San Marcos venue’s roots go deep into Texas music history
By Christian Wallace ‘10
Since its opening in 1974 by Kent Finlay, the “Godfather of Texas Songwriters,” Cheatham Street Warehouse has been an ideal place to watch the history of Texas music evolve. Within those tin walls, history is made nightly on the well-worn stage and also in the crowd where artists both famous and unknown mingle while drinking beer from mason jars.
George Strait and the Ace in the Hole Band had their first gig ever in the venue and continued to play weekly until Finlay and Strait took an old van to Nashville to find a record deal (more on that story later). A young guitarist, Stevie Vaughan, used to play the blues in Cheatham before he became internationally renowned as Stevie Ray Vaughan. Other artists such as, Charlie Sexton, Bruce Robinson, Todd Snider, Teri Hendrix and Randy Rogers grew their musical abilities in the fertile soil of the Cheatham Street stage.
The tin building that stands only a few yards away from the railroad tracks at 119 Cheatham Street is 100 years old. While most people know the building as the music venue, Cheatham Street Warehouse, it was originally built for a much different purpose. Erected in 1910, it was first Reed Grocery Warehouse. The close proximity to the train tracks helped to serve its original function as a distribution center for local grocers.
In the early 1970s when Finlay, who had recently graduated from Southwest Texas State University, began looking for a suitable building to serve as a music venue, few people would have thought of the weather-beaten shack that had been storing the city’s Christmas decorations for a few decades. With his business partner and drinking buddy, Jim Cunningham — a columnist for the San Marcos Daily Record — the two partners leased the building and went to work on converting the place into a honky-tonk.
“Boy, it was lots of work,” Finlay remembers. “I was a pretty good barn-building carpenter. We didn’t have any money. I mean, I took out a little loan, but we really had to do it on nothing. I found an old beer box that worked pretty good and, you know, just used stuff and stuff that had been thrown away.”
Finlay found some packing crates in the warehouse’s attic and soon the heavy lumber was being transformed into the venue’s first bar.
“They had stencils on them,” Finlay recalls. “We found just enough to make the top of the bar with. I put about six or eight coats of polyurethane on it so you could still see the stencils. It looked really, really ‘warehousey.’”
By June of 1974, Cheatham Street Warehouse was ready to open for business.
Part 1 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.