By Richard Skanse
(March/April 2013/vol. 6 – Issue 2)
Although he took a decade-long hiatus from the club-running business in the ’90s, Cheatham Street Warehouse founder, longtime owner and once-again chief visionary Kent Finlay has personally witnessed more live music at the beloved San Marcos venue than anyone else who’s ever passed through its doors. Along the way, he’s collected enough “I knew them then!” stories to fill a veritable encyclopedia of Texas music all-stars. And, given that he’s the kind of guy who still listens to every newcomer bravely playing their tunes in public for the first time at Cheatham’s long-running weekly songwriter nights, odds are he could fill another volume talking just as passionately about his favorite unknowns, shoulda-been-knowns and might-still-someday-be-knowns. For Finlay is arguably the perfect embodiment of living (and listening) “For the Sake of the Song.” The fact that he’s a songwriter’s songwriter himself only underscores his commitment to that purist ideal, as he’s devoted most of his life in music to mentoring others and championing their careers with unabashed pride.
On a recent afternoon in late January, Finlay sat down for an hour in the Cheatham Street Woodshed recording studio across the street from the club to share some of his favorite memories — taking a short break halfway through to partake in a brand new one, singing gospel harmony vocals on a track being recorded by his youngest daughter, HalleyAnna, for her second album. “It’s hard to talk about your own daughter,” he demurs, “but she’s blowing my mind. I know a good song when I hear it, and her new record’s got a handful of just killer stuff on it.”
Let’s start at the very beginning.
Well, Cheatham Street opened in June of 1974. Back then the Austin scene was just getting started; the Armadillo was there, and there were some other great places like the Split Rail and the Broken Spoke and things like that. And Mr. Threadgill had a Wednesday night picking session at his little filling station up on North Lamar, where Eddie Wilson’s North Threadgill’s restaurant is now. He didn’t sell gas anymore, though; he sold a little beer and he’d talk to you about music, so those of us who wanted to write songs, we’d show up there on Wednesday nights.
So that was all happening in Austin, but there really wasn’t any kind of a place for music down here [in the Hill Country]. There wasn’t a music scene at all — Gruene Hall wasn’t even open yet. So right away when we opened Cheatham Street, people started coming around and putting together bands because they had a place for it to happen finally. And we had a good handle on what was going on up in Austin, so a lot of those bands started coming down here, too. We had Alvin Crow playing every week, and Asleep at the Wheel was playing once a month, and my own band was playing once a week. But Freda and the Firedogs played the first night at Cheatham Street — that was Marcia Ball and a bunch of other guys. And then right after we opened, they broke up and some of those guys went with Alvin Crow, and Marcia put together another band, the Bronco Brothers. She was doing country at that time, and was really great at it.
Another band that got together around that time was called Texas Star, and it had some of the guys that were going to be in Ace in the Hole. And they played for a while, and then a guy named Jay Dominguez started a band, and those guys that were going to be in Ace in the Hole became part of Jay Dominguez and Stoney Ridge. So they were playing around, doing real well, everybody learning how to play music and do the deal. It was Mike Daily on steel guitar, Tommy Foote on drums, Ron Cable on lead guitar, Terry Hale on bass, and Jay Dominguez. But as bands will do, they had a falling out, so Jay went his way and the other guys went their way.
And that’s when they became Ace in the Hole.
Right. But none of them sang, so they were looking for a new singer. They put up some three-by-five cards around at different places on campus that said, “Working country band, has gigs, looking for lead singer.” And a young guy named George Strait had just gotten out of the Army, and he came to go to school at Southwest Texas. And he was looking for a band to play country music, so he called the guys up and they brought him into Cheatham Street. That was the first time I met him, and they said, “We’ve got our guy — let’s set up a date.” Oct. 13, 1975 was the first gig — “Ace in the Hole with George Strait” — and after that first show, they played every week at Cheatham.
What were the crowds like?
Well all the guys who had been in Stoney Ridge had some friends, so it didn’t start out as a nothing crowd — we always had some people that came out. There wasn’t anything else in town! That was where the music was. Well, there was a restaurant where Grins is now that used to have folk acts; Lyle Lovett played there, but it wasn’t what we were doing. At that time, there was a huge Bob Wills movement: You know, “Bob Wills is still the king!” So everybody was playing Bob Wills, including Ace in the Hole. They were doing lots of swing. George Strait knows every Bob Wills song. He knows it all really well.
What was your first impression of George when you met him?
He was just a good, solid, kind of shy guy. He wasn’t aggressive, he didn’t brag. He was married already and had a beautiful little girl. He spent two or three years in the Army, so he was kind of settled down; he wasn’t some wild college kid.
Had he sung much before he joined the Ace in the Hole guys?
Yeah. While he was in the Army, he was stationed in Hawaii, and the commander was into country music. So they put together an Army band and George got to be in the Army band and sing, and that’s how he got to finish out his tour of duty. So he felt pretty good about that. And he had a band in high school, too — a heavy metal band! Most people don’t believe that. So he had been into music for awhile. He was not just a beginner. But at the same time, he was a beginner in a way, because this was his first time really meeting the world [as an artist].
So they played every week until George finally got his MCA deal, and then that song “Unwound” came out and was such a big hit, he got so busy and they all got so busy that they were never home. They were on the road 250 days a year, just gone. They were able to get a motor home, and they wore the wheels off of that in less than a year, and then they were able to get a bus. They were working everywhere.
Didn’t you go with George to Nashville a few times when he was shopping for a record deal?
Yeah. The first trip was in 1977, to do demos. We went in the Cheatham Street yellow Dodge cargo van. It was me, George, and my songwriter friend Darryl Staedler. I always say that the van had two seats up front and an Army cot in the back, so we had to take turns driving and riding shotgun and sleeping; that’s not altogether true, but it is sorta. We had a big ol’ beer cooler that one of us would sit on while another rode shotgun and the other guy drove. It was a great trip, and George did some great, great demos — I mean, incredible stuff. His voice just takes to tape and recording like nobody’s business, and of course he was right on pitch. I remember Buddy Spiker and Johnny Gimble were playing fiddle on one of the sessions, they were the two hot fiddle players in Nashville at the time, and Buddy said, “You all aren’t going to have any trouble getting this guy a deal.” But what happened is, George wasn’t going to do that pop stuff that was happening then. The songs that were popular were like Barbara Mandrell’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” and it was a pop song. That’s what was happening at the time. Everybody thinks in unison in that business — still! — so every label in that town, 12 major labels, all passed on George Strait because he was “too country.”
So he came home from that first trip empty handed.
Yeah. After that first trip, we came home and George … He was a very responsible guy. He finished school, majored in ag, and after he graduated he took a job in Uvalde, selling agricultural products like gates and portable pens and things like that. But I think he just got so unhappy about having to take that job that two or three weeks before he started, he told Norma, “I’ve got to give it one more shot.” So he went back and that’s when it all came together and he signed his MCA deal. They finally agreed to take a chance on this country singer that wasn’t doing this pop stuff, and they thought it wasn’t going to work but George proved them wrong. After that first record came out and he was just huge, all of a sudden the labels started dropping all of those pop guys and looking for people like Randy Travis, who had been hanging around that town for years but had always been considered a “novelty act” because he was too country. So I really give George Strait credit for saving country music at that time.
When was the last time George played Cheatham Street?
Probably 1982 or something like that. You know, when your crowd gets to a certain point, you can’t hold them anymore. But we always celebrated the anniversary of the band. And on their 10-year anniversary — Oct. 13, 1985 — we had the celebration, but George couldn’t be there because he was at the Country Music Awards and he was nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year. But all the band was at Cheatham Street. Now, I’ve always bragged that we don’t have a TV a Cheatham Street. I’d say, “Excuse me for bragging, but we don’t have a TV.” But I have to confess, that night we brought a television in just because we thought there was maybe a chance that George would win, and then it really would be a hell of a 10-year anniversary. And so we watched the TV, and George won. And I put a sign out on the front rail that stayed there for years that said “I told you so!” Because I’d been telling everybody that he was going to be a star since 1975, and thank goodness, George is a good guy, he didn’t make a liar out of me! He proved that I was right. And then I did that same thing when he got into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I put it on the sign: “George Strait, Country Music Hall of Fame: I Told You So.” Because I did!
A few years later, Cheatham’s famous “Class of ’87” songwriters started gathering here. Talk about how your songwriters night started.
It used to be so hard to be a songwriter. Nobody ever cared … there just weren’t songwriter nights or anything. Believe it or not, even Nashville didn’t have a place for songwriters to go to until the Bluebird opened in ’83. So we started a songwriter night here sometime in the ’70s. I don’t remember the exact date, but we’d sit around this wonderful old wood stove we used to have here and we’d just pass it around and around. There might have been but four of us at the beginning, but it started to grow, until finally it got so big that we started bringing in some sound equipment and doing it from the stage. But we were still sitting around that stove — even in the summertime — in 1987, which was just a particularly great year. We did a 20-year reunion a few years ago and had a lot of those guys back — Terri Hendrix and Al Barlow and Aaron Allen and Bruce Robison and James McMurtry and Hal Ketchum and John Arthur Martinez and Todd Snider. Tish Hinojosa and Ike Eichenburg were out of the country at the time, but they were part of that ’87 group, too. They were all just incredible songwriters. If I give an example of what we’re all about, that’s it right there. Every one of those guys makes me feel so proud.
It seems like you were particularly close to Todd Snider at the time. When did he come into your life?
He moved here from Portland, Ore., in about ’85 or ’86. He was just a kid, and he had a new Takamine guitar that he got for Christmas. And he started making up some funny songs — they weren’t necessarily good songs at that time, because he was just getting into it, but he’s always had a great sense of humor. So he started coming to songwriter night, and then he ended up crashing out at my house for awhile, and we’d work on songs together every day. He really wanted to learn how to write, so we’d listen to guys like Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein — all those Bobby Bare Shel Silverstein songs — nearly every day. And he was really great to work with. He can think of things that were totally off the wall, you know? So I just love Todd as a person and as an artist and everything. He’s another one I said was going to be a big star, and he certain is. He’s exactly what he set out to be: He’s the biggest thing on the “other side” of Nashville.
The biggest professional misfit.
Yeah, something like that! He’s the one that everyone wishes they could be. Everybody wishes they could do what Todd does — doing everything the “wrong” way, but it works for him very well. Todd has been everything you could be, and he’s admired by people from all parts of the industry. He won’t ever be the “country music entertainer of the year,” because that’s just not what he does, but he’s got the award in nearly everybody’s head.
About a decade down the road, you took on a similar sort of mentor role for Randy Rogers.
Right. In 2000 he started coming to songwriter night, and he was coming to Monday night jams, too. I don’t think he had any plans at all to kind of go into music in a professional way. But he had this one song, “Lost and Found” — I know you know that song — that’s the one that really jumped out at me. And he was a really nice guy, of course, so I just asked him if he wanted to go to lunch with me, and we went right across the street to Garcia’s over there, and I just told him that I thought maybe if he wanted to work harder than he’d ever worked in his life, then I would help him and give him a spot to make it happen. If he wanted to try to make it, whatever “make it” means, in the business, I thought that he would have a good chance at making something happen. And I told him, “Just think about it, because it means really hard work, it’s not easy.” So he left, and about two hours later he called and said, “I’ve already found a guitar player — I’m going to go for it.”
So anyway, from that day on, he’s been on the phone, calling people, working constantly. And we started having the Randy Rogers Band every Tuesday night. And the first band he put together, those guys were not necessarily in it for the long haul. He was just trying to get something together. But a few months later, they recorded Live at Cheatham Street. And it’s really good, you know? It’s a really good album; not compared to his last album or anything, but it was in big demand.
I remember we charged $3 at the door when he played. Actually the first one was free, I think — the first Ace in the Hole night with George Strait was free, too. But every week it started getting bigger and bigger, started getting packed out, and I told him, “Randy, we could probably charge $5 now, you’ve got a good following,” and he went, “No, I want to keep it $3.” He was always thinking ahead, always thinking about the long haul, which is a good trait when you’re trying to make it in the music business — thinking down the road.
Did you ever make any trips out to Nashville with him, like you did with George?
We don’t have to do that anymore. There’s a lot of publishing business still out there, but we’ve got great studios and stuff here where we can do all that here now. So Randy started putting out records on his own, and the records he made in Texas are what led to his Nashville deal.
Once he landed his deal, he insisted on signing the papers here at Cheatham, didn’t he?
Yeah, and that was just like Randy — what a great guy, you know? He went, “OK, you guys, we’ll sign, but we’re not going to do it in Nashville — y’all are going to have to come to Cheatham Street.” And we did it right up there on the stage at Cheatham Street, and the mayor was here, most of the city council was here, and a lot of other music business people, taking pictures and things. And everywhere he goes, he still always mentions Cheatham Street, saying “We wouldn’t be here if not for Cheatham Street.”
And what’s neat is, George is doing that on his farewell tour now, too! He gave a shout out to me and to Cheatham Street and talked about that first trip to Nashville in the Cheatham Street van at the Lubbock show, and everybody was telling me about it. And then my brother-in-law was at the Oklahoma City show, and he said “Man, George was talking about you and Cheatham Street onstage, and when he said Cheatham Street, it was like everybody in the crowd had been there. They all just yelled.” One of the guys in the band told me that it’s part of his show now for this two-year tour: He sits on a stool and talks a little bit about Cheatham and that trip to Nashville we took and other things. So, good old George, doing that! It’s been really nice.