By Diana Hendricks
(March/April 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 2)
This story begins in the summer of 1974. San Marcos had recently voted to allow alcohol sales in the city limits. The legal drinking age was 18. Willie Nelson hosted his first 4th of July Picnic in Dripping Springs, Texas.
At the other end of Hays County, songwriter Kent Finlay and newspaper columnist Jim Cunningham had partnered and hired some college students to help them transform an old grocery warehouse into a funky little music hall. The old tin building had rolled roofing material nailed to the floors to cover the gaps in the floor boards, swamp coolers hanging from windows to move the air around, a wood stove in the center of the building, and was built within spitting distance of the Union Pacific railroad tracks. When trains rolled by — and they rolled by often and still do — the whole building shook, but the inside walls were lined floor to ceiling with rich heavy wood, seasoned with age and dust, which made for amazing acoustics.
Kent and Jim paid the student-carpenters in cold beer. The owner of the telephone company had donated a few big cable spools for tables, and they found some old folding chairs and theater seats at an auction. Someone scrounged up some old refrigerated beer boxes, and another bar owner in town brought in some pool tables and a shuffleboard table. And the jukebox … oh, how I miss that jukebox! It played three 45 rpm vinyl singles for a quarter and was filled with some of the best classic country music ever loaded into a jukebox. But that old Wurlizer is another story for another time.
The plywood dance floor was primed and sprinkled with cornmeal (an old dancehall tradition to slicken the floor and make boots slide easier). Opening night featured Freda and the Firedogs, with a soulful young lead singer named Marcia Ball. Kicking off with Doug Sahm’s “Be Real,” and a host of original country songs with a distinctive Austin progressive sound, that night, Marcia and her band set the stage for what has come to follow — nearly 40 years of incredible music.
I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat and a backstage pass for much of that magic, as the co-owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse for nearly 23 of those years. In 1978, I married Kent Finlay, and became manager, publicist and co-owner of the honky-tonk music hall. I had been a regular patron of the venue, loving the sound of that progressive music moment since the summer of ’74, and started working there in 1977. I continued working in freelance photography, journalism, and publicity, and have been privileged to maintain long friendships and business associations with many of the people who crossed that old rustic stage on their way to the top.
Countless stories have been written about Cheatham Street Warehouse, and most tell the same tales over and over again. Maybe my account will rehash those old stories, but perhaps it will also shine light into some of the dustier corners of history.
The Cheatham Street “Class of 1976” is a good snapshot of the music we promoted and helped to develop very early on. The year before, one of the scene’s popular area country singers, Jay Dominguez, had fired his band, Stoney Ridge. The guys from Stoney Ridge changed the name of the band and hired a new lead singer, George Strait. He became their “Ace in the Hole,” and, yes, that is an understatement. For several years, George and Ace in the Hole played Cheatham every Wednesday night — “Ladies Free.”
At the heyday of the progressive country moment, the Class of ’76 could be defined as Freda and the Firedogs (Marcia Ball), Ace in the Hole (George Strait), Hardin and Russell (Tom Russell), Joe Bob’s Bar and Grill Band (Bill Whitbeck), and Alvin Crow and the Pleasant Valley Boys. They all played Cheatham on a regular schedule, with a few bands who based out of the Armadillo World Headquarters, Split Rail, and Soap Creek Saloon scene in Austin filling in the gaps: Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers, Rusty Wier, Steve Fromholz, Greezy Wheels, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Asleep At the Wheel. Other legends graced the stage along the way, too: Ernest Tubb picked up a night or two passing through to big shows, and Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker would stop in and sit in with bands.
In 1979, our daughter Jenni was born. Trivia: I drove myself into San Marcos to the hospital to deliver her. Songwriter Alex Harvey (“Delta Dawn,” “Ruben James”) was at Cheatham Street that night, and Kent needed to be there till closing time. We named her after the 7-year-old daughter of our good friends, George and Norma Strait. Texas Hatters’ Manny Gammage came by the hospital nursery and measured her head for a hat. Her birth was announced in Townsend Miller’s music column in the Austin American Statesman.
In 1980, our son Sterling was born — certainly not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but possibly with a Mustang Bass in his crib. I continued to balance the bar business with the freelance photography and writing assignments, along with a kid on each hip, sometimes literally — while Kent chased his dreams as a songwriter and musician.
It was all right. I loved promoting Texas music. By this time, George was breaking records on the national scene, but we had several other rising stars on the horizon from various genres. A scrawny Dallas blues rocker named Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing “Ladies Free Tuesdays,” and Robert Earl Keen, a Bandara cowboy from Texas A&M, was playing for free pitchers of beer on Thursday afternoons. Jerry Jeff and Willie were still regulars, and the weekly flyers from those days now read like Texas Music Hall of Fame nomination slates. Cheatham Street Warehouse became a gathering spot for the “in” Texans — when Texas was at an all-time high in popularity on a national scale. Dallas was the No. 1 show on television. Willie and Waylon Jennings were singing about going to “Luckenbach, Texas, to get back to the basics of love,” and Urban Cowboy created a fashion statement from here to London.
Now, lest you think Cheatham Street Warehouse was a highly successful venture in the financial realm, let me assure you that it was not. As committed as Kent was to the development and perpetuation of live music, he has maintained a long-standing aversion to profit and financial success. The door would go to the band, and the beer would cost 35 or 40 cents — until wholesale costs required us to go up to 70 and 80 cents (allowing a better chance for the loose change to go to the bartenders). As for the hard stuff, Kent stubbornly avoided liquor by the drink for nearly 35 years, only relenting and stocking a full bar very recently. “Liquor gets in the way of the music,” he would always say.
Therefore, we were always looking for ways to make ends meet and pay the rent. Yes, rent. From the days the doors opened, two local businessmen, George Gilbert and Curtis Jenkins, owned the property. They leased the building to us for $400 a month. The rent went up with the turn of the century, and though it was never a lot, through the years it was often more than we could find in the couch cushions and pool tables during those long hot summers when school was out of session and customers were in short supply.
A few weeks into 1984, race car driver and Mustang designer Carroll Shelby called me. In addition to his racing career, he was a chili aficionado. He and a group of Dallas drinking buddies had created the Terlingua Chili Cook-off back in 1967, as a challenge between Frank X. Tolbert, a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, and New York humorist H. Allen Smith, to determine who could cook the best bowl of red. Nearly 20 years later, chili cook-offs were on the front burner across the country, with international championships popping up in Canada and Mexico and even in Australia. Shelby wanted to capitalize on this craze, and had been given my name as a Texas entertainment writer with editorial experience. Would I be interested in leading a startup magazine for chili cooks? For a wild and adventurous 16 months, I did just that. Chili Monthly was an entertainment magazine, headquartered at Cheatham Street Warehouse, and devoted to the good life, which was, as defined for this publication, “good friends, a bowl of red, good music, back roads and beer joints.”
In our initial conversations, Shelby had warned me that this venture would end one of two ways. It wouldn’t catch on and in time, he would get tired of underwriting it and let it go, or it would catch on and someone else would buy it and he’d split any profits with me 50/50. Meanwhile, he was willing to foot the bill, buy me a new Apple computer, a pair of high-topped, custom red Larry Mahan cowboy boots, and pay me a whopping $1,200 a month on top of the expenses of the publication. That helped to pay the Cheatham Street rent and keep the neon lights on. But Shelby was right: 16 months later, a magazine publisher in Dallas made him an offer and bought our mailing list, our name, and the title of the “official publication of the Chili Appreciation Society International.” Shelby cut me a check for $2,500, and told me to keep the computer and the red cowboy boots.
I was expecting my third child. HalleyAnna was born in the year of Halley’s Comet. I continued freelancing for area newspapers and magazines, photographing up-and-coming artists and creating promotional packets to help pay the Cheatham Street rent. Cheatham Street Warehouse was riding a wave of popularity, with an eclectic mix of music ranging from Flaco Jiminez to Delbert McClinton. Folk, blues, Tejano, country, and rock all found a home on that rustic stage: Alejandro Escovedo, Eric Johnson, Joe “King” Carrasco, Doc Sully’s Blues Band, Townes Van Zandt, Gatemouth Brown, Shake Russell and Dana Cooper, the Skunks, the Killer Bees, Clifford “HonkyTonk” Scott, Omar and the Howlers, and more. Our bookings in the ’80s drew diverse crowds of music aficionados and developed a following of loyal Cheatham Street regulars, who came for the music, knowing that whatever the style, it would be worth a listen.
In addition the aforementioned names, this was also the era of the Cheatham Street Warehouse “Class of 1987,” a magical group of gifted but at that time still little-known songwriters who would graduate into the ranks of some of Texas’ best-loved and most respected (not to mention successful) troubadours of the last quarter century. The group included Al Barlow, Todd Snider, Terri Hendrix, John Arthur Martinez, James McMurtry, Hal Ketchum, and Bruce Robison, all of whom would bring their guitars and untested songs into Cheatham once a week and circle up around a wood stove between the dance floor and the pool tables. They would play as much for one another, and for Kent, as for the audience that gathered in the outer-circle to listen.
Kent’s Songwriter Night tradition grew stronger, and continues today. Every Wednesday night is devoted to the song — acoustic and “barefaced, with no powder or paint,” as Billy Joe Shaver would describe it. Just the songwriter and the song, like it was meant to be.
We certainly had built a lifetime of memories in that old building, but eventually, it was simply time for a change. Kent wanted to spend more time writing songs of his own, and I wanted to devote more time to my children, my writing, and my photography. So we started looking into ways to pass the Cheatham Street torch on to someone else.
In 1988, we sold Cheatham Street Warehouse for the first time. Perhaps, I should clarify this statement. Because we leased the property, actually we were not selling the real estate: we sold the lease, the business, the fixtures, the name, and the stories. At least we thought we had sold it. I could definitely write some competency statements about the bar business. I could sell a bar well enough not to get it back — if I have sense enough to get all the money up front, and if I know better than to owner-finance to first-time bar owners.
We would get it back and sell it again — a cycle that happened three times during the next 14 years. Looking back, I don’t recall a conscious decision to list and sell the business. Innumerable people leaned on the bar and talked about what they would do if they owned Cheatham Street. Countless more told Kent or me how we could do a better job of running it. I remember one person who suggested we could put carpet on the walls to muffle the sound — of the rich old wooden building that was once described as having the shape and acoustics of a great old fiddle. We paid little attention to most of those people offering well-meaning advice or dreaming of owning their own honky-tonk.
Part of the challenge was that Kent would never consider selling it to someone who didn’t believe in the development of Texas music with the passion he had. Yet, three times along the way, serious and promising buyers came in with a plan, a dream and visions of owning the old warehouse-turned-music hall. And three times, we felt confident about turning it over to the good hands of people who “understood” the magic. Unfortunately, none of these music aficionado/buyers had the passion, or a sense of the business, or maybe the fact was that they had a much better sense of business than we did and realized that it was not really a money making proposition.
Each time, we “owner-financed” the sale, and each time, we got the lease, the business, the fixtures, the name, and the stories back when the new owners decided that there are a lot easier ways to make a living, and walked away.
Meanwhile, I went to work as the features editor of a local newspaper. While Cheatham Street was temporarily out of his hands, Kent turned our ranch house on the San Marcos River into a songwriter’s haven, and our living room sofa into a guest room for promising musicians. The music never stopped. Kent would “babysit” HalleyAnna when I was at work and the older kids were at school. He spent his days encouraging and co-writing with Slaid Cleaves or Todd Snider or some other bright promising songwriter, as our faithful border collie kept a close eye on my preschooler.
Cheatham Street Warehouse had a successful run as a hot Tejano music club for almost six years during the early ’90s. From Selena to Little Joe y la Familia, the music continued, but with a different flair. Live music gave way to the DJ craze but success was not in the cards, so it closed again.
Doug Sahm died suddenly in November of 1999. At the time, Cheatham Street had recently closed again. Doug’s funeral was a reunion of old friends, and a who’s who of the redneck rock movement.
Amid old stories, much laughter and a few tears, countless people talked to Kent about reopening Cheatham Street as it once had been. Rod Kennedy, founder of the legendary Kerrville Folk Festival, referred to the music hall as “Kent’s bastard child,” a statement in which there was much truth. We talked about it and decided to give it one more try. Why not? Jenni was in college at Belmont University in Nashville, Sterling had graduated from high school and was a freshman at Texas State, and HalleyAnna was in junior high. And I was editing an entertainment news magazine called The Chautauquan, so we had rent money, right?
We opened just in time for the turn of the century. What did we have to lose? The world might come to an end with all of the Y2K fears, anyway, so we figured we might as well go out swinging. HalleyAnna worked the door and Jenni, Sterling and I worked behind the bar that first night, along with Sarah Bennett, my assistant at the magazine. Once again, Marcia Ball played opening night. She has often said that she played more openings and closings of Cheatham Street than she could count.
On the home front, with two kids in college and one entering high school, the inevitable was about to happen. Kent and I were divorced after 23 years. There was no fan-fair of trumpets or late-breaking news bulletin to herald the moment. The relationship ended as quietly as it had died.
HalleyAnna and I moved into San Marcos, leaving Kent and his band of gypsy songwriters at the ranch on the San Marcos River. HalleyAnna began her freshman year in high school, and I continued to help with publicity, the website, and other aspects of Cheatham Street. The new millennium brought a new class of musicians, just as strong as those who had come before. Randy Rogers started as a promising songwriter at the Wednesday night gatherings, built a band, and grew into the most popular regular attraction of the new decade.
HalleyAnna played her first show at Cheatham Street, opening for Monte Montgomery. Monte is no stranger to the Cheatham Street stage: He started playing guitar there when he was 13, with his mother’s band, Family Pride. Coincidentally, HalleyAnna was about that same age the night she played her first gig at Cheatham Street.
I like to believe we were more connected with our musicians than some “club owners.” We believed in them, and invested in them, and they became family. I shot George Strait’s first publicity photos and created his first press packets. Along the way, I scratched out more than a 1,000 band posters, wrote press releases, and called in music listings to area newspapers. A long list of songwriters slept on our sofa and ate at our table along the way to finding their fortunes — and their voices. Todd Snider picked up Sterling from Cub Scout meetings, and borrowed money for gas and cigarettes. Doc Sully repainted the interior of our house for rent money. I shot album covers for Terri Hendrix and countless other artists, and developed Randy Rogers’ first bio and one-sheets. I cannot help but feel a kinship, and could not be prouder of their success.
As for the building and club itself, in 2005, with tremendous financial support of true Cheatham Street friends, Gregg Andrews and his wife, Vicki Bynum, purchased the warehouse building along with the surrounding city block from Jenkins and Gilbert. Jenkins was in failing health, and the property owners were seeking to dissolve their real estate partnership. Rather than risk demolition and redevelopment on the property, Andrews and Bynum pooled their personal resources and took ownership of the property until the newly launched Cheatham Street Music Foundation raised enough money to take it over. Kent had created the non-profit organization with legal expertise from attorneys Bill McNeill and John Gilliam. In addition to now owning the building and business, the Cheatham Street Music Foundation is dedicated to developing, promoting, preserving, and perpetuating Texas music. Born of the decades of music made at the legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse, the CSMF is particularly involved in the art, craft, and business of songwriting.
Along the way, it was inevitable that all three of our children grew up as musicians. From accordions to xylophones, they could play most any instrument you handed them. In addition to playing on stages across the Southwest and growing up with everyday jam sessions in the living room and songwriting around the kitchen table, here is a little more family trivia: Jenni, Sterling and HalleyAnna are probably the only three siblings in Texas who were, in their senior years, each elected as drum major for their 5A high school band. (San Marcos High School Rattler Band, 1997, 1999 and 2005, respectively).
Today, HalleyAnna is earning attention and accolades as a singer-songwriter and is soon to release her second album, produced by Australian Bill Chambers. Sterling is a bass player and a sought-after session musician and sideman. And Jenni owns a successful, nationally acclaimed radio promotion business (Jenni Finlay Promotions), working with a host of Americana artists and projects including James McMurtry (yes, from the Cheatham Street Warehouse Class of ’87), Ray Wylie Hubbard (who was playing at Cheatham the night Willie and Jerry Jeff showed up and took over his show), and the Grammy-nominated, multi-artist Guy Clark tribute album, This One’s for Him.
I have since remarried. My husband, Mark, and I still go to Cheatham Street occasionally to soak up the culture, the music and the magic. And I still love to shoot live performances on that old, dimly lit stage.
Rod Kennedy may have been right. Cheatham Street Warehouse may have been Kent’s bastard child, but it was — and always will be — family. The memories, the music and the friendships are worth a fortune. And for that and so much more, I will always be grateful.