and committed to his daughter.
"He's always been a real genuine, down-to-earth kind of guy," says Tim Mays, owner of The Casbah and a good friend of Rey's. "And he's also very charming with the ladies."
Though he isn't opposed to fun, somewhat campy music, Rey's also plumbed some intense emotions with his songs. "Mississippi All Day Long"—a cut from Old Fashioned Future, a 2011 album he recorded with a band he'd been fronting, Stephen Rey & The Slicks—was written as a gift to a friend who lost his Mississippi home during Hurricane Katrina. Over twanging guitar and weighty horns, Rey lays out a stark scene in a tired, throaty voice: rabid dogs, flattened houses, vast piles of destroyed belongings. "I lost everything," he sings. "All I want is my cat."
Rey refuses to say how old he is, insisting (like his roommate, Tim Lowman of Low Volts) that he's "ageless." But some facts are clear: He was born in Victorville, Calif., and grew up in City Heights and Lakeside. His dad was a technician in the Air Force, and Rey grew up working on motorcycles and listening to Motown, Bo Diddley and Johnny Cash. He first got into construction as a high-schooler, landing a job while driving a dump truck for the city of La Mesa.
"I have this propensity for old cars, motorcycles, old movies, old records, vinyl, the drive-in show," he said. "There was always that vibe in the house. I think I was just born into it. It was a feeling I had ever since I was a little kid."
In 1995, Rey signed a publishing deal with Warner Bros. and went on to play in the bands Red Truck and Deere Johns. His recording career didn't get off the ground, but he's kept up a longstanding love affair with roots music. He's played with Lady Dottie for years, and heís upped the ante in recent months with The Sextrash and, now, Davies and Two Wolves.
Indeed, it's only a matter of time before more listeners catch wind of Rey. What's the allure? Lady Dottie probably says it best.
"You can't do nothing but love him," she says. "You just can't get enough of him."