Kent Finlay, Dreamer

Brian T. Atkinson, Jenni Finlay

Cheatham Street Warehouse founder Finlay was one of the world’s best-known and best-loved promoters, mentors, and gurus of Texas music.

Kent Finlay, Dreamer: The Musical Legacy behind Cheatham Street Warehouse

Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Author: Brian T. Atkinson, Jenni Finlay
Publication date: 2016-02

14 | Twenty-Four Hours a Day

“His songs are his religion, the lyrics are the word” (“The Songwriter”)

I heard Todd Snider’s “Cheatham Street Warehouse” ten years ago when I was in the hospital. Todd was here for a benefit they were having for me at Cheatham Street, and he did it for that. Not too long after, he put it on a record. He says he wrote it when he first heard about me being sick. It’s about the music room at the house, [which] is just a big old room. We had all sorts of recording equipment, instruments like guitars and pianos, stacks and stacks of yellow pads with songs written on them, the first two Kristofferson records, all the Bobby Bare stuff, all the Shel Silverstein we could find. There’s wonderful stuff out there. Still have most of it. Some of it got away, but I’ve been able to replace most of it. Todd’s song is all about music and a life of music. I just thought, That’s wonderful. Somewhere close to the top three sentences I always ask people is what they’re working on. “How you doing? What’s going on? What are you writing now?”

I met Todd Snider in 1986. He was a teenager at the time. He started coming around to the songwriter because he had a new guitar that he’d gotten for Christmas. It was a really gorgeous, mahogany brown Takamine guitar. He had just moved here from Portland, Oregon, to learn to be a songwriter. He was trying to get his feet on the ground. He had a bunch of funny songs. He had a really good presentation, and even then he had a lot of good bullshit. His bullshit was selling his songs. He had some funny songs at first, but they had a smart, witty humor about them. He had this one song called “Fat Chicks on Mopeds.” He had another called “Stand Up if You’re Eighteen,” because the drinking age at that time was eighteen. Then they raised it to nineteen, so it was a protest song. He had a funny song called “Bus Tub Stew.” He was working at a restaurant as a bus boy, surviving on what people didn’t eat off their plate. I remember image here liking Todd from the very beginning. He had his sights set on something really big. Hanging out with Todd is great fun. Once we got to know each other and I had told him that I could help him write songs, he ended up moving in and staying a while. We would write every day.

Kent Finlay and Todd Snider, Luckenbach, Texas, 1994.
Photo by Diana Finlay Hendricks

The first song we ever wrote together—it wasn’t really [called] cowriting then, I was just helping him with his song—is called “This Old Guitar.” We had several songs that I was just helping him with. I didn’t claim any credit for it. That one really has stuck with me: “Popped a Dr. Pepper and drifted away / hopped up on a toolbox, and I began to play.” We were doing that stuff together a lot, but it was his song. He was writing really good, really earnest stuff. He had that hunger. We wrote pretty much every day. We listened to Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein and Bobby Bare, which is another way to listen to Shel Silverstein. We listened to other things too, but mostly Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein. We would listen and I would point out what was good. Kristofferson was a great influence on Todd and me. I try not to sound like him, but, wow, all that great alliteration and incredible rhymes that are in there. Some people might not even notice, but they hear it. Rhyme is so important, but it gets thrown out the window by some of the craftsmen. Craftsmen are the people that tend to write in appointments. They’re factory writers. Todd’s an artist. I consider myself an artist. A craftsman is a factory writer. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a job. You can do black velvet paintings or you can do Picassos.

We started working on a song called “Who Says It’s Lonely at the Top” the night I taught Todd how to drink Jack Daniels. He’d always just put Coke in it. I said, “Todd, you can’t do that. God.” So we were working on Jack Daniels on the rocks while we were writing that song. Luckily, we got the song done before we got the Jack Daniels done. It turned out to be a pretty good song. I do it all the time. I’m not sure who brought the song idea to the table—probably Jack Daniels. We were definitely channeling Bobby Bare and Shel Silverstein.

Years later, Todd had a deal by then and had already put out [his 1994 MCA Records debut] Songs from the Daily Planet. He was on tour in Arizona. I flew out, and they picked me up at the airport in Phoenix. I got on the bus and headed this way. Wherever we landed the next day, we worked all day on that song in a Wendy’s. We sat there all day working pretty hard on that song, and I think we did a great job. I’ve always been real proud of that song. It started out with a line I’d had written down for a long time: “A skinny young man with born-again eyes and a Jesus tattoo on his arm.” That’s what we started with. We were trying our hand at writing a “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe” [written by Silverstein and recorded by Bare], a song full of pieces with no real resolution, leaving the listener with nothing but questions.

One of the songs Todd has written that just blew me away when I first heard it is “Long Year.” It still haunts me. Called that [knew it was great] first time I heard the song. What a great song. There are just too many songs that have just knocked me for a loop, and sometimes the really funny ones do the same thing, you know. You write a funny song, and if it’s well done enough it’s harder to write than something that’s real serious. “Waco Moon” is another that knocks me out. Of course, Todd wrote that when [Billy Joe Shaver’s son, guitarist] Eddy Shaver died [on

December 31, 2000]. Todd called, and that’s how I heard about Eddy.

That song will make you cry every time you hear it. Eddy had played so many times at Cheatham with Billy Joe. Todd met Eddy at Cheatham Street, and then he played with Todd. I’d seen Eddy about a week and a half before that at Cheatham with a new girlfriend. I still have the note stuck on the bulletin board at the house. It just has his phone number on it. Didn’t even have his name.

Writing with Todd began to seem like writing with myself. Since we wrote so much when he was getting started, he knows what I’m thinking and I know what he’s thinking. I can foresee where his head is. We’re both better writers than we were and write better together than we used

to. If you’re going to be a sincere writer, you ought to get better as time goes on, up to a certain point. However, there are cases where someone will have a three-year or two-year run, and whatever is eating them is just there. Then maybe they go off and their mind changes. Mine never has. Todd’s mind is still working with great ideas and great songs. Todd Snider is absolutely the best there is. He’s living in Nashville doing the un-Nashville thing. Everybody on Music Row is looking at Todd as their hero, and he is making fun of Music Row all the way. Of course, I’m proud of Todd. How can anybody not be? He’s just knocking it out of the park. I take pride in everything he does. I love Todd, always have. He was like a brother and a son. 1

1 Kent Finlay, interview with Jenni Finlay, January 3, 2015.

Brian T. Atkinson, the author of I’ll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt, is a music writer, record label owner, and producer based in Austin.

Jenni Finlay is an artist manager, radio promoter, and record producer based in Austin. The daughter of Kent Finlay, she owns Eight 30 Records with Atkinson.

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