Q&A: Kent Finlay on the soul of an artist
Cheatham Street Warehouse at dusk. MERCURY PHOTO by JAMIE MALDONADO
Part two of two
by BRAD ROLLINS
In the first part of our interview, local performing arts pioneer Kent Finlay talked about the birth of Cheatham Street Warehouse — and, with it, the start of San Marcos’ live music scene.
We left off in 1974, when Finlay had just opened the doors of Cheatham Street and found a receptive audience among “hippies, rednecks and just plain old people,” to use his words. In the beginning, the set list focused exclusively on Texas country music but, by the end of the decade, Cheatham Street had expanded its repertoire to include blues and rock-and-roll.
In the second of two parts, Finlay talks about the soul of an artist, the plasticity of pretenders — and how Cheatham Street Warehouse looks to separate one from the other.
Songwriter and Cheatham Street Warehouse founder Kent Finlay with the 1975 Dodge cargo band he and George Strait drove to Nashville in 1977 where Strait recorded his first demo record. MERCURY PHOTO by JAMIE MALDONADO
Mercury: Prior to Stevie Ray, only country artists had played at Cheatham Street?
Finlay: At that time, no one had ever done it like that – having rock ’n’ roll one night and blues one night and country one night. There was a country radio station or it was a rock ’n’ roll radio station and there was a big fence in between.
Mercury: What caused you to make that departure? Like with Stevie Ray Vaughan?
Finlay: Oh, I don’t know. He had just moved here from Dallas. He’d been playing with another band and he was putting together Double Trouble. There was a place in Austin called the Soap Creek Saloon and Carlon Major, whose husband ran Soap Creek, was booking Marcia Ball. She said, “There’s this guy and he’s really good and he’s been playing some with the Cobras and he’s starting to get a band together.” We’d see him and I thought he was pretty good.
Mercury: You thought he was good, but your clientele didn’t?
Finlay: It took a while for everybody to get him.
Charlie Sexton and Will Sexton would be up there. They were 10 and 12 years old and that’s how they started their career, opening for Stevie Ray here at Cheatham Street. So we had Charlie Sexton and Will Sexton and Stevie Ray Vaughan — and nobody knew who they were. We couldn’t get people to find them.
They had a festival in New York. Stevie Ray was playing and David Bowie was there — headlining so the people were already there — and they saw Stevie Ray and the people were blown away. It got written up in Rolling Stone and people started coming to see him.
Mercury: How long did he play here?
Finlay: A couple of years, give or take. I probably have, in one of those boxes, my calendars. I need to go back and find them and the newspapers. We ran an ad in the Hays County Citizen every week and in the Daily Record every week and I could go back and kind of figure it out, exactly when he started. Sometime in about 1980. George was still playing here when Stevie Ray started. So there was a while there where each of them played one night a week.
Mercury: Was Stevie Ray still playing here when he died [in 1990]?
Finlay: No. He did a tour with David Bowie and opened for Bowie at the shows in Europe. And by the time he’d got back, he’d been written up in a great review in Rolling Stone. So within about three months, he was too big. He started playing big old coliseums.
Mercury: I’m curious about that process of taking someone and nurturing them and they grow into a star. How does it end? Some day do they just stop calling you back?
Finlay: Well, you know, George [Strait] is obviously too big to play Cheatham Street. If we had him in here for 10 minutes they’d tear the place apart. [laughter] But that’s like our goal, for them to get too big for us. That’s good, when that happens. [But] Randy Rogers keeps coming back. He says he always will. He comes back two or three times a year.
Mercury: Do you ever talk to George? Do y’all have contact?
Finlay: Not often. But the guys that started with him are still right here. One of them lives in Austin. [Ace in the Hole band members] Mike [Daily] lives here. Tommy [Foote] lives here. George is a little more elusive. But I see [Daily and Foote] all the time.
Mercury: When did George Strait first started playing here?
Finlay: He started here in ’75. In ’77, it was the first time he ever went to Nashville.
Mercury: This is when you drove the van to Nashville and George Strait recorded his demos?
Finlay: So [Strait’s composer] Darryl Staedtler and George and me all were together on that trip.
Mercury: Did you plan it beforehand or was it a spontaneous thing?
Finlay: We planned it. Darryl and I was going to Nashville quite a bit at that time. And George — we saw each other everyday, you know — and he was writing songs. His grandfather gave him enough money to do some demos [but] he didn’t know anyone there. Darryl did. So, anyway we all went. He did a great demo. Really great.
Mercury: How long were y’all up there?
Finlay: I don’t know, a week maybe. Something around a week or six days. We all came back down together.
Mercury: It’s not like y’all went to Nashville and his career took off and you never heard from him again?
Finlay: No, no. He did great great demos but they were doing the pop-country thing at that time and he wasn’t going to do that. All of us here were like, “nah”, just like we are now. We were more into the purity of the music. And all of us were doing lots of Bob Wills-like Texas music. And George, you know, he didn’t do anything pop. It was all George Jones kind of stuff, Bob Wills kind of stuff. And he wasn’t going to do [pop].
The demos were all straight-ahead country. Buddy Spicher came up — Buddy Spicher and Johnny Gimble were the two great fiddlers in Nashville — and Buddy Spicher comes up and says “Y’all ain’t gonna have any trouble getting that guy a deal.” Spicher played on everybody’s records, you know, but at that time, they were all listening for some of that pop stuff.
But [Strait’s longtime manager] Irv Woolsey he was from around here and he was working at MCA. Irv was able to talk to somebody up there into giving George a shot. Of course, know what happened — everybody was hungry for something like George Strait.
Mercury: The real country fans —
Finlay: — George started coming out with those country songs and those pop guys started losing their deals. They started looking for Randy Travis and people like that. Randy Travis had been in that town for seven years and he was a novelty. He was actually flippin’ burgers. He was a floater at a place that had music. Sometimes they’d let him come out and sing a George Jones song. Probably they would never have signed Randy Travis [if George Strait hadn’t proved the market for country]. I don’t know that, you know, but I know that’s what happened. I always say George Strait saved country music
Mercury: Tell me about the van.
Finlay: That van was Cheatham Street’s cargo van. It is a ’75 Dodge van. We bought it new for nearly nothing.
Mercury: At a San Marcos dealership?
Finlay: I wish it had been but they were running a special at North Star Dodge in San Antonio. We could afford it and we needed it and it was such a good deal we couldn’t afford not to get it.
Mercury: Why’d you need a van?
Finlay: To take speakers around and move equipment. I didn’t have a pickup and Jim didn’t have a pickup, so we found a van and it was really good for me because I was playing around. It gave me room to carry the whole band. We’d put equipment in the back and we put a couch in the back. It wasn’t like a bus but we were really happy with it.
That trip [with Strait] we had an army cot. So there were three of us — one of us rode shotgun one of us slept and one of us drove all the way. [laughter]
… And it’s a historic vehicle. It’s important for that reason. Doug Sahm rode in that van and George Strait. It’s not like it’s that big of a deal except I told someone that if there was an old car that the Beatles rode to London to sign their deal in, would it be important? It’s the same deal. It may not seem very important because it’s right here.
We want to get it completely refurbished and then, the [Cheatham Street] Foundation will pick a songwriter each year and then drive them to Nashville. Just [for] the symbolism of it — driving to Nashville to do a demo session and show ’em around town and bring ’em back.
Mercury: Like with George Strait and Stevie Ray Vaughan, part of your story is that you discover young acts and give them a platform for launching into something bigger.
Finlay: We make it a point, we really do. That’s part of the reason we’re here. I feel like if we’re going to call ourselves a music hall, then we have to. If we didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be legitimate. We find people and develop them and perpetuate them and promote them and hope that they fly off into the great, great land of music — into Billboard or something. We got some young songwriters that are blowing my mind. Some of them are here tonight.
Mercury: Does the talent kind of ebb and flow? Or is it pretty consistent over the years?
Finlay: Sometimes you really can’t tell. Sometimes someone will come in on songwriters’ night and it’s really important to me because I get to see them over a long period of time, especially if they become a regular. I get to watch them and hear them. Sometimes you’ll just be surprised — someone will come in and you would think, “Oh goodness. They just have too far to go.” And then, by the end of that year, it’s like they just caught on fire. And [then you think], “Wow! I can’t believe that.”
So what we do here is try to show everybody what to listen for. It’s almost like a little weekly competition, like everybody’s listening to each other and getting inspired and trying to do better so they can come back the next week with another song.
Mercury: Kind of feeding off each other’s energy?
Finlay: Yeah, everybody listens to everybody else so it, obviously, works. I make it a point — it wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t — I listen to every song. I get inspired, too. Usually I tell them that I go home every week a little bit better songwriter than I was the week before. Because I got to hear something that inspired me.
Mercury: I guess it’s different with each artist but is it more of a formula of what makes someone that’s going to go further than average? Or is it more the intangibles?
Finlay: It’s not a formula but there’s certain things that have to be there. You have to be sincere. You can’t be just wanting to be seen on stage. You gotta be sincere. Hank Williams was sincere. He may not have been the best songwriter alive at that time but he was totally sincere. You can hear it in his voice when he’s singing those songs that he wrote. And it has to contain truth. It doesn’t have to be the truth but it has to have truth in it. It has to be believable, even if it’s a long tall tale that’s gonna have some kind of a goofy ending. It’s got to have truth within it. And, you know, the melody. It’s got to have a melody that’s a decent melody. And, Lord, I just love words. I love rhymes and I love alliteration. I love twists in the song. I love harmonies and all the things that make it better. All of them are part of being a great song, I think.
When [Kris] Kristofferson came along, he taught us all how good a song could be. He’s got all this inner rhyme and wonderful stories and parts that just reach out and squeeze your heart. I use him as an example because he’s just so great but there are so many other songwriters, [Bob] Dylan and Shel Silverstein and Billy Joe Shaver. What a country poet Billy Joe is. All those great great stories and melodies that he writes — “I’m just an old chunk of coal but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” That just says it all.
Mercury: In the media business, we talk a lot about how young people, how they’re wired differently, they’re less inclined to be readers and, consequently, less inclined to be writers. And we’re always trying to push video with the people, be more visual. Do you see that reflected in young songwriters? Is there less craftsmanship in their lyrics?
Finlay: You know, the people that start coming to songwriter night, they’re a special breed of people. I mean people who are just geared differently. Some people are geared towards being technical and some are geared towards organization and everything. Some songwriters are pretty organized, though. Seems like some of the best ones are. Todd Snider, he’s organized in his mind … but he’s not like normal people. And I’m not either. Sometimes I’m off in a corner somewhere and people see me off moving my lips [talking to myself[ because I’ve got a song going on in my head and I’m working on it.
Mercury: We were talking the other day about Texas country, the roots of it with Austin and Luckenbach. Is that genre — have you seen it evolve over the decades and is it still true to what it was at that point?
Finlay: You know we used to talk about Texas country back in the ’70s. Some people think that Texas country started with Pat Green and Robert Earle. [But] Bob Wills was Texas country. Texas has always been a real fertile ground.
So, yeah, it changes. It sways back and forth. But Willie was Texas country back in the ’70s and he’s still Texas country. And Waylon. The big movement in the ’70s was Willie and Waylon. The Austin sound, you know? That’s what they called it and later they called it, the same music, “Outlaw [country].” And then everyone was copying what Willie and Waylon had started. So that sound is a little bit different from what you hear Randy Rogers doing or anybody else identified with Texas country or the Oklahoma guys, Red Dirt [music]. But it all comes from the same place. It’s all geared toward playing live. It’s geared towards Texas and Louisiana and Oklahoma. They all have honky tonks —
Mercury: — That’s the key ingredient? You talk about honky tonks a lot, that’s what makes it —
Finlay: — That’s the school of country music. Lefty Frizzell didn’t go to college somewhere and learn how to do all that. He learned it all singing five or six hours a night in a honky tonk. Texas music is kind of geared toward the live thing and that’s how it was built — you can see people’s faces right there. Bob Wills was playing all that early Texas country and they were playing to people. They weren’t playing in the studio.
There’s a definite reason why Cheatham Street looks like a honky tonk. We didn’t have any honky tonks in San Marcos in 1974. We didn’t have any school of country music. You could learn to be a band director or a choir director at the university. But you couldn’t learn what George Strait did.
Mercury: When you started, you were the only show in town at that point and now —
Finlay: — I always add that there was a place called the Nickel Keg and they would have, maybe once a week, someone come in and play. But that was not [the same thing]. They were trying to draw people to drink beer. And I have beer so they’ll play music —the music is the thing. This is a music hall, a honky tonk. I just always want to be sure I make that clear.
Mercury: Back then, I guess you were the center of San Marcos nightlife and you were really the only show in town. Now there’s so much more out there. Is it right to see it that way — that, over time, there were more and more things demanding people’s attention?
Finlay: Yeah, definitely. There’s so many places, some of them playing records and playing darts and bowling places. I mean, there’s just numerous different things that divide the audience 50 different ways. Back then, there weren’t as many people but the people weren’t divided up so many ways.
Mercury: Tell me more about the [Cheatham Street Foundation]. Where do you want to take that?
Finlay: We started about five or six years ago. The foundation owns this property. The deal is for it to always be, if something happens to me, it’s going to always be a place to develop Texas music and songwriters. To perpetuate Texas music [and] celebrate Texas music. It’s going to be a place where what’s been going on for the last 35 years can keep on going on.
And I said if we get the new roof, then we’re going to start a little museum. Take all this — not the neon, we love the neon, — but take all those other beer signs off the wall and everything and put up posters of whoever had played here. Todd Snider, he’s going to give me a guitar. And Randy Rogers is going to give me, hopefully,that guitar he wrote those first songs on. They tell me he’s going to give me a guitar and he’s considering that one. We’re going to get a guitar from George. I have a harmonica from Delbert [McClinton].
Mercury: What are you going to get from Stevie Ray?
Finlay: One year he was playing at the Fire Station [Recording Studio]. Stevie always played at such a level, it was painful to hear sometimes. He blew a speaker over at the Fire Station and Gary Higginbotham has it. It’s so appropriate. I mean, you can’t see that it’s blown but it is. I think that’s pretty good. [laughter]
Mercury: Where does the Cheatham Street Woodshed fit into all this?
Finlay: That’s separate. The Woodshed is like my recording studio. It’s kind of loosely connected just because it’s here, [but] it’s not really a part of Cheatham Street. The sessions we do over there are totally separate from what happens over here. It’s a commercial studio.
When I’ve got my songwriters coming up — when they’re getting about right — I tell them they need to be thinking about recording that one and that one. It’s called the Woodshed because that’s what musicians call it when they’re getting things together, sitting around writing songs. It’s called “woodshedding”. And it looks like a woodshed, too, doesn’t it? [laughter]
Mercury: Is it coincidental that the Center for Texas Music History is at Texas State or is there some connection?
Finlay: Back in the ’70s I started teaching country music history in [Texas State’s] history department. I did it for a few semesters and I just didn’t have time any more. Then when Gary Hartman and Greg Andrews came up with the idea to do that, they started getting it together and they asked me if maybe I would come back and teach country music history again. I said, “Yeah, I sure will.” I did that for, I guess, for eight or nine years. I just did that one class and I did it every fall. Then, last fall I did it the last time. I was trying to find more time to do things that I gotta do.
Mercury: What do you want to find more time to do?
Finlay: Write songs. I think of myself as a songwriter first. And that’s the thing that I always put off because, you know, the faucet in the rest room is dripping and someone threw their trash out in the parking lot and all the stuff you just gotta go do instead of go hide somewhere and write.
Mercury: Where do you write?
Finlay: I write a lot at my house. I live down the river, across the river from Martindale. It’s pretty secluded so it’s a great place to be a writer. If I can ever get away — if I can ever turn the computer off and silence the phones — then it’s really a good place. And sometimes I write sitting right [in my office at Cheatham Street]. Look — here’s songs I’m working on —
Mercury: — Is that what you write on, yellow legal pads?
Finlay: Yellow legal pads. They need to be yellow, I don’t know why. [laughter] Yellow legal pads are my favorite thing to write on but I’ve got paper napkins and things all over.
Mercury: Is there such a thing as the San Marcos Sound? You hear people talk about it. I’m unsure if it’s a real thing or not.
Finlay: I mean, things are really booming here, musically, but you have to realize it’s the Austin [scene]. I mean, we’ve got our own little thing but you can’t really separate us from Austin. [The Austin scene] is from Shiner to Luckenbach and from New Braunfels to Round Rock. The music scene music can’t really be defined by city limits. A lot of the bands that play in San Marcos live in Austin or in Wimberley. We all live in various places and then we go to whatever place we play in.
Mercury: You were talking about Texas being fertile ground for songwriters – is there a part of Texas in particular that seems to be a good part?
Finlay: It’s particularly good right around here, yes. But Billy Joe grew up around Waco; Willie grew up close to Waco. Kristofferson grew up in Brownsville. The area around Beaumont has been a really fertile ground for country music, especially, and for Zydeco and for Blues. It’s really really fertile ground.
Mercury: That’s where Janis Joplin’s from —
Finlay: She’s from Port Arthur, right there by Beaumont. She kind of got into music, though, in Austin. She was going to Threadgill’s place over there on North Lamar. But she came from there. That oil boom happened there in East Texas so it kind of created a lot of honky tonks which gave rise to a place to be a songwriter and a fiddle player or a guitar player or a singer. If there’s not a place to be a songwriter, it’s hard to be one.
Mercury: I guess you have to have people to play for.
Finlay: You have to have people to play for and you have to have people that don’t think you’re a nut case ’cause you tell them you’re a songwriter. … There was a lady from California, a songwriter, and she was thinking about moving to San Marcos and she told me, “I went over there, about four or five blocks over there, and there was an apartment for rent.” And so she went there to see if she could rent this garage apartment behind someone’s house. And they asked “What do you do?” and she said ’I’m a songwriter’ and he said, “But what do you do?” [laughter]
Sometimes we have people come in here from Europe and they know all the people that were playing on what day, and who recorded and who wrote that song. And a guy across the street doesn’t know who’s playing tonight — and it’s on the sign. [laughter]
Mercury: It’s interesting. You play Texas country and, obviously, it’s most popular in Texas. Are there pockets, internationally, of Texas country music fans?
Finlay: Everybody is popular when they go to Europe. The Europeans are just wild about what we’re doing here — the Americana stuff. We do a lot of Americana, we do some folk, and we do some Texas country. It’s all related but it’s kinda different. Maybe you kind of have to be in on it to hear the difference.
Mercury: I guess what it all has in common is an organic, kind of populist thing?
Finlay: Roots. Roots music is kind of what blues and country and Texas country is. When I say country, I don’t mean that commercial stuff that they’re doing now. That doesn’t sound like country at all. Part of what we’re doing right here is a reaction to what we don’t like, to what they’re doing to our music.
Mercury: What is it you don’t like? Is it just overly slick?
Finlay: It’s not dishonest but it’s music that’s created in the studio by technology, partly, instead of music that was created to sing to people, like here. You can do things in the studio — layers and layers of guitars. We sort of like to hear the guitar player play the guitar instead of just having a wall of guitars. We like to hear people playing something from their heart instead of something the engineer or the producer made up.
And so there’s a whole lot of people who are recording now who can’t possibly go out and play that song for people, what you hear on the record. You can’t possibly go out there and play it for people because it wasn’t done with human fingers and vocal chords. That was involved in it, but mostly it’s some guy tracking something over and over.
Mercury: I’m just kind of bullshit philosophizing here, but you know people’s lives, the way they live, is more and more homogenized and sterilized and commercialized. There’s less diversity of the human spirit, of human nature. Does that increase the value of authenticity, when it comes to entertainment?
Finlay: Art has to have a connection with somebody’s soul and somebody’s heart. You can just draw a picture, pay a gorilla to spread paint around on it. Art has to have a human connection. You can just tell the difference. [Someone says], “Write something that sounds like this one because it was No. 1 last week.” Well, there are people in this world that do that. But it’s not art, it’s just a copy. It might sell. Unfortunately, it will probably sell [laughter].
You can line up 20 guitar players or singers or songwriters and one of them will just draw you in. And that magnet thing is magic. Everybody can’t do that.
Mercury: Are you optimistic about the prospects for Texas country music?
Finlay: Absolutely. Absolutely. There are going to be people here tonight that are just going to solidify my enthusiasm about the future. Our music’s in good hands. We’ve got some great people you never have heard of yet. And there’s others I haven’t heard about, too. They keep coming.
PART ONE: Luckenbach as an inspiration for the San Marcos music scene, the birth of Cheatham Street Warehouse and San Marcos as Austin-in-miniature. Read it here.