COVER: Kent Finlay stands in front of the van he drove to Nashville in 1977 with a young, unknown country musician in tow. George Strait recorded a demo on that trip, taking the first steps toward his international music career. Finlay died on Monday, surrounded by family and friends who sang his favorite songs as he passed. MERCURY FILE PHOTO by JAMIE MALDONADO. © 2011, JAMIE MALDONADO PHOTOGRAPHY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
by CYNDY SLOVAK-BARTON
Anyone who has ever stepped foot in Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos could feel the vibes. The place meant music.
And the man behind the place, behind the bar, behind and on the stage was Kent Finlay.
Finlay died at about 1:35 a.m. Monday at his country home near Martindale, surrounded by family and friends who sang his favorite songs as he passed. His death fell in the early morning hours of Texas Independence Day, fittingly, the his favorite holiday.
The timing was also fitting because Finlay’s heart and his smile were as big as Texas. There’s a Texas-sized list of songwriters and performers who sing his praises.
George Strait, who got his first gig with the Ace in the Hole band at Cheatham, credited Kent with helping to start his career. Finlay and Strait traveled together to Nashville, hoping for a record deal. Even though they were not successful during that trip in Nashville, Strait continued with his music and played weekly at Cheatham for seven years, later making his mark in Nashville.
As Billy Dukes recalled this week in Taste of Country:
The singer’s first gig with the now-famous Ace in the Hole Band came on Oct. 13, 1975 at Cheatham Street, a venue Finlay ran until his death. For nearly 40 years the two called one another friends — it was Finlay who drove with Strait to Nashville for the very first time in 1977. Long ago country’s most successful male artist thanked Finlay and his then-wife Diana for “giving me and the guys a place to perform when no one else would.”
Strait, songwriter Daryl Staedtler and Finlay made that long drive from Texas to Nashville in hopes of landing a major record deal. They took turns driving and sleeping in a Dodge cargo van, only to come home empty-handed.
“The truth of the matter is that every major label passed on George Strait,” Finlay told the Tennessean in 2014. “That van had two seats and an Army cot in the back. We took turns driving and riding and sleeping in the cot.”
Eventually, Nashville executives discovered what Texas fans knew. Strait played weekly at Cheatham for seven years. It was “Ladies free” and nickel beer, according to the venue’s website. “I knew he would be a star,” Finlay said, “probably before he did.”
As news of Finlay’s death flowed through the music industry this week, Strait issued an homage to his old mentor.
“Country music – and just music in general really – lost a great friend today. His legend will live forever in Texas, though. We’ll never forget our friend Kent Finlay. Sad day,” Strait wrote.
Strait’s words could be those of a who’s who of Texas country artists whose careers crossed paths with Finlay: Terri Hendrix, Todd Snider, Clay Baker, Bruce Robinson, Doug Sahm, to name a few.
It rings true because these folks – along with many newcomers to the business – were part of Finlay’s famous Songwriters Circle that he hosted every Wednesday night. It was a night where everyone was equal, no matter if you were a star or if you were new to the business. You played, you listened.
Finlay was a gentle person who could get along with adults – and with the kids. My own child learned to love “that man with the beard”. She wanted to go to Cheatham with me. Finlay would plop her on a barstool and slide a Dr. Pepper down the bar to her.
Finlay was known to tell young band members what they needed and how they could change their sound. Several of Hays High’s many students passed through Cheatham – and gone on to play all different kinds of music – from country, to rock, to jazz.
Finlay had an ear and a love of young people, and he seemed to know who could make it. He mentored so many people that it made me wish that I had had the musical talent – just so I could get some of his wisdom.
But, instead, I just got to sit and listen. To his quiet drawl. The man was a dreamer who had a great smile and twinkling eyes.
He will certainly be missed. But I think everyone will agree that the spirit of Kent will remain in those wooden slatted walls of Cheatham as the next batch of young songwriters attempt to make their way.
A memorial service is being planned in the near future. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Cheatham Street Music Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Texas music.
CYNDY SLOVAK-BARTON is publisher of the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print