Working on the last few lines last night
Trying to find a way to make it end all right
Telephone rang and it was you
You asked if I was working on anything new.”
— Todd Snider, “Cheatham Street Warehouse”
“You working on anything new?”
Cheatham Street Warehouse owner Kent Finlay has asked the question for more than four decades now. Probably every day. Songwriters quickly respond with their latest tune. They sing and hope while Finlay listens closely. He hears every word. Considers every angle. At close, he reviews thoughtfully: “Work on the third line.” “Chorus could be stronger.” “Maybe more detail in the second verse.”
Sometimes songwriters simply receive the pat they’re shooting for: “That’s a nice little song.”
Cheatham Street Warehouse exists for creation. Songs begin on Cheatham’s stage. They grow. Breathe. Live. Grow some more. Finally they mature into shape. Finlay’s songwriters night — nearly every Wednesday at Cheatham Street for 40 years now — nurtures singular songwriters and storytellers.
Clearest evidence: The Class of 1987.
“That was the most exciting year,” says Finlay, who opened the venue in San Marcos, Texas, in October 1974. “The regulars at songwriters night were me and a bunch of nobodies: Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Hal Ketchum, John Arthur Martinez and sometimes Tish Hinojosa, who would come with James from San Antonio. Those were the basic regulars. Nobody had ever heard of them.”
Those young writers understood the gig’s value.
“Cheatham Street would let me play my songs,” McMurtry says. “That took balls back then.”
A sharp songwriter in his own right and often considered the most respected lyrical editor in Texas, Finlay has helped launch a few other artists you might know: Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eric Johnson. A guy named George Strait. In fact, Finlay drove the future king of country music to Nashville to record his very first demos.
“George, Darrell Staedtler and me went to Nashville in 1977 when George’s grandfather had given him a thousand dollars to do demos,” Finlay recalls. “We stayed at the Hall of Shame Motor Inn, and George even sang downstairs with the band. George recorded a bunch of songs during his demo sessions the next day. He did ‘80 Proof Bottle of Tear Stopper’ and a song that never came out that was really country that Darrell wrote, a Merle Haggard-type thing called ‘This Morning I’m Hungover Over You.’ George really nailed it.”
Years later, Strait autographed a copy of his 1981 debut album for Finlay and his wife, Diana, with this inscription: “Thanks for your years of support, years of friendship and for giving me and the guys a place to perform when nobody else would. I’ll always remember the years of fun at Cheatham Street.”
Countless more musicians have emerged from the humble honky-tonk stage.
“I’m proud of the great writers that have come out of there,” Finlay says. “Tom Russell and Doug Sahm played there in the 1970s, up through Randy Rogers. I have so many friends who have cut their teeth here.”
Finlay particularly connected with Snider, whose raucous tribute “Cheatham Street Warehouse” closes his outtakes album, Peace, Love and Anarchy.
“Todd had a certain gleam in his eye,” says Finlay, who co-wrote Snider’s popular “Statistician’s Blues.” “He had great ideas that would pop out, and he had a great delivery and a way of telling stories even back then. He had a nice sense of humor. He ended up living with me, and we’d work on songs every day. He got really good really fast.”
Now, Snider tips his hat toward his friend and longtime mentor. East Nashville’s favorite son will soon release a new collection of Finlay’s songs, much like Time as We Know It, his Jerry Jeff Walker tribute in 2012. All proceeds will benefit the Kent Finlay Medical Fund. (Finlay was recently diagnosed with a relapse of the bone marrow cancer multiple myeloma.)
“Cheatham was the first place to hire me, and Kent was the first person to tell me I was good enough at songwriting to go for a living at it,” Snider says. “He played me my first John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare and Bob Dylan records.
“At that time, I was planning on making my first album by recording myself at Cheatham. Before the gig, I sat in Kent’s van listening to Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 and Dylan hit me like two tons of bricks. The whole album, it all just happened at once. I remember sitting there in his van, waiting to go on, thinking two things — the joy of Bob Dylan that has never ebbed for me even once and the sadness of knowing I shouldn’t be recording an album yet. So, I waited 10 more years.”
Finlay’s generosity continues today.
“I met Kent and played a show at Cheatham Street my first week in Texas,” Austin-based songwriter Graham Weber says. “He let me play numerous shows where I know he lost money, booked me with much better songwriters and encouraged and supported me more than most people ever did or have since.”