Texas State alum, professor is ‘Godfather of Texas Songwriters’
By Christian Wallace ‘10
Kent Finlay, the owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse and “Godfather of Texas Songwriters,” was born in Brady, Texas in 1938. The oldest of James and Grace Short Finlay’s five children, he was raised on a farm north of Brady in McCulloch County near the small community known as Fife.
Music was an integral part of Finlay’s upbringing. His earliest memories of music are, as a three-year old, listening to KNEL, a 250-watt radio station out of Brady. The Finlay home was often filled with the music of relatives, who played in bands throughout the area. Music was a staple of family gatherings and was the main event of many nights spent under the West Texas stars.
At the conclusion of a vacation bible school one summer, the seven-year old Finlay, along with three other boys, performed the traditional gospel song, “Do Lord,” to a whopping crowd of seven or eight people. It was after this performance that the music bug bit him.
“People said it was good, and, man, I was hooked,” Finlay recalls.
Finlay was a freshman in high school when he got his first guitar on a Future Farmers of America (FFA) trip to Big Bend. One of the students brought a guitar, and Finlay soon found himself strumming the six-string in the back of the bus. On the way back, the bus stopped in San Angelo for lunch. There was a music store across the street from the restaurant.
“It was something just to get to touch those guitars. You couldn’t buy a guitar like that anywhere else,” Finlay says. He took advantage of the opportunity and purchased a Regal for about $13.50. “I was singing songs by the time we got home.”
Back on the farm, Finlay’s new instrument never strayed far from his thoughts.
“I learned how to sing plowing the cotton fields,” he says. “The tractor was so loud, I could sing as loud as I wanted and no one would tell me to shut up. I learned to write songs out there too. When you’re sitting on a tractor all day, with just rows of dirt and sky, it sure gives you a lot of time to think about things.”
Finlay left Fife and the farm behind to study writing at San Angelo State University in 1957. He continued to play music, both in bands as a “slap” bass player and as a solo performer. Finlay came to San Marcos in 1959 to continue working toward an English degree at Southwest Texas State College (today, Texas State University). He graduated in 1961 and, after earning a master’s degree in education, began a teaching career that he has maintained, in some fashion, ever since.
In the early 1970s, Finlay started making the trip to Luckenbach, a little five-person town thirteen miles down the road from Fredericksburg, Texas, to join in the circle of music there. Afternoons slipped away under the shade of oak trees, as musicians such as Willie Nelson, Dotsy, Gary P. Nunn, and Jerry Jeff Walker played guitar and swapped stories. Most importantly, it was during this time that Finlay was introduced to the town’s “spiritual leader,” Hondo Crouch.
“Hondo was a hero to me,” Findlay says. “There was just something about him that drew people to him; everybody liked him. Hondo was the center of my universe, that’s how big his heart was. I learned how to think from Hondo.”
It was not long before Kent Finlay started looking for his own place to share the magic he felt at Luckenbach. At the time, San Marcos did not have a single live music venue operating on a normal basis. With the support of his business partner and drinking buddy, Jim Cunningham — a columnist for the San Marcos Daily Record — Finlay looked at several places in town before deciding to lease the old tin warehouse next to the railroad tracks. By June of 1974, Cheatham Street Warehouse was ready to open for business.
* * * * *
Finlay has been recognized by the Center for Texas Music History and the City of San Marcos for his longstanding contributions to Texas music history. In 2003, the New Braunfels Museum of Art and Music presented Finlay with its first “Lone Star Arts Award.” In addition, McCulloch County, Finlay’s birthplace, has proclaimed an official “Kent Finlay Day.” However, if you ask Finlay what date this official holiday is, he will tell you that he has no idea. If you mention the title “Godfather of Texas Songwriters” to Finlay, he almost seems uncomfortable as he grins and turns his normally steady gaze away.
“You know, it’s nice to have things like that said about you,” Finlay said, “but I don’t know how I could possibly deserve that. I guess I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
The historical contribution Cheatham Street has made to the world of music is undeniable, but history is more than big names on a marquee. It is only with the total life-commitment displayed by rare individuals such as Finlay that venues like Cheatham continue to exist.
Part 3 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.