“It’s late at night, I slip out back. The folks are sleeping, well, I’m dressed in black. The place I’m going to is by the railroad tracks.” A few years back when a friend of mine, Dave Teichroeb, a singer-songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, penned these opening lyrics to a song, “Cheatham Street,” (2003), the place he was “going to” is Kent Finlay’s legendary Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. The fast-rolling trains that shake and rattle Cheatham Street’s walls and tin sheeting may be too close-by for some folks’s comfort, but for Teichroeb and other hungry songwriters, the trains are an important natural prop. Located just a few yards from the tracks, the honky tonk with its low ceilings and well-seasoned wood provides fabulous acoustics in a setting that fires the imagination of writers.
No wonder the same Outlaw spirit that reinvigorated Waylon and Willie’s music in the early 1970s and fueled the rise of Progressive Country, or “Redneck Rock,” around Austin, Texas, is alive and well at the honky tonk Kent opened in June, 1974. His weekly Songwriters Circle is at the heart of what Cheatham Street is all about. We’re not talking about just another open mic night; no, this is something special, this is “church.” You can feel it when you walk into Cheatham Street on Wednesday nights. There’s a sense of reverence and awe. Kent has carefully nurtured a listening atmosphere for songwriters. If patrons don’t want to listen on Wednesday nights, he’ll encourage them to leave.
“It never has been a money maker night,” he says, “but it sure is a great night for keeping our integrity.”
Those who know Kent will tell you he’s much more than a club owner. Above all, he’s a songwriter’s songwriter who insists that writing is an art, not a craft. He takes great pride in conveying that to those who step onto the small stage at Cheatham Street. For him, artistic freedom and camaraderie–not competition and a “one size fits all” formulaic approach–inspire creativity and productivity in song writing. He learned this in part back in the early 70s when he used to make regular pilgrimages out to Luckenbach. There, he’d hang out under the stars and trees, swap songs, crack jokes, and play dominos with Hondo Crouch (the “Clown Prince” and owner of Luckenbach), Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Gary P. Nunn, and others associated with the Outlaw movement in country music. The camaraderie and laid-back atmosphere encouraged a sense of community among fellow songwriters that Kent still nurtures at Cheatham Street today.
Let’s be clear about something: Kent’s not opposed to commercial success in music. In fact, he has nurtured some highly successful artists at Cheatham Street over the years. After all, how many other honky tonks can claim they hosted the first 40-50 gigs of George Strait and Ace in the Hole beginning on October 13, 1975? It was Kent who took Strait to Nashville for the first time to shop demos back in 1977. At the time, Strait’s determination to stick with traditional country music and western swing put him at odds with the prevailing commercial trend toward pop/country in the national marketplace, but his integrity paid off when he signed his first deal with MCA Records just a few years later. As Kent recalls, “We already had this little thing, this little anti-slick country thing going. . . in our minds, you know, and we were sick of it.”
Cheatham Street also hosted a young Stevie Ray Vaughan who used to electrify the honky tonk every Tuesday night, shortly before his career skyrocketed. Add the likes of Todd Snider, Randy Rogers, Terri Hendrix, John Arthur Martinez, and many others, including Star Gonzalez, who recently signed with Curb Records, to the list of songwriters who have flourished under Kent’s supervision, and you get the picture.
It’s the passion, purity of the music, and what’s in an artist’s heart that matters most to him. Countless writers who’ve played on the Cheatham Street stage will tell you that Kent at times digs into his own pocket to pay them when the door is low on a given night. “I don’t believe there is a more dedicated person than Kent,” recalls Mike Daily, who has played pedal steel guitar for Strait since that opening night at Cheatham Street back in ‘75, “in keeping the focus on Texas Music and the belief in the bands and artist, and trying to give everyone possible a chance. Money and profit always seemed to be secondary to the music.”
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Doctor G (otherwise known as Dr. Gregg Andrews) is a multitalented singer/songwriter and storyteller. He’s an accomplished labor historian and the author of Nationally Awarded books like City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane Sisters. But he’s most comfortable when he’s raisin’ hell against the system or delivering his Swampytonk music in his Mississippi-mudded snakeskin boots.