(Brian T. Atkinson, who has written about music for the Austin American-Statesman and other publications, wrote this tribute to Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay, who died early Monday. Atkinson has a book coming out later this year about Finlay called “Kent Finlay: Dreamer,” that he wrote with Finlay’s daughter Jenni Finlay.)
“You working on anything new?” Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay asked the question almost daily for four decades. Songwriters immediately responded with their latest tune. They sang and hoped while Finlay listened closely. He heard every word. Considered every angle. At close, he reviewed thoughtfully: “Work on the third line.” “The chorus could be stronger.” “Maybe add more detail in the second verse.” Sometimes songwriters simply received the nod and nudge they always looked for: “That’s a nice little song.”
Finlay, a sharp songwriter in his own right and arguably the most respected lyrical editor in Texas, died early morning Monday, March 2, at his home in Martindale, Texas. He was 77. He was surrounded by family and friends on the day of his death. Finlay’s survived by his former wife, Diana Finlay Hendricks, and her husband, Mark Hendricks; his three children, Jenni Finlay and her husband Clay McNeill; Sterling Finlay; and HalleyAnna Finlay; a granddaughter, Annie Finlay; his three brothers and a sister. The last song he sung Sunday afternoon was his own high watermark “They Call It The Hill Country.” “He died on Texas Independence Day,” Jenni said Monday morning. “You know he would have loved that.”
During his life, Finlay made no bones. His beloved Cheatham Street Warehouse has always existed for creation. Songs begin on Cheatham’s stage. They grow. Breathe. Live. Earn more miles. Finally, they mature into shape. Finlay’s songwriters night, an open mike for original songs he hosted for nearly every Wednesday night at the venue for more than forty years, nurtured singular songwriters and storytellers with stunning frequency during his lifetime.
Clearest evidence: The Class of 1987. “That was the most exciting year,” said Finlay, who opened the legendary San Marcos, Texas-based venue in October 1974. “The regulars at songwriters night were me and a bunch of nobodies: Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Hal Ketchum, john Arthur martinez and sometimes Tish Hinojosa. Those were the basic regulars and nobody had every heard of them.” However, those young writers understood the gig’s value. “Cheatham Street would let me play my songs,” McMurtry says today. “That took balls back then.”
By that year, Finlay was already well seasoned at giving breaks. After all, he’d already helped launch legendary blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, incendiary punk rockers The Skunks and several dozen other familiar names including country music icon George Strait, who played his first show with the Ace in the Hole Band at Cheatham Street on October 13, 1975. In fact, Finlay effectively changed modern country music history – all music history, frankly – the day he drove the King of Broken Hearts to Nashville to record his very first demo tapes shortly thereafter.
Literally bucketsful more – including celebrated guitarists Eric Johnston and Monte Montgomery, deep-browed songwriters Adam Carroll and Walt Wilkins, fiery live acts Joe King Carrasco and Charlie and Will Sexton – have emerged from his humble honky tonk stage. Additionally, legendary singer-songwriters such as Marcia Ball, Guy Clark, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver, Ernest Tubb, Townes Van Zandt and dozens upon dozens more regularly stepped on the Cheatham stage throughout the 1970s Cosmic Cowboy heyday.
Several music historians acknowledge Finlay and his venue’s indisputable importance in shaping modern Texas music as well. “When the annals of Texas music are finally written, I have no doubt that Cheatham Street Warehouse will be compared to Washington-on-the-Brazos,” said noted biographer Joe Nick Patoski (“Willie Nelson: An Epic Life, S tevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire”). “A humble little shed by the railroad tracks, it has nurtured, raised and showcased the greatest musicians this state has had to offer for the past (four) decades.” “I’m proud of the great writers that have come out of there,” Finlay told Jenni late last year. “Tom Russell and Doug Sahm played there in the 1970s, right up through Randy Rogers in the 1990s. So many have cut their teeth here.”
Russell fondly framed his tenure. “I recall funky wood floors and cheap sweet wine in Mason jars and great music at Cheatham Street,” the El Paso, Texas, resident said. “Laid back. Down home. For me, the ’70s were the highpoint of great music in Texas and Kent was on the front lines. He knew songs and loved songwriters and he had that old Texas drawl, a warm, big hearted guy. Cheatham Street ranks with (Austin’s) Armadillo World Headquarters and the old Split Rail on Lamar. It had the soul and the vibe: casual and crucial. They don’t make venues like that anymore. You can’t invent it.” Undoubtedly, the infamous railroad tracks behind the venue add atmosphere.
“It’s so unique when you’re in the middle of a song and a train comes roaring by,” Strait recalled. “Since Cheatham Street Warehouse sits right beside a railroad track, that’s what you get. You just start playing louder.”
Kent Finlay, born on Feb. 9, 1938, in Fife, Texas, owned the same soul and vibe himself. Proof emerges in his songs. Finlay’s finest narratives – earthy vignettes such as “They Call It the Hill Country,” “I’ve Written Some Life,” “Plastic Girl,” “Reaching for the Stars” and “Comfort’s Just a Rifle Shot Away” – measure proudly against the songwriters he’s consistently championed over his lifetime. Additionally, he co-wrote album cuts with several artists including Slaid Cleaves (“Don’t Tell Me,” “Lost”), William Clark Green (“Hangin’ Around”), the Randy Rogers Band (“You Coulda Left Me”), Todd Snider (“Statistician’s Blues,” “24 Hours a Day”), and Walt Wilkins (“Blanco River Meditation #2”). (Plus, Rogers has recorded both Finlay’s “They Call It the Hill Country” and “Plastic Girl.”) Accordingly, Finlay kicked off songwriter night every Wednesday with his own high watermark “I’ll Sing You a Story, I’ll Tell You a Song.”
In the end, Finlay maintained a singular focus his entire life. He wrote songs. Discovered and mentored promising songwriters. Created art every way possible. Kent Finlay constantly rose his thoughts through clouds. Fittingly, a swift glance across his business card immediately showed the hand held behind his eyes. The words simply read: “Kent Finlay, Dreamer.”