Texas Forever: Kent Finlay's Lone Star Legacy
For my money, nothing encapsulates the Lone Star ethos better than Texas Monthly’s slogan: the national magazine of Texas. The state’s certainly big and bombastic enough to be a sovereign entity, with its own swagger, cuisine, culture, and way of talking. And its music is so distinct that it’s simply referred to as Texas music. That’s where Cheatham Street Warehouse and Kent Finlay come in.
Finlay opened Cheatham Street in San Marcos in 1974, a year after Texas Monthly’s inception. Located between Austin and San Antonio, near a set of railroad tracks and a large college (Texas State University, nee Southwest Texas State), the shopworn structure has served as an incubator for a who’s-who of Texas musicians, among them George Strait, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Eric Johnson, Randy Rogers, Terri Hendrix, Sunny Sweeney, and Bruce Robison. Not only did these greats give concerts at Cheatham Street, they meticulously honed their craft during Finlay’s weekly songwriting workshops, with Snider, McMurtry, Robison, and Hendrix all part of the venue’s vaunted “Class of ’87.”
A few years ago, Kent’s daughter Jenni, a prominent Austin music producer, and music journalist Brian T. Atkinson embarked upon a uniquely structured biography of Cheatham Street’s founder. Titled Kent Finlay, Dreamer (Texas A&M University Press), it hits shelves March 2. Unfortunately, Kent—who died on Texas Independence Day last year at the age of 77—isn’t around for its debut, but he got a gander at the manuscript shortly before his daughter submitted it for publication. The first half consists of Kent’s reminiscences about his club, his life and the artists who enriched him, while Part Two is chockablock with remembrances from the many artists he’d cultivated to the point where they could make a living from music. In a way, the book—and an accompanying CD featuring covers of several fine, Finlay-penned tunes (Jamie Wilson’s version of “Hill Country” is particularly stunning)—is the best eulogy he possibly could have asked for.
Given its proximity to the college and its legion of raucous co-eds, Cheatham Street has seen—and still sees—its share of packed houses. But for virtually every artist mentioned above, nobody showed up to see them at first. Speaking of his days sitting in with a then-unknown Steview Ray Vaughan, Will Sexton writes, “Hundreds and hundreds of people have told me that they used to go see those shows when Charlie (Sexton’s brother) and I would play with Stevie. Impossible. There would be one biker chick and one frat guy and another random person. No one was ever there.”
Yet a singer’s draw never deterred Finlay from booking them again. If he respected their craft and dedication, they’d always have a stage to play on at Cheatham Street. Nowadays, artists like Rogers who’ve graduated to considerable mainstream success still make a point to regularly play Cheatham Street. They owe it to Finlay’s enormously generous legacy to swing back through, no matter how shiny their chrome's gotten.
The book is dripping with touching and amusing anecdotes, like when Joe Ely’s rental car got crumpled when a locomotive started a pinball effect born of a drunk leaving his own rig smack in the middle of the tracks. Cleve Hattersley of Greezy Wheels adds, “You always smell old beer and new expectations when you walk into Cheatham Street.” If that ain’t the definition of a great honky tonk, I don’t know what is.
Then there’s the time Finlay taught Todd Snider how to properly mix whiskey with 7-Up and ice. “He saw me at my gig one time drinking whiskey with 7-Up in it,” writes Snider. “I was out on the patio, and I thought Kent was going to yell at me about drinking, but he was yelling about me drinking wrong. He said I had to meet him back at the house the next day, and I should probably have an idea for a good song. I got out there, and he said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna show you how to drink whiskey and mix it with 7-Up and ice. He came out with a tray with ice and 7-Up and two glasses and a big thing of Jack Daniels. He goes, ‘Now I’m gonna show you how to mix 7-Up and Jack Daniels. Are you ready?’ He takes out the Jack Daniels and pours two big glasses and hands me the other one. He says, ‘That’s how you drink Jack Daniels with 7-Up and ice. I was like, ‘What about the ice and the 7-Up?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, what about them?’”
By book’s end, you wonder which Texas musicians Finlay didn’t nurture. Under his watchful eye, everybody swapped songs with one another, figuring out how to nail the sort of poignantly funny lyrics that are a hallmark of Texas music. Finlay only has three biological children—one of whom co-wrote this wonderful tribute to her dad—but his Cheatham Street progeny will play on forever. The man left a mark, and it’s as big as the state he called home.