When Kent Finlay agreed to be profiled for this piece, he knew he was dying. “Better sooner than later,” the songwriter and venue-owner from San Marcos warned. We scheduled an interview for later that week. When I called Kent’s cell at the appointed time, his daughter Jenni answered. “Dad’s not conscious right now,” she told me. Jenni was by her dad’s side, along with her sister, HalleyAnna, and brother, Sterling. They were passing around a guitar, singing some of their father’s favorite songs. Kent passed away the next morning in the early hours of March 2, Texas Independence Day. He was 77.
That night a crowd gathered at Cheatham Street Warehouse to celebrate one of the most important and regrettably overlooked heroes of Texas music. Cheatham Street is the honky-tonk in San Marcos Kent opened in 1974, a converted 100-year-old tin warehouse that was originally built to store cotton unloaded from nearby passing boxcars. On this particular night, the marquee read “God Bless Kent Finlay.” Flowers rested against the hand-painted sign greeting patrons: “Welcome Home.” Red bandanas marked nearly every member of the audience, an homage to the one Kent wore daily around his neck. “They’re sold out of these from here to San Antone,” a friend said, tightening the knot at his throat. Blue Healer, the act booked to play that night, filled the role of house band. One songwriter after another took the stage to pay tribute to the man who nurtured their fledgling careers and inspired them to pick up the pen and write.
Seated at one of the giant wooden spools in Cheatham, a mason jar of Lone Star in hand, my mind wandered to the week before when I was sitting in Kent’s home, a house he built several miles east of town on the San Marcos River. Kent was recording when I showed up, his longtime running buddy, Big John Mills, picking a guitar alongside him. I hadn’t seen Kent in several months. He was far too skinny, his t-shirt hung about him like a child wearing his father’s clothes. An IV snaked from his forearm to a pump slung around his shoulder. His movements were slow, deliberate. But his eyes were the same powder blue, alive with wit, wisdom, and an ever-present hint of mischief.
“I’m not supposed to have this,” he said, unwrapping a half-eaten Whataburger. We talked about what he was hoping to accomplish—plans for the house, for Cheatham, unfinished songs. A yellow legal pad on the table was scribbled with the titles of over four-hundred songs he had completed or planned to. We retreated to the back room when Kent needed to lay down and prop up his feet. I rocked in the recliner next to him. We first met in 2005, when I was a junior in high school. I made the six-hour trip from my hometown of Andrews, Texas, to attend one of Kent’s song-swaps. At the time, I hadn’t decided which college to attend. After leaving that night, my mind was set. I figured I could get a decent education at any Texas university, but only Texas State had Cheatham Street down the hill. Perhaps Kent recognized me as a fellow West Texan or maybe I just hung around so much, but Kent took an interest in my life and in my dreams. We became friends. Sitting by his bedside, I realized most of the important questions had been answered over the course of our friendship: He was born and raised on a cotton farm near Fife, Texas. He learned to sing over the noise of a tractor. His favorite songwriter was Kristofferson. Hell no, beans have no business being in chili.
So we talked of West Texas—Terlingua and the Big Bend. The days when the only general store in Lajitas had dirt floors before tourism changed the town with an irrigated golf-course and stabled horses for pre-packaged rides. He recalled exploring the region with his band, The High Cotton Express, when his beard was as black as his wide-brimmed hat. He remembered a tune that hadn’t been jotted in the legal pad. He broke into the song’s chorus, just like he would while teaching History of Country Music at Texas State or eating enchiladas at Garcia’s or anywhere else he felt like warbling a few lines. This particular composition put a clever twist on the origin of Jesus’s name. “Should’ve pitched that one to Kinky Friedman,” he laughed. Kent’s repertoire of songs is remarkably diverse. He penned cowboy ballads as good as any written since Marty Robbins crooned about the streets of El Paso. He wrote knowingly of the perils of fame, though stardom eluded him. He harnessed heartache into verse. And he wrote some damn funny songs, too, comedic gems that’d make Baptists blush and Shel Silverstein split a gut.
We reminisced about trips to Luckenbach—the drive always broken up by a stop at the Blanco Bowling Club for a burger. On the way the conversation might steer toward God or Luckenbach’s long-gone spiritual leader, Hondo Crouch. In Kent’s mind, I’m not sure the two were mutually exclusive. Many afternoons of Kent’s life were whiled away under the shade of those big oaks, working on new songs, or playing old numbers by the wood-burning stove.
I’d like to think if I had been able to sit there all night, the stream of stories and songs would’ve never stopped, but it was getting late. I placed a few extra logs on the fire and told him I’d see him soon.
My reverie was broken when Pake Rossi started strumming Kent’s tune, “Comfort’s Just a Rifle Shot Away.” Most of the folks at Cheatham knew the song by heart, though recordings of Kent’s songs are fairly hard to come by. Nearly everyone singing the lyrics memorized them by attending Kent’s weekly Songwriter Circle—a sacred event at Cheatham. Almost every week since the venue’s opening, a notepad is set out at eight o’clock bar time. A line of tunesmiths from across the country sign their name to one of the seventeen slots, but this isn’t your typical open mic. Every song must be of the performer’s origin. There is no talking, no ingratiating guitar solos. “Songwriter’s church,” some call it, and the steadfast shepherd of this flock was Kent Finlay.
Under Kent’s stewardship, this night fostered some of the greatest songwriting talents in Texas music. James McMurtry, Todd Snider, Adam Carroll, Terri Hendrix, Hal Ketchum, Bruce Robison, and many others honed their skills in the carefully-crafted atmosphere of these weekly sessions. Somewhere along the way, people started calling Kent “The Godfather of Texas Songwriters.” The moniker stuck, though Kent was never comfortable with the title. “Guess I still have a lot of work to do,” he’d say.
One only has to look around Cheatham Street at the black-and-white photos on the walls to see evidence of the tremendous work Kent did over his five-plus decades in the music business. Among the most notable are pictures of George Strait, the most famous Cheatham alumnus. Strait and Ace in the Hole started on Cheatham’s stage playing every Tuesday: “Ladies Night, nickel beers.” Kent helped book Strait’s first gig at The Broken Spoke, then took a crowd from his own venue to ensure the band had a turn-out. It was in Kent’s Dodge cargo van that the “King of Country” first ventured to Nashville. When Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, Finlay posted a handwritten sign outside of Cheatham: “I told you so.”
Kent’s ear for talent reached far beyond Strait, though. A young Stevie Vaughn, as he was billed then, took up the weekly Tuesday gig in the early eighties. Charlie and Will Sexton would often open the sparsely-attended shows. Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff Walker, and many other talents from Austin’s Progressive Country movement made the trip down I-35 to play the ramshackle warehouse in San Marcos. In later years, Randy Rogers inherited Tuesdays under the stipulation he put together a band.
Though Kent helped launch many careers, his own musical talent was never widely recognized outside of the songwriting community. Owning Cheatham didn’t make him a rich man, either. From the very beginning, the music came first. A 1974 article in The Hays County Citizen announcing the opening of the venue captures this sentiment: “Finlay stated that Cheatham St. does not intend to gain a profit from the cover. ‘The door money pays for the band.’” Forty years later, that philosophy remained the same.
Cheatham Street is far from most traditional notions of beauty. The roof leaks every time it rains. The building shakes every time a train thunders down the tracks. The creaking floor is beer-stained and boot-worn. “Cobwebs are the only thing keeping this place together,” Kent used to joke. But Kent had an affinity for the weather-beaten, the rugged, the misfits. On any given night you’ll see bolo ties, crumpled straw hats, pristine Stetsons, tweed, lots of denim, dreadlocks, buzz-cuts, buckskin, turquoise rings, bad tattoos, and a small forest of beards. You might catch a whiff of weed making your way through the crowd of professors, boozehounds, teetotalers, leather-clad bikers, frat boys, hippies, music-loving lawyers, gypsies, and cowboys with bales of alfalfa in their truck bed. Whether riding a number one hit or writing your first tune, Kent made you feel welcome. Over the years, Kent opened the honky-tonk doors to every kind of music. He hosted benefits concerts for down-and-out musicians and a weekly songwriting workshop for war veterans. A Sam Shepard play was produced there once, and a Texas State honors class, the Art of Storytelling, performs there every semester. He gave everyone, even lost boys from the West Texas oil patch, a home.
The Monday he died, the impromptu concert ended with an all-bar chorus singing Kent’s masterwork, “They Call it the Hill Country,” the song Kent used to close Songwriter Circle. There were hugs and tears shared between strangers and old friends. This was a family in mourning. On my way out, I passed the empty barstool where Kent sat every night Cheatham was open, boots tapping time, listening to every rhyme. A red bandana rested on the seat.
I walked out of the neon glow into the cold night. The Greyhound station sign burned like an angel’s light in the fog. I felt the ground quiver beneath me as a train rumbled past. I got close enough that it rattled my bones. Trains have always signified a coming and going, but that night the engine’s whistle sounded so lonesome, like it was taking the entire night with it down the tracks. I stood there a long while after it was gone, wishing for one more song.