When Kent Finlay passed away on Texas Independence Day in 2015, he left behind a remarkable legacy. Across the music world, Finlay was known as the proprietor of Cheatham Street Warehouse, the legendary honky-tonk on the railroad tracks in San Marcos where he helped launch the careers of countless acts from George Strait and Stevie Ray Vaughan to the venue’s current owner, Randy Rogers. But to friends and fans, Finlay was first and foremost a songwriter.
If Finlay was not perched on his stool at the end of the Cheatham Street bar, listening intently to the performer onstage, he was often somewhere nearby—seated at a booth in Casa Maria’s with a cup of coffee, hanging with Slaid Cleaves by the San Marcos River, or leaning against an oak tree at Luckenbach—always with a yellow legal pad and a pen, scribbling another verse, another rhyme. He had started making up songs as a boy, singing over the loud pops of the tractor as he made furrows in the cotton fields around his hometown of Fife, Texas. He continued honing his craft until the very end.
Finlay had known he was dying. He had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma for the second time, and the doctors had been explicit about the seriousness of his ailment. Time to commit his notebooks of songs to tape was running short. “Kent would call Jenni [Finlay’s oldest daughter] multiple times a day to sing a few lines from whatever he was working on,” said Chris Fullerton, the Austin-based singer-songwriter who recorded Finlay’s final song. “Jenni hooked up the voicemail to a tape recorder, and I was able to transpose that.”
The track which Fullerton covered, “The Last Thing I Want To Do Is Die,” is the final song Finlay completed before he passed. It’s fittingly somber for a man staring down his own mortality, but behind the gloom there are the bright rays of Finlay’s clever penmanship, buoyed by Fullerton’s folksy finger-picking. Fullerton’s version, which includes a snippet of Kent singing the song on Jenni’s voicemail, is set to be released as one of three bonus tracks to the 2016 album, Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay. These three tracks will accompany the first vinyl pressing of the album, set for release this spring. Elsewhere on the track list are covers by James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, and Adam Carroll, as well as offerings by Kent’s youngest daughter, HalleyAnna, and his son, Sterling.
Though Finlay excelled at promoting artists he believed in, he never managed to replicate that success for himself. But since his passing, his admirers have joined together to shine a light on the man who worked his entire life to put others in the limelight. In addition to the tribute album, Texas A&M University Press published Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy Behind Cheatham Street Warehouse, a book chronicling Finlay’s life, which includes a collection of remembrances by many of the famous artists who came up through the venue. Earlier this month, it was announced that Finlay is being inducted into the Texas Music Legends Hall of Fame. And outside of his home state, an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville opening later this year will highlight Finlay’s important contributions to the history of American music.
“I think Kent symbolizes a very progressive notion of where songwriting is going,” Fullerton said about Finlay’s legacy. “There’s the humor aspect of it, the seriousness, and the beauty. These are things that existed in an old-style of writing, but not like they do in Kent’s music. Those traits influenced a generation of songwriters. Now those people are influencing others. And it just goes on and on. You can’t overstate what he’s done for songwriting.”