As songwriters step inside Kent Finlay’s Cheatham Street Warehouse every Wednesday night in San Marcos, Texas, the question asked again and again is,―Is the list out yet?
The list, is a sign-up sheet for the weekly Songwriters Circle – the heart and soul of Finlay’s vision for the now legendary honky tonk that he opened in June, 1974. Writers and faithful members of the audience regard Wednesday nights at Cheatham Street Warehouse with reverential awe. Finlay begins the evening, usually with his song ―I’ll Sing You a Story, I’ll Tell You a Song, and those who made the pilgrimage know that they are part of something culturally distinctive and inspirational.
Although Songwriters Circle is Finlay’s real passion, it is only part of his broader vision of Cheatham Street—a vision that is rooted in his own personal evolution.
Born in Brady, Texas, Finlay’s parents, and his four younger brothers and sisters often played music together. During his freshman year of high school, he bought his first guitar, and it was during high school that he had his first public gig. In 1959 he moved to San Marcos, transferring to Southwest Texas State College, now Texas State University. He received his Bachelor’s degree in English in 1961 and later a Master’s degree in Education. He began a teaching career, first in San Antonio, and then with the Gary Job Corps in San Marcos.
In the early 1970s, Finlay would drive from San Marcos to Luckenbach to play songs with folk hero Hondo Crouch, along with Gary P. Nunn, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Willie Nelson. The song writing camaraderie that grew out of the culture nurtured by Hondo in those laid back days in Luckenbach had a big impact on Finlay’s song writing and decision to open his own honky tonk. As he emphasizes, “If there hadn’t been a Luckenbach, there wouldn’t have ever been a Cheatham Street…I learned how to think from Hondo.”
In June, 1974, he and his business partner, Jim Cunningham—a columnist for the San Marcos Daily Record—leased an old weather-beaten warehouse on Cheatham Street along the railroad tracks in San Marcos, and converted it into a honky tonk. It was the beginning of an era.
Even a casual look at the pictures on the walls of Cheatham Street confirms the honky tonk’s role in nurturing the progressive country movement. The small stage has featured countless musicians who shaped the rise of the progressive country movement in Central Texas. Finlay remembers a particularly magical night when Guy Clark joined Townes Van Zandt on the Cheatham Street stage. Since San Marcos imposes a midnight closing time on club owners, the audience on that particular night voluntarily surrendered their beers at midnight, remaining glued to their seats as Clark and Van Zandt continued playing long past closing time.
One of the bands playing regularly at Cheatham Street in the early days was Stoney Ridge, featuring drummer Tommy Foote, lead guitarist Ron Cabal, and bass guitar player Terry Hale, steel player Mike Daily, and singer Joe Dominguez. When Dominguez left the band, a young Texas State agriculture student auditioned and won the lead singer spot.
On October 13, 1975, the band, now called the Ace In the Hole Band, debuted at Cheatham Street Warehouse, featuring their newest addition, George Strait. Those were the days — “Ladies Free” and nickle beer. George Strait and Ace in the Hole played their first 50 or 60 gigs on this very stage.
“I new he would be a star,” Finlay later recalled, “probably before he did.” Cheatham Street featured Ace in the Hole almost every Wednesday night until its rapidly growing audience wouldn’t fit in the club.
Strait went on to become one of the most successful recording artists in the history of country music. The importance of Finlay and Cheatham Street on his career is clear from the inscription to Finlay on his first hit record,
“Kent and Diana –Thanks for your years of support, years of friendship, and for giving me and the guys a place to perform when no one else would.”
Finlay and Cheatham Street continue to nurture and develop some of the finest talent that Texas has to offer. In 1980, Steve Ray Vaughan, the phenomenal guitarist whose career would soon skyrocket internationally, electrified Cheatham Street on Tuesday nights.
On many occasions, the extraordinary, young Sexton brothers– twelve-year old Charlie and ten year old Will opened for Vaughan and joined him on stage.
The idea to create a special night for songwriters at Cheatham Street grew out of Finlay’s desire to provide writers with a chance to showcase their work. In the early years, there would often be only six to ten writers there who would each perform four or five songs, sitting around an old wood stove. James McMurtry, John Arthur Martinez, Aaron Allan, Hal Ketchum, Justin Treviño, Jimmy Collins, Al Barlow, Jimmy and Tommy Ash, were regulars at Songwriters Night during those years.
Family responsibilities and his own band, High Cotton Express, took up an increasing amount of Finlay’s time. In order to focus more on his own music and family, Kent sold the Cheatham Street business in 1983. The new owner encountered financial difficulties, and the honky tonk ended up back in Finlay’s hands within a short period of time.
Finlay continued to operate the honky tonk until nearly the end of the 1980s, during which time his three children, Jenni, Sterling, and HalleyAnna, all made their professional debuts.
Along with Todd Snider, part of a new vanguard of songwriters who developed their craft at Cheatham Street Warehouse includes Terri Hendrix. Hendrix was very nervous when she first signed the list on a Wednesday night, she received a warm reception and fell in love with the nurturing warmth of the songwriters’ culture. “Had I not been treated with such warmth and respect, even though I was an absolute beginner,” she remembers, “I wouldn’t have come back.”
Hendrix used the Cheatham Street stage as a springboard for a career that has brought her critical acclaim internationally, a potent partnership with the legendary Lloyd Maines, and a Grammy award. To honor the important historical role that she believes Cheatham Street has played, she returned to the small stage there to record “Live in San Marcos,” released in 2001.
Since then, the honky tonk has featured legends and locals, helped launch the careers of even more artists, including MCA’s Randy Rogers Band, whose major label debut includes Finlay’s wistful ―They Call it the Hill Country.