GEORGE STRAIT WAS PREPARING to return to school at Southwest Texas State University when he won an audition with a fledgling San Marcos group called the Ace in the Hole Band. On Oct. 13, 1975, they played Kent Finlay’s recently opened Cheatham Street Warehouse, a honky-tonk in town housed in an old cotton warehouse alongside a busy railroad track. Strait opens this loving oral history and tribute to Finlay with a claim that no one could deny: “His part in Texas music history is huge.”
But there’s no need to take Strait’s word for it. The table of contents reads like a who’s who of Texas singer-songwriters, each of whom was mentored or nurtured by Finlay: Strait, Todd Snider, Jon Dee Graham, Radney Foster, Bruce Robison, Hal Ketchum, James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Slaid Cleaves, Randy Rogers, Adam Carroll, Jack Ingram and more than 20 others. Over the years, mainly through Finlay’s weekly songwriters’ circles, Cheatham grew to occupy an outsized place in Texas music. Stevie Ray Vaughan played numberless nights at Cheatham Street to mostly empty rooms, at ear-splitting volume, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Dozens of notables — Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, Doug Sahm, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Ernest Tubb, Gatemouth Brown — played there, many regularly.
Finlay was teaching school in Austin and leading a band called the High Cotton Express on the weekends when he decided, with San Marcos Daily Record journalist Jim Cunningham, to open the first music venue in San Marcos, a small college town 30 miles south of Austin, in 1974. Freda and the Firedogs were the bar’s first performers. Over the next 14 years, country acts filled most of the bills, but he wasn’t above letting a punk outfit like the Skunks play, too. Finlay was an accomplished songwriter himself who took the art seriously and passed on what he knew, along with a gentle but persistent encouragement, to those starting out. He sold Cheatham Street in 1988 but bought it back in 2000 and continued to run it until his death from cancer at 77.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is a series of Finlay’s own reminiscences of growing up in Brady through his years at Cheatham Street, pieced together from interviews over two years prior to his death in 2015. The second half consists of artists’ fond, frequently funny recollections of their time with Finlay, transcribed from interviews over the same period.
“When the annals of Texas music are finally written, I have no doubt that Cheatham Street Warehouse will be compared to Washington-on-the-Brazos,” says biographer Joe Nick Patoski. This warm and engaging book is a fitting tribute to the place and the man who gave it life. — MADISON SEARLE