Photo credit Mercury Photo/Jamie Maldonado
Amazing Music Mentor, Part 1
Words by Tamma Hicks
About a year and a half ago we were attending a taping of Gibson Austin Backroom Bootleg Sessions. We were there to see Austin Gilliam and The Midnight River Choir performances and were introduced to Kent Finlay. Since that meeting we have made it a point that anytime we are within a few miles of Cheatham Street Warehouse to stop in to say hello and see when we could sit down for an interview, but Kent is so busy that pinning down a date hasn’t been easy. So this last trip into San Marcos we timed it just right to have a chance to sit down with him and talk about history of Cheatham Street Warehouse and what the future holds. In Part 1 Kent tells us about starting up Cheatham Street Warehouse and the Singer-Songwriters Circle. You’ll have to come back for Part 2 in April to hear the rest of what Kent shared with us…
STEAM Thanks for taking your time I know you’re not feeling great. I guess the easiest thing to do is start with the beginning. There is so much history in Cheatham Street Warehouse and the artists you’ve mentored and that have spring boarded their careers from here. What made you decide to open Cheatham Street Warehouse?
KENT Well, I’m feeling better than I have in a while and you know it’s not the illness that makes me feel bad; it’s the treatment, all the chemo. Anyway, I opened in 1974, because there just wasn’t another music place around and somebody needed to do; I got stuck with it. Truth is, if there hadn’t been a Luckenbach there wouldn’t be a Cheatham Street Warehouse, because I learned everything I knew from what was happening there. It was all about the music; it wasn’t about making the money. It was about original music, playing what you want, Texas music, and it was sincere. You know, I still wake up excited that I get to go to work here.When I first opened we had a problem finding bands because there weren’t any since there wasn’t a place to play and this girl told me about a band in Luckenbach, The Joe Ely Band, so I called and. since gas was just 29 cents a gallon, he came over to play once a month bringing players like Lloyd Maines, Jesse Guitar Taylor, and Bobby Keys when he wasn’t playing with (The Rolling Stones). Then we helped them find a second gig so they could come for a weekend at a time; I got them in the Broken Spoke in Austin. There was a big Bob Wells revival at the time and a lot of bands were doing that, George Strait started here in ’75 and Jerry Jeff Walker was a regular too. We were totally against all that stuff they were doing in Tennessee. Other regulars included Asleep at the Wheel, Alvin Crow, and Marcia Ball.
STEAM They must’ve just loved a place to play and an audience.
KENT More that they had another place to play; there were a few places in Austin. The Armadillo World Headquarters, but they were coming towards the end and there was a place called the Split Rail. It was torn down to put in a fast food restaurant and of course they took the Armadillo down for an insurance building. Austin is the world capital of live music; some people try to define the music scene by city limits I don’t believe you can. You wouldn’t have Nashville without the surrounding area where Barbara Mandrell, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty and a bunch of others lived. Well, San Marcos is a surrounding area of Austin.
STEAM When did you start writing songs?
KENT I have always written songs. When I was young I lived in the country; farming and driving tractor down those long cotton roads is about when I started singing and writing songs. I’d come out at the end and pick up pencil so I could write down my thoughts. But you know, at that time you couldn’t tell people you were a songwriter because they’d figure something was wrong with you. I can remember singing something I’d written to my mother, only to have her say, “That’s nice sweetie. Now play a real song.” I know she only meant one that she recognized like Bob Wells or somebody.
STEAM There are so many people that have sat in your singer-songwriters’ circle that have big careers in music. How did the singer-songwriter circles come about?
KENT It was about ’77 when we started up because there were no places to go where you could do song swaps or songwriting workshops or anything. I remember when they opened the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville; I thought that’s great because it’s similar to what we do.We started out real small. There was a wood stove in the middle of the room and we would sit around it and sing songs. It’s never been a jam; it’s a songwriter thing and everybody gets to sing a song or two. In the beginning there weren’t many songwriters because there weren’t places where they could go to practice their trade, but once word got out and started growing. So by the time we got to 1987 the regulars were Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, James McMurtry, Tish Hinojosa, John Arthur Martinez, Todd Schneider, Alan Barlow, myself, and of course a few others that came and went, but they were the regulars. We had a 20-year reunion of the “Class of 87”, that’s what we called it.
STEAM Wow, that would just be amazing. Do you have a picture of that?
KENT Well, you know it was filmed for public TV and it should be coming out this month on the Austin PBS stations. I think it will be available to all PBS stations in May, but I’m not positive, and then they’ll work on getting it to DVD. It’s called Cheatham Street Warehouse: Class of 87. It’s really great because now people can see exactly what were about.
Anyway, I was a literature major and I’m sure that has helped me in my writing. You know, that’s why I think I love Kris Kristofferson’s writing so much. He is also a literature guy and he writes these wonderful songs and he touches your heart.
STEAM I think the best thing about being a singer-songwriter is that you touch someone with your words. Oh, I just remembered, I was telling George Hermes that I was coming up to talk with you, and he said to say hello and remind you of “the fight in the parking lot”, then he just smiled big, so can you fill me in on that story?
KENT George, Monte Montgomery, and Maggie Montgomery were in a group called Family Pride, I think Monte was about 12 at the time, and they would practice on Sundays in Luckenbach and a couple of them worked here so they’d also practice here. One day they were practicing and then disappeared. A few minutes later they came through the front door. They were all scuffed up, dirty, kind of bleeding a little here and there. “What’s going on, guys?” Well, they’d had a musical disagreement on stage and they worked it out in the parking lot. George is a really good songwriter. They were all playing back then and George would play these great leads and a week or so later Monte would come in and play them; he was stealing Georges licks. A few years ago we had a family pride reunion and everyone was here; Monte still plays here quite often.
STEAM Going back to your Wednesday night Singer-Songwriters Circle; do you limit the size of the group and after someone plays their song do you or the group critique them or offer suggestions?
KENT Well, the limit is 18. Typically it’s a full list, but occasionally we have less. The Circles are a kind of self-critique/self-motivated/ noncompetition competition. It’s like when you go to a chili cook-off… You always bring your best chili. People don’t come through and tell you that you’ve got too much salt, you know your own and next time you may not use so much. So, what I tell people at the start is that you come here to play your music, everybody listens, and it doesn’t matter if you are super seasoned or just beginning we are all equal. I try not to critique anymore because there’s three things that can happen and two of them are bad. So when people ask me for critiques I just tell them no, but if I’m your producer and you’re paying me to do this, then I’ll tell you exactly the way it is. You may not agree, but you can’t get upset with me because that is what you’re paying me to do. PART 2 will be in APRIL!
Check the website for a schedule shows! As always, Kent has some great up and coming bands! Be watching for BIG FEST! Last weekend of June! www.cheathamstreet.com