Cheatham Street Warehouse: Part 2

San Marcos venue launched many Texas stars to national fame

By Christian Wallace ‘10

At the time of Cheatham Street’s opening in 1974, a certain musical phenomenon was taking place throughout the Central Texas area. In the early 1970s, Austin became the epicenter of what would later be called the Progressive Country movement.

This movement was the result of a unique blending of various genres including rock’n’roll, traditional country, R&B, blues, zydeco and others. The musicians and fans promoting Progressive Country were equally eclectic – hippies, cowboys, bikers and students – coming together at such venues as the Broken Spoke, the Split Rail, Soap Creek Saloon, Threadgill’s, the Skyline Club, Antone’s and the Armadillo World Headquarters.

With such an atmosphere of excitement and unique music existing only 25 miles up the interstate from San Marcos, it took no time for Kent Finlay, the owner of Cheatham Street, to start booking the area’s top acts. The artists who played his little stage during the 1970s reads like a list of Progressive Country all-stars: Willie Nelson, Ernest Tubb, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Flaco Jiménez, Gatemouth Brown, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kinky Friedman, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Joe Ely, Townes Van Zandt, Dough Sahm, Augie Meyers, Joe Bob’s Bar and Grill Band, Ponty Bone, Joe “King” Carrasco and many others.

Among the bands playing at Cheatham Street during the peak of the Progressive Country era was the Ace in the Hole Band. The band’s lead singer was a Southwest Texas student named George Strait.

Ace in the Hole at Cheatham Street in 1975, courtesy Cheatham Street Warehouse.

The Ace in the Hole Band’s first gig was on October 13, 1975 at Cheatham Street Warehouse. It was the first of what would be many performances on the little stage next to the train tracks. The band became an instant success with the honky-tonk’s crowd. It was not long before Ace in the Hole was booking venues all over the region.

The amount of faith Finlay had in Strait was evident. In 1977, Finlay loaded up his 1974 Dodge van to drive Strait to Nashville. Today, Strait is one of the most successful artists of all time with 57 No. 1 hits, the most of any artist in the history of music on any chart in any genre. When Strait was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2006, Finlay posted a hand-written sign outside the warehouse that read, “I Told You So.”

Photo courtesy Cheatham Street Warehouse

Cheatham Street continued to be a place where blues, country and rock’n’roll coexisted. In 1980, an up-and-coming blues guitar sensation named Stevie Ray Vaughan from Austin booked a gig at the San Marcos venue. Finlay hired Vaughan to play weekly on Tuesdays, much like he had booked Strait and Ace in the Hole band years earlier.

“He’d just lean back, just feel it, you know,” Finlay remembers. “I don’t think I ever saw anyone that loved to play the guitar like Stevie did.”

Toward the end of the 1980s, a special group of songwriters began to frequent Cheatham’s now well-established Songwriters Nights. This particular ensemble of songwriters has since been coined “the Songwriter Class of 1987” and includes Al Barlow, Todd Snider, Terri Hendrix, John Arthur Martinez, Bruce Robison, James McMurtry, Hal Ketchum and, of course, Kent Finlay. Their success as artists, and particularly as songwriters, is perhaps one of the best reflections of Cheatham Street’s wide reaching influence on the modern country/folk scene.

From 1988 to 1999, Finlay felt it necessary to leave the honky-tonk in order to spend more time with his family and on his own songwriting. But on New Year’s Eve 1999, Cheatham Street Warehouse held an official grand re-opening with the marquee announcing “Under Old Management.”

It did not take long for the word to get out that the little warehouse next to the train tracks was once again a haven for those with a pocket full of rhymes and a six-string. Randy Rogers, who was a student at Southwest Texas State at the time, would be the first of a new era of Cheatham Street Warehouse prodigies to find his roots in the fertile soil of the creaking wooden stage.

The Randy Rogers Band recorded its first album in the warehouse, aptly titled, Live at Cheatham Street. In the decade that has followed, Rogers and the band have released six full-length albums. They have made appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Another indicator of the band’s success is their title of number one most-downloaded country album on iTunes in 2006.

Other songwriters who have honed their craft on the Cheatham Street stage since the 1999 re-opening include Adam Carroll, Ryan Turner, Floramay Holliday, Dub Miller, Shelley King, Trish Murphy, Jeff Plankenhorn, Ruthie Foster, J.R. Castro, Angie McClure, Foscoe Jones and Adam Kay. Other “veteran writers” who have joined Finlay in his “Kent and Friends” song-swaps include Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willis Alan Ramsey, Clay Blaker, Aaron Allan, Lisa and Roberta Morales, Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, Shake Russell, Slaid Cleaves, Susan Gibson, Jack Ingram, Walt Wilkins, Davin James, Hayes Carll, Max Stalling, and Australians Bill Chambers and Audrey Auld.

No written account of Cheatham Street will ever be able to substitute for a night spent bathed in the glow of the neon lights, surrounded by folks tapping their feet to the music taking place only a few feet away. I hope you have an itch to get out and see some type of live music played by the people who wrote and have lived the songs in one of the historical venues that have made Texas Music one of the most eclectic, important, and world-renowned genres that it is today.

Part 2 of a three-part series on the history of Cheatham Street Warehouse, excerpted from the Texas State University Honors Thesis, “Beyond the Tracks: A History of Cheatham Street Warehouse” by Christian Wallace. Read the rest of the story at the links below.

Cheatham Street Warehouse: Part 1
Cheatham Street Warehouse: Part 3

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