Inquisition: Kent Finlay on the birth of San Marcos music
Brad Rollins | On 03, Aug 2013
Part one of two
by BRAD ROLLINS
Texas Country music guru Kent Finlay and his Cheatham Street Warehouse is as integral a part of San Marcos as the river and the university.
This week, a homecoming of local music luminaries gathered at the honky tonk by the railroad tracks to help Finlay celebrate his birthday (his 29th, he claims, dubiously). We sat down with Finlay to talk about Luckenbach as an inspiration for the San Marcos music scene, the birth of Cheatham Street Warehouse and San Marcos as Austin-in-miniature.
Mercury: Tell me the Cheatham Street story. How did it come about?
Finlay: The truth is there wasn’t any music in San Marcos at that time. I was hanging out with Hondo in Luckenbach and I was just so infatuated with all that. You’d go there, play music together and write songs together. It was just that time. The Armadillo was already open. And then the Split Rail. I was playing music there; there wasn’t any place here to do it.
Then I had a friend named Jim Cunningham who wrote for the San Marcos Daily Record, about the time they went daily, and it was a pretty good paper at that time.
Mercury: What year was this?
Finlay: That was ’74. Jim didn’t play music but his father had had a beer joint in Texas so he was kind of into the beer joint. So we decided, “Whoa — San Marcos doesn’t have a place, man.” We thought we’d just open one if we could find a place. I was teaching school full time at the time and kinda wanting to get out of it. I was run away by Luckenbach — just the spirit of it all, the Texas spirit of it all.
Mercury: Who was playing out there at the time?
Finlay: Well, I was. Jerry Jeff [Walker] would be there. And a couple of times Willie [Nelson] would be there. Gary P. [Nunn] would be there and a lot of people like that. All the guys from the Lost Gonzo Band would be there sometimes. You never even knew who you were going to run into. … Hondo Crouch, you know, he was just a hero. Gary P. named his son Luckenbach. That’s how important it was to us.
I don’t know if Waylon [Jennings] has ever been to Luckenbach.
Mercury: Luckenbach is how far from Austin, like 70 miles?
Finlay: Something like that. All I remember is that we used to say it was three beers there and two beers back. [laughter]
Mercury: What drove people out there? How did it start?
Finlay: It was a magic place. It still is, but back before all the people found it, it was: Wow! You’d sit out there with the chickens and eight or 10 or 14 people — or maybe two — and play songs for each other. You couldn’t beat it.
Mercury: This is like the genesis of what Hondo would call —
Finlay: — I’m talking about Texas Country. Hondo was our leader, I’ve always said that.
Mercury: Were you from the San Marcos area?
Finlay: I grew up about 100 miles the other side of Luckenbach out about 20 miles out of Brady.
Mercury: Is that still the Hill Country or are you on the flatland there.
Finlay: Right by the gateway to the Hill Country —
Mercury: — There’s apparently lots of gateways to the Hill Country. [laughter]
Finlay: Lots of gateways. Where ever you go into it, you know? There was a place where we’d go to town. We’d go from 20 miles out to Brady where we went to town and we’d go through Cow Gap on the way and I always considered that since there was hills and then there was a place where the highway ran through. It’s a historic place, one of the trails of the Chisholm Trail went right through that gap.
Mercury: Did you grow up on a cattle operation?
Finlay: Cattle and cotton, too. And maize and sheep and goats and, you know, whatever
Mercury: Is it pretty rough going out there as far as agriculture goes?
Finlay: Some years it wouldn’t rain, then every once in a while it would be just right and everyone would think, “Oh, wow!” And then the next year it wouldn’t rain. When it would rain, everybody would buy a new pickup [laughter] and pay all those loans they had borrowed to put in the cotton for the last three years.
I’ve always been blown away by music. It’s what my life revolved around. I used to write songs back in high school when I was driving the tractor. I would write and get to the end of the row then run over to the pickup and write something down and then run back over and get on the tractor.
Mercury: You’d have to remember your lyrics ’til you got to the end of a row?
Finlay: Yeah, I’d have to keep singing it over and over until I got to the end.
Mercury: Were any of the songs from that part of your life any good?
Finlay: Yeah, I had a couple that I still know. I don’t really ever do them now but I wouldn’t be ashamed to.
Mercury: When you were still back in Brady were you just pickin’ at a guitar or —
Finlay: — I had an old cheap guitar and it was really hard to play but I really wanted to play it. I learned piano first ‘cause we had a piano. So back in junior high, I started messing with the piano.
Mercury: Did you teach yourself?
Finlay: When I was like six or seven, they gave me music lessons for about a year. Everybody wanted to teach me classical and that wasn’t what I was into. It was kind of boring. I don’t think it hurt me but then I totally forgot all that. I started playing by ear, playing country songs.
Mercury: I grew up on a farm and I guess it’s a story as old as farms are — the kid that grows up on a farm and wants to leave it. Is that you? Did you leave pretty soon? As soon as you could?
Finlay: I wasn’t anxious to leave but I went to college.
Mercury: Did you go to college here?
Finlay: I went to Angelo State for a couple of years first then I transferred to [Southwest Texas State University, now Texas State.]
Mercury: What year did you come down here?
Finlay: I came in ’61, I think.
Mercury: What was San Marcos like in 1961?
Finlay: It was small. We all made a big deal about it being the friendly college and everyone would speak to everybody else on the campus. There were about 5,000 people in the school at that time and when you’d be going to class you’d be goin’, “Hey Joe! How you doin’?” “Hey, Hi! How are ya?” Everybody, or nearly everybody, was like that.
It seemed like the professors were a little low key. That wasn’t that far away from back when Professor Green was still a big legend, he was Lyndon Johnson’s political teacher. He’d chew tobacco while he was lecturing and there wasn’t any air conditioning and he’d go to the window and spit it out the window.
But there wasn’t any music. That was the big, big thing — there really wasn’t any music.
Mercury: Why wasn’t there music? The town was conservative?
Finlay: It was dry for one thing. We used to drive up to the county line up there for beer. Even there, there wasn’t any music. But there was beer.
Mercury: What did the kids drink?
Finlay: They’d go to a place called “B Back’s” and another place out there on the county line. And then sometimes maybe out at the Devil’s Backbone but that was a little further out there. Everybody usually went to a place called Willie C. in Caldwell County going down [Texas] 21.
Mercury: So it’s 1974, there’s no music in San Marcos and you and Jim Cunningham decide you’re going to start a place for it.
Finlay: We started looking for a place. We’d tell lots of people and they would show us things in strip mall kind of places and we’d say, “No, it’s got to have feeling and soul” They didn’t quite understand what we were saying. And here we were thinking of being something special, like Luckenbach. Part of what I loved there was that it was soulful and had character. It had to have character.
I had seen this building sitting here all the time I was in college. I never dreamed it had wood on the inside. And finally about nearly a year after we had a couple of real estate guys looking for a place that had character and soul, this one guy said “Hey, I think I found your place.”
And we walked in the door and it was kind of partitioned off and it had the city’s Christmas decorations in it. And we walked in and this was it. It felt right. We brought a guitar in and an amp and strummed. Wow! This old wood is like playing in an old fiddle.
Mercury: Is that what you attribute the sound quality to?
Finlay: Yeah, that’s a big part of it. Actually, it’s pitched like a barn, you know? It’s little on that end and gets bigger as you come into it, doesn’t have any two parallel walls. Plus, that old wood is magic. It’s a magic room.
Mercury: What year was the warehouse built?
Finlay: It’s 101 years old. It was a cotton warehouse . Over there where Texas Bread used to be, there was a gin. I guess they would haul the bales over here and they’d roll them in here on rails. Then on the railroad side, there was a little spur right up out of the building where they’d roll a boxcar, park it and unload it.
Mercury: What was it like getting started?
Finlay: We didn’t know what we were doing, business-wise.
Opening night we had Frieda and the Firedogs. That was Marcia Ball. Marcia Ball was Frieda of Frieda and the Firedogs. It was a hippy-country band. Everybody just loved them. They’d been at the Split Rail in Austin. Everyone would go to the Split Rail and it seemed like a big place at the time. It was about as big as this. Everybody would sit there and clap along. They’d do “Okie From Muskogie” and all the hippies would sing. I mean, you didn’t have to be a hippy to feel comfortable there. It was all about the music.
Threadgill’s — where Eddie Wilson has the Threadgill’s North — that’s where Mr. Threadgill’s filling station was. It’s been enlarged a whole lot now. It was just a little half-runt then with a little drive-through part like filling stations have. And the inside, it’d seem like a hundred of us would get in there — hippies and rednecks and just plain old people. Mr. Threadgill was so kind that everybody got along. But probably if they’d gone to the Broken Spoke maybe they would have been at each other.
Austin, at that time, was just wonderful. It was a lot like San Marcos is now.
Mercury: You hear people say that a lot. Do you believe that? What makes San Marcos like old Austin?
Finlay: Oh, I don’t know. It’s kind of an attitude, a kind of laid back attitude. And Austin was just coming in to being as a music place. There weren’t that many places but there were good ones.
There wasn’t any music listings, though. You had to just kind of know where everybody was playing. The Split Rail and Cheatham Street got together and we co-sponsored the music listings and so every day KOKE FM would tell where everybody was playing and then they’d tell what we had and that was kind of the attitude that I thought we ought to have, you know? Like we all ought to be in this together.
Mercury: Was what you did in San Marcos all sort of an extension of the Austin music scene?
Finlay: We never thought of ourselves as being a different music scene. The music scene wasn’t run by the city government of Austin. And back then some of our ads, the deejay would say “and down in San Marcos — only a Lone Star away.” [laughter] You know’ cause everybody drank it. Back in those days you’d go get gas and beer and say you were going somewhere. [laughter]
Mercury: So had you discovered Frieda, your opening night act that first night?
Finlay: Well, I discovered her earlier. I already knew her. She was the appropriate person, we thought.
Mercury: Did it go over well?
Finlay: Oh, yeah! All of a sudden we opened the doors and 400 people came in. And I remember thinking, “Lord, what are we going to do?” And someone ordered a Schlitz or a Falstaff and I said “Alright!” and went found it. He said, “What do we owe you?” I thought, “What are we going to charge?” We hadn’t figured that out. [laughter]
Mercury: How much did a beer cost then?
Finlay: Thirty-five cents for a domestic but if it was a Budweiser or a Schlitz or a Falstaff it was a nickel more, thirty-five or forty cents. Then Michelob was a probably a dime more.
Mercury: That was fine beer back then. [laughter] Who responded to Cheatham Street when you first opened? What kind of crowd were you getting?
Finlay: Of course, the university crowd. But everyone else, too. We got lots of great press. We were into kinda doing crazy things. We did things the wrong way, like I learned from Hondo. When we first opened I made myself a promise that we would never become a place that would hire someone who would just draw the biggest crowd.
We always looked for people who needed to be built, needed to be helped. So, consequently: George Strait. Nobody knew who he was then. Stevie Ray [Vaughan]. Nobody knew who he was. He was sort of our first step towards having blues and rock ’n’ roll. I remember some guy, one of our regular customers, saying, “What are you doing, gettin’ this shit in here? [laughter]
Mercury: You opened in ’74, so that was after the San Marcos liquor laws were changed, I guess?
Finlay: San Marcos had gone wet. By ’74, we had a couple of liquor stores in town and there were a couple of bars. In fact, one of them had music sometimes but it was not a music place. It was a drinking place.
Cheatham Street was all about music. This was like going to a baseball game. You go to see the game. That’s always been my attitude. I’ve never thought of Cheatham Street as a bar. Sometimes people do. Sometimes I correct them; sometimes I don’t.
I call it a honky tonk because honky tonk denotes music. And, in fact, honky tonk, I contend is the reason the Southwest is so prolific as far as music goes. It’s because we have honky tonks and dancehalls. I think a honky tonk is a school of country music and a school of blues.
INQUISITION poses interesting questions to interesting people. This story was originally published in the San Marcos Mercury.
PART TWO: Finlay on discovering George Strait and Stevie Ray Vaughan; his songwriting; and the future of Cheatham Street Warehouse in changing times. Read it here.