By Richard Skanse
That Kent Finlay loved songwriters as much as he loved writing songs himself was no secret to anybody who ever knew the man, met the man, or honestly, even just heard of the man. He wore that love on his sleeve as proudly as he did the red bandana he always wore around his neck, and devoted the better part of his 77 years on earth to giving fellow lovers of song and songwriters alike a sense of belonging, community, purpose, and place. Even after he “retired” from the bar business at the end of the ’80s and sold his beloved San Marcos, Texas honky-tonk Cheatham Street Warehouse, he continued hosting his long-running songwriter circle open-mic gatherings elsewhere. And when he finally came happily back around to losing his senses again and reopened Cheatham “under old management” a decade later, it for sure wasn’t the lure of selling beer that motivated him. As his oldest daughter Jenni Finlay has often recounted, it was in large part because he’d fallen so hard for the debut album of a young Texas troubadour named Adam Carroll, he figured he had to help give the kid a stage worthy of his songs — just as he had for countless others throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and would for another 15 years right up until his death last Texas Independence Day.
“That’s pretty awesome,” marveled an ever humble Carroll at Cheatham last March, a couple of weeks after Kent’s passing. “I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s … that’s something else. He always made me feel at home.”
Fittingly, Carroll is one of the many notable Cheatham alums featured in the forthcoming Texas A&M University Press book, Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy Behind Cheatham Street Warehouse, c0-written by Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson and due out on March 2, the one-year anniversary of Kent’s death. Carroll also recorded one of Finlay’s songs (“Be Nice to ‘Em, Son”) for the companion tribute album Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay,. Other artists on the album — all singing selections from Finlay’s own songbook — include Terri Hendrix, Walt Wilkins, James McMurtry, Slaid Cleaves, Randy Rogers and Sunny Sweeney, William Clark Green, Jamie Wilson, Owen Temple, Jon Dee Graham, Steve Poltz, Matt Harlan, Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay, and Finlay’s other daughter, HalleyAnna.
The book is divided into two parts: “The Story,” told in Kent’s own voice as transcribed from interviews Jenni conducted with her father, and “The Players,” comprised of Finlay and Cheatham-related oral histories and remembrances collected by Atkinson (author of I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt.) Following is an exclusive excerpt from the “The Players” section — Adam Carroll’s interview — which LoneStarMusicMagazine is proud to premiere alongside Carroll’s song from the tribute record.
Chapter 48: Adam Carroll
I met Terri Hendrix and Slaid Cleaves, and people like that started helping me out. Slaid was actually the first person who said, “Hey, man, you gotta meet Kent Finlay.” Aaron Allen, a radio DJ on KCTI [AM 1450] in Gonzalez and a character cut from the same cloth as Willie Nelson, asked me to do the gig at this place Landa Station that used to be in New Braunfels. It had a stripper pole and a stage. Kent and Sterling and Aaron Allen and a couple other people that I can’t remember were there, but I remember that stripper pole. No one was dancing on it, but we were doing the gig and the pole was right in the way. I think somebody had given Kent my first CD, so he knew some of my songs.
I started hanging around Cheatham Street right off the bat. I used to live right by it, and I used to go over all the time. It was a home away from home. As he’s done with so many people, Kent made me feel a part of his family. Kent has so many stories, and being around him—driving to gigs and hearing about the Hill Country and people he knows — never gets old. He’s so interesting and in a real natural way. I consider him a really good friend. Right from the get-go he’s been fatherly, for lack of a better term. I’ve seen him be that way with other people too. He’s a real natural at bringing out the best in songwriters, a real inspiration. Some people do this for a little while and get older and move on, but it’s Kent’s lifeblood. That’s how I want to be, and I admire a guy who does what he does forever. He’s like one big song that never quits writing itself.
Of course, he encouraged me by being a fan of my songs. As a person, his passion for songwriting is infectious. It makes me want to stick with it. It helps to have a venue where you can have the rituals like at the Woodshed, where his studio is. We’d go over there and write songs. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve always dreamed of having a place like that. “This is a music place, where the music happens. Here’s some coffee and here’s a cigarette and here’s a guitar.” He has the capability to provide that for us. You see all the old coffee cans laying around and the old pictures of Cheatham Street. Here’s the environment. It’s like, “This guy’s serious about this. Let’s write a song.”
I really think, for me and for Kent, it’s a lifestyle. That’s what I want it to be. I mean, it’s a business and it’s a spiritual thing, but it can be the way you live your life, kind of like ranchers do. They do it because they like that lifestyle. They either go broke, or they figure out a way to do it. That’s what I’m trying to do and Kent does by providing that venue and that space that says, “Hey, man, this is all about the songwriter, all about the song.” We all have our limits, our strengths and weaknesses. There are things that I’m pretty good at and there are things I can’t do, but when I have the right venue I can be pretty successful. Kent helps by making that venue all about songwriters. We need a guy like that, who makes us understand how important that is. It’s a lifestyle choice. He makes it that, and it’s really a gift.
As a cowriter, Kent’s a really good listener. He’s a good audience. Usually I’ll have about half a song or a chorus or a verse or two. “Here’s what I got. What do you think?” He has a real oddball sense of humor, which I gravitate toward. For some reason, it locks into what I’m doing.
He can connect with the oddball ideas I can’t figure out how to use in a song. Also, he’s patient. Even if it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, he will sit and work on it and give it the time. He’s persistent to see the song through, and he’ll contribute his own ideas. Sometimes we haven’t been successful, but we keep trying and trying at the same idea. Sometimes we do get a song. There’s one we wrote called “Dear John (You Can Keep the John Deere).” I’ve never played it, but he has, and it’s funny. It’s right up his alley. I’d like to learn it, but I just can’t see how I could do it any funnier than him.
“Poor Boy Blues” is another we wrote that I haven’t ever worked up on my own, but it’s got a lot of good Kent Finlay lines. That was just a good idea about a guy that can’t afford anything and how he’s supposed to get by. Sometimes it sounds more Kent Finlay than me, so maybe it’s a Kent Finlay song. He’s just his own original guy, and he’s really good at helping craft a song when he figures out how he can contribute. He’s good at helping me take a song from an idea through the verses and chorus. He’s good at hammering it down and walking away with an actual song, rather than just, “Oh, I see what you’re saying.” He’ll just sit there and go over it in his head, and he’s so quiet. It’s eerie sometimes. He’s always thinking about what to do. He has the space and the willingness to make it happen.
Randy Rogers was recording “Plastic Girl,” and he was pretty local still before he hit it really big. He asked me to sing a verse, the part where the character comes home from making pizza and he finds the plastic girl with his best friend. I just put my own spin on it. I sang that one line where he comes in and finds his doll cheating with his best friend. I just think it’s funny where he says, “When I’d come home late at night all tired from making pizza / Wendy, she’d be waiting there for me.” That’s a line that only Kent Finlay would come up with. It makes it real.