The El Rey Court, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is what you might call post-modern. From the outside it looks like any roadside motor inn west of the Mississippi, the kind you’d pull into after a long night behind the wheel of a ‘57 El Dorado. The sign out front brings to mind images of Americana—the Rat Pack, the Space Race, Route 66 before it was historic—while the letterboard below promises free cable TV and hot tubs. The El Rey’s iconic exterior is preserved in its vintage sheen, but the inside has been updated with contemporary style and design. Classic cool for today’s world. A fitting theme for New Year’s Eve weekend, when a group of renegade musicians that included Nathanial Rateliff, Shakey Graves, The Texas Gentlemen and Caroline Rose, along with legendary rock photographer Danny Clinch, descended upon this snowy desert oasis for the ultimate jam session and to make some myths of their own.
For 30 years Danny Clinch has photographed musicians, often at their most vulnerable. He travels with them, hangs out backstage, whatever it takes to capture the moment, that rare glimpse into the soul of an icon. At the Old Rip festival, Danny aimed his lens at future legends—the icons of tomorrow, dressed (appropriately) in select pieces from the Wrangler Icons collection. Someday in the not-so-distant future these artists will be headlining major festivals, but this weekend, here at the El Rey, they’re the house band, setting the tone for the evening, writing the first chapter of their own legacies.
White-out blizzard conditions made the journey to the El Rey Court treacherous, nearly impossible. Flights were cancelled into Santa Fe, and the few that got through the storm were re-routed into Albuquerque. For Caroline Rose and her band, the only way in was a van on Interstate 40, which, once upon a time, was called Route 66. Storm? Please. Caroline was the storm. In spite of crashing their van due to the icy roads, Caroline and the gang still managed to get their kicks and make it to the gig. It was the stuff of music legend when they strutted in through the main entrance. The rough trip did nothing to sour Caroline’s sparkle and famous red ensemble for the rest of the weekend, and a collection was taken up to help cover the van’s damages. Now that’s what you call life on the road.
They call him Shakey Graves. He sings, plays guitar and bangs the drums. Usually at the same time. Austin-born and bred, Shakey’s played solo as well as alongside some of the alternative music scene’s biggest names. At the Old Rip festival he got the best of all worlds, taking the stage with his suitcase drum for a set and also collaborating with, heck, just about anyone who joined him. That’s Shakey, a blast of warmth, always the life of the party. Donning his signature hat and smile, Shakey welcomed everyone with a big hug. He was thrilled to be at the El Rey, amongst friends and fellow musicians, like pal Rayland Baxter and folk goddess Stephanie Hunt, to name a couple. Good people. Good music. Good times. It was a weekend made for everyone, but when the lights went down, it was Shakey’s show.
Due to prior commitments, Nathaniel Rateliff was unable to attend the Old Rip. But then, into the lobby he appeared, dressed in his beanie and a Wrangler Sherpa-lined denim jacket. He plugged his acoustic-electric into a portable amp and started picking away. He talked about how grateful he was to be invited before launching into a set that mixed popular hits with buried treasures. It was a fireside chat, bluegrass style: storytelling, audience participation, cocktails and laughs. Nathaniel was there for only one night, but it could have lasted forever. And in a lot of ways, it will.
Every generation needs a poet, preferably one who carries a guitar. The beats had Dylan, and in 2019 we have Rayland Baxter. When Rayland took the stage at the El Rey the vibe mellowed, the audience enchanted by his unique blend of soulful folk and outlaw blues. As the windows frosted over and the desert night dipped below freezing, Rayland’s music kept a smooth pulse beating inside the room. He looked up over his microphone and made eye contact with each of us in the intimate setting, as though the music was written specifically for that night. A performance like that doesn’t come around too often, maybe once a lifetime.
Part gospel. Part blues. Part rock. All original. The Texas Gentlemen made their bones playing backup for heavyweights like George Strait and Kris Kristofferson. They broke out on their own last year with the release of their debut record, TX Jelly, recorded at legendary studio Muscle Shoals. Now their funk-infused country sound is blazing a trail through the music world. The gents are seen here in Wrangler jackets, pants and shirts.
For three days, the music played. Seventy-two hours of alternative indie, blues, southern rock, bluegrass, and maybe a couple new ideas along the way. It sounded like rock but it felt like jazz – no rules, no boundaries. Pure freeform. That was the attitude amongst photographer Danny Clinch, the folks at Wrangler, and the musicians. Just go with the flow, and see what happens. You might make something legendary.