The Dreamer Behind the Songs: Kent Finlay
Vince Gill told me recently that, in music, there are drainers — those who have a negative attitude toward any new music, who drain the energy out of a room as they complain about that music. There are also refillers — those who replenish music by encouraging the reframing of traditions or striking off in new directions with creative new sounds and lyrics. While Gill clearly lives in the second category — he’s one of the greatest supporters of young artists today — there’s also a third category that might be called the believers, the discoverers, the encouragers, or the dreamers.
Kent Finlay fits squarely into this latter category, and anyone who’s ever been in his presence has come away a different person for the deep encouragement and personal support he provided when he believed in you and your songwriting.
Finlay, along with Jim Cunningham, opened Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, in June 1974, and the venue quickly grew into a listening room where songwriters could come and try out their newest songs, knowing that whoever was in the room would respect them and actually listen to the music. An old cotton warehouse with sliding doors that opened out onto train tracks had just the right acoustics for the pair: “I remember taking a guitar in,” says Finlay, “and strumming it and thinking wow. It sounded just perfect. Nice warm sound, before we even did anything. That old wood is just a perfect conductor for soulful music. Better than the Mormon Tabernacle.”
One of the best books of this year so far, Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy behind Cheatham Street Warehouse (Texas A&M University Press), honors Finlay, revealing the ways he’s influenced a holy host of songwriters and an entire cultural scene, from the cosmic cowboys heyday of the mid-1970s to the rich and diverse songwriting scene of the late 20th century.
Jenni Finlay gathers intimate conversations with her father about his life and work in the book’s first half, and Brian T. Atkinson gathers reminiscences from numerous artists Finlay inspired in the second half, making the book part oral history and part glowing tribute. This beautiful tribute brings the voice of Finlay — who died just before this book was submitted to the publisher on March 2, 2015 (Texas’ Independence Day) — back to us in all its humble timbre. It returns his spirit to us, as an ever-watchful presence ready to inhabit those songwriters looking to share their soul and stories with ready audiences.
Finlay recalls that Cheatham Street Warehouse at first featured mostly country acts — Joe Ely, Asleep at the Wheel, and George Strait, among others — and it was, as Finlay calls it, “Gram Parsons country, not necessarily Nashville country.” Doug Sahm, Billy Joe Shaver, and Monte Montgomery graced the stage in the 1970s and ’80s. During that same time, Delbert McClinton played there once a month, as did Asleep at the Wheel. Stevie Ray Vaughan played once a week.
Finlay recalls one of the venue’s most memorable nights, when Guy and Susanna Clark came into town and joined Townes Van Zandt. Clark and Van Zandt were swapping songs when it got close to midnight — closing time — but nobody wanted to leave. Finlay told the crowd they could stay as long as they drank Cokes or coffee since he couldn’t serve alcohol after closing time. “We just stayed and stayed and stayed there nearly all night,” he says. “It was one of the most magical nights of all times.”
Finlay sold Cheatham in 1988, and a variety of owners were either unsuccessful at running it or ran it into a venue that barely resembled the original Cheatham. It “had just sunk down to being a bar … it was just so heartbreaking,” he says. “It wasn’t that I missed it. I felt like I had to rescue it to save its reputation.” So, on New Year’s Eve 2000, Finlay re-opened with a sign announcing “Cheatham Street Warehouse — Under Old Management.”
Finlay points out that after the grand re-opening, “we wanted to get on board to help all the new songwriters … most everything we have on our stage is something I really and truly believe in. … We have the next George Straits coming through. When I look back on an artist that we helped start to make things happen, I am so proud.”
The artists whom Finlay has helped over the past 40 years recognize his generosity, his graciousness, and his way of getting them to think about their music as their vocation, their calling, their way of life. As Terri Hendrix recalls, “Kent told me that, ‘you have to be really hungry for it, and you have to be able to not do anything else.’ It took me a long time to realize what he meant, but it’s true. In order to want this career, you do have to be hungry and really work.”
George Strait, whom Finlay took over to Nashville with some demos in search of a record deal, affectionately recalls Finlay’s vision: “He knows good songs and knows good music. … I think it was a dream of Kent’s all along: to give a platform for artists to develop their skills and just have a damn fun way to make a living. … That’s how I think Kent will be remembered, a guy who was a friend to the songwriters and artists in our great state of Texas, who believed in our music and was willing to do his part to help you get to wherever it was you wanted to be.”
Sunny Sweeney remembers Finlay as “the nicest person on the planet,” but also as a man who was incredibly supportive of women artists. “There are bars that won’t let you play because you’re a girl; Kent was, like, ‘if you have the songs and the band, you can play.'”
Robert Ellis recalls Finlay’s support of songwriters and the way he sets the stage for the evening. “What’s so cool,” he says, “is at the beginning he gets up and basically says, ‘everybody be quiet and respectful and listen.’ Everybody sticks to that. He’ll definitely bitch people out if things get out of hand when somebody’s trying to go up there and play their song.”
Todd Snider, who wrote the musical tribute to Finlay and his work, “Cheatham Street Warehouse,” became like family and remembers the lessons about observation and writing that Finlay taught him — almost as a Buddhist monk would teach his student. Snider celebrates Finlay’s wisdom teaching. “He had a real balance between what Willie Nelson used to say: do it for the love, but then don’t be above the money; do it for the right reasons, but then don’t sabotage it for the wrong reason; don’t be a wuss, either. Don’t hoard it. The songwriting part, maybe somebody else could show somebody else how to do it the way he did.”
Kent Finlay’s last words were, “I love my songwriters. I love Texas. I love the Hill Country. I love Cheatham Street. I love my children. I love this house. I’ve had such a great life.”
This exceptional book illustrates just how Kent Finlay’s spirit radiated luminously through everyone whose lives he touched. The 42 artists who celebrate his wisdom and life share with us just how much they love Kent Finlay and how deeply he changed their lives — and our music.