Robert Finley
Photo: Jim Herrington / Big Feat PR

Robert Finley Ain’t Wasting Any Time

Blues legend Robert Finley’s blues-rock sound is hitting a whole new generation of fans, and his unbridled energy shows that age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

Black Bayou
Robert Finley
Easy Eye Sound
27 October 2023

Like a number of other musicians in recent decades, Robert Finley has become a big star relatively late in his life (he’ll turn 70 the day before Valentine’s Day, 2024). With his very considerable charisma and talent, it’s not hard to see why.

Finley’s last album, Sharecropper’s Son (2021), received more praise than his other releases, but it’s his most recent LP, Black Bayou (released in October 2023), that shines the brightest. It’s his third record for Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound and features both Black Keys (Auerbach and Patrick Carney) as well as North Mississippi aces Kenny Brown and Eric Deaton. Finley’s excellent band seems to easily lock into one tight groove after the next, expanding from the straight-ahead blues of Sharecropper’s Son into much more soulful, funkier territory. Despite the apparently loose, spontaneous atmosphere in the studio, the album’s songs compositionally hang together very well, coming across as fully formed, catchy, and memorable.

Finley spoke with PopMatters in December, between two tours of France, right before his Grand Ole Opry debut, and around the time that Black Bayou began appearing on year-end best lists. In April, he’ll perform stateside, playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in his home state of Louisiana for the first time, and also the Austin Blues Festival, alongside Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan, and his friend Bobby Rush.

Congratulations on your amazing new album.

Thank you. I’m so glad we caught the right moment, and everything seemed to be coming together. So it’s all a part of a childhood dream.

I’ve read that the recording process was spontaneous and that little planning was done in advance. As a result, the record feels very natural and easygoing.

All we did was decide what we wanted to talk about. That was the topic. Then, anybody who had a groove that they wanted to play with, we built around that. Once I heard the music, when they played it back, I gave the lyrics to it. So it really wasn’t a sit-down with a pencil and paper type album. It all just came naturally. We probably broke the record because we probably did the fastest-recorded album. We just went in there and jammed, and if each musician wasn’t satisfied with where they were at, they might have gone back just to satisfy themselves because I’ll be asking for the best of everybody.

With all musicians, I just try to let them be themselves because I can’t explain to you where I’m gonna put my finger next. You just have to listen and meet me there. Being a musician pretty much all my life, for 50-something years, I know how to work with musicians and bring out the best in them. Most of the bands that travel with me are half my age. Some of my band members, I have grandkids as old as them. At the end of the day, I don’t try to keep up with them. I try to help them learn how to keep up with me.

You have some pretty amazing younger musicians with you. You’ve got Kenny (Brown) and Eric (Deaton), and you also have Dan and Patrick (Auerbach and Carney, of the Black Keys), of course. What’s it like working with these younger guys, and how do you find a groove with them?

What goes around comes around. I just happen to be in the circle for three generations. Being 69 years old and having my daughter and granddaughter singing on the album with me, that’s three generations on one album. The kids just wanna follow my dream because they say, “Daddy, you’re not really having a bad dream.” So why not just follow your dream? Because it’s not like a nightmare, it’s a beautiful dream. We get to see the world and meet so many people. All you have to do is smile, and in most cases, people will smile back. Sometimes people won’t smile. It’s not because they don’t want to smile, but sometimes, a smile is a sign of weakness when you’ve got to be hard where you’re from. Sometimes, if you smile at a young lady, they hesitate to smile back because they don’t know if your smile is genuine or if you’re trying to use them. You can’t smile at everybody you see if you feel vulnerable. In my case, I don’t hesitate to smile at anybody because, at my age, I don’t have that much time left. I probably have more smiles left than I have time.

You seem like you’re in pretty good health. You’ve got a lot of energy, which is great.

You’ve got to sometimes turn your back to the mirror. When I look at my videos, I was like, damn, when am I gonna start acting my age?

The videos from Black Bayou are fantastic, like “You Got It (And I Need It)”, which shows you breaking out of jail to get to that motel. You’re singing a lot about the ladies on this album, and I’m assuming that’s coming from some of your real-life experience?

Yes. When I was a kid, I used to watch the Beatles. They would be running from the girls. I watched Elvis Presley have to run and sneak out the back door to get away from the girls. I always wanted to be popular with girls, and I made up my mind to say, “I’m not gonna run. I’m gonna let them catch me and see what they gonna do to me!” At the end of the day, you better go ahead and run, take the first cab out sometimes, but I love what I do enough to believe it’s safe for me to go out and mingle with the people. Sometimes, when I go out in the lobby to sign a CD or LP, it’s such a long line, but watching the people sit there patiently and wait their turn to get a signature and a quick photo sometimes means more to me than the actual show itself, because that’s when you get one-on-one with your fans.

That’s when that old portrait that I may not remember taking when they take it home and share it with their family and loved ones puts it in a whole new category. It’s well worth it. And I never told anybody no because you never know when it will be your last photo. The fans are what makes you popular. You can be as good as you want to be in anything you try to be, but if you don’t have supporters and people who love what you’re doing? So, it’s more important to me that the fans know that I love them just as much as they love me, and more, because I couldn’t live the lifestyle I live if it weren’t for my fans. I ask them all to take it personally when I say, without you, I wouldn’t be me. I also tell people it’s never too late for you to become whatever you wanted to be when you were a kid because dreams do come true.

Your story is very inspiring, I’m sure, to so many people, with you becoming such a big star in your 60s. It seems like you’re especially popular in Europe. I know you’ve been touring there a lot and are heading back soon. I saw that the British magazine Mojo recently gave Black Bayou five stars. What’s it like for you in Europe versus here in the United States? Did you see a difference in the crowds, the fans?

Love and a smile work internationally. Music works around the world. I don’t feel bad that I’ve become a legend or rock star in Europe before I did in my hometown. But sometimes you have to prove yourself. If I was to go to the good book, then even Jesus wasn’t as big of a rock star at home. He saved the world, but at home, he was just Joseph’s son, just a carpenter’s boy, and that’s all the credit he got at home. He was someone that I always admired and wanted to be like, and I know that I would never accomplish what he has accomplished because I’ll never want to go through what he went through for his fellow man. I don’t think I’d want to die from my own sins, even less the sins of the world. I don’t think I wanna die, period, but I know I gotta do it one day. I try to see positive things and help as many people as I can in my life to remember that someone really cares. If you really care, you share, and that’s with your opinions, with your money, with your love. If you really care, you don’t have that much of a problem when it’s time to share.

One of the songs on the record that’s getting a lot of attention is “Nobody Wants to Be Lonely”, about you caring about a friend of yours who’s in a retirement home. It’s an unusual and inspiring song. It’s not the kind of topic that a lot of blues singers or soul singers are singing about.

I wasn’t singing about it myself until a friend of mine, who I usually saw on a day-to-day basis, got sick. I was out on tour when he was sick. They told me he was in a nursing home, and I went down to see him, and he had open heart surgery. He was recovering and doing good, and there was a smile on his face when I went in. All the other people in the nursing home had been watching TV, and they had been keeping up with me on social media, and I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that so many people in the nursing home knew who I was. All of the nurses and the staff knew about my musical career. The fact that I came to see him put a smile on his face. Unfortunately, he passed on, but if you can be a little piece of joy and happiness, that’s great. The memory stays, and the fact that I went to see him. He was so glad to see me, and then I began talking to other people there. I took my guitar and sang my song, and it brought joy to all of them.

So I made it a habit. Before I went on my last tour, I did a preschool Halloween party and a show at the nursing home. It’s all about the generation gap. To teach kids the ABCs to a song, the teacher has been trying to teach them all year, but when I put it to music and tell them to sing with me, they all seem to sing there. In the nursing home, there were people there who very seldom came out of their rooms, but we were having so much fun I got them to dance. The nursing home started to pay me every time that I came down, but it was not about the money. It was about the joy that we bring. It’s a generation gap, and the only thing we had to do was fill it.

When I met Dan Auerbach, he was 30 years younger than me, and we were clicking to the same things. That brought forth a new generation. I met his dad, mom, sister, and family. I’m like, this is just a regular everyday guy who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And the thing I like about him is that he never forgot where he came from. I was riding on a tour bus with him, a big rock star, and we went in the back, just me and him, one-on-one talking, and the band was up in the front. Some of the things he told me about how he got started kinda blew me away. I’m thinking maybe he was just blessed on the path, so he’s like, no, me and my buddy traveled in an old station wagon, and we didn’t know if we’re gonna make it from one gig to the next. It’s a struggle for everybody. Very few people you see on top were born up there. Even if you’re born on top, you gotta struggle to stay on there to stay up there.

So, a lot of times, people don’t realize what’s put into the effort to get to where you are. Everybody wanna be where you are and do what you’re doing. But they don’t wanna go through what you had to go through to get there. Nobody wanna pay the price. When I was a little kid, my dad got to telling me about Jesus and what he did for me, how everything is happening because of Jesus. Then, one day, I said I want to be like Jesus, so everybody will love me, since everybody loves Jesus. But at the same time, there’s very little difference between Gospel and the Blues. That’s why I just call it the truth. If you just tell the truth, then the truth will set you free. All I can do is be real about everything that I try to sing about. It needs to be real so that people can relate to it, and people would know that you had to have been there and done that, or you wouldn’t know that much about that.

It certainly comes across as very real, and I think that’s why people can relate, and are relating, and are listening. Clearly, you are putting in a lot of work to succeed. Like you say in your song “Livin’ Out a Suitcase”. You’ve been traveling a lot and playing in a lot of different places. I believe you’re playing at the Grand Ole Opry for the first time. 

That’s right. That’s a childhood dream because I used to sit in front of the TV, watch the guy’s fingers, listen to them. I knew the song, so I knew the guitar was singing every word of the song. But now, I can do that without even thinking about it. It just comes naturally. Once you accomplish your mission, then you need a higher goal. There’s nothing I can’t make the guitar say or do, but at the same time, there’s so much I can do without the guitar hanging on my neck. If I’m jumping around on stage with the guitar, the plug might come out; anything may happen. I don’t need to concentrate on where to put my finger if someone else is handling that department. I feel so much better just being able to relate to people from heart to heart. It’s not about the voice or me being a great singer. I think it’s more about what I sing about and the choices of things you sing about because your music has a lot of influence, good and bad. So if I’m saying, shoot them up, bang, bang, they may go to shooting and banging. But if I go, let’s get along, they may try that, too.

So I try to sing about things that all generations can deal with. If you can get mama, grandmama, granddaughter, grandpa, grandson, and dad to dance to the same album, then you created a miracle. We need more things to bring the family together. Most kids think grandma and grandpa are too old, they don’t know what’s going on. This ain’t your day. It ain’t like it used to be. But they need to realize even the good book says you need the wisdom as well as you need the knowledge. You need the old folks just as well as you need the young folks. Right now, we’re depending strictly on technology. Now, young people do not go to the TV, the history book, or the library; they just ask the phone, and the phone would tell them anything. That’s why everybody’s smart, but everybody is dependent on the phone. But what happens if the phone goes out? Even me and you, if we leave our phones for 24 hours, we’re lost. Every child that’s five years old has got a phone. I got great-grandchildren that got a phone. We didn’t have a phone in the house when I was growing up, so I was just in a whole different world.

I’m living my dream beyond my dream. I’m doing things I never dreamed of that I would even have thought was possible. So, if I didn’t believe that they were possible, how could I dream of them? But now I see that all things are possible. In the fourth grade, I said I wanted a big, old nice car with a telephone in it, and my classmate said, how are you gonna ride around with all the wires hanging there? That doesn’t make sense. It’s going to get all tangled up! Nobody knew anything about Bluetooth, but now you can get in the car and tell the car where to take you, and the car will drive you there. You can get in the back and go to sleep. I can’t afford one of those cars, but I’m one of the people who would really need it because it’ll look a whole lot better, the car driving itself, than a blind man driving the car.

In spite of all the technology, the sound of the music you make is very warm and analog. It sounds wonderful because it’s old school. Black Bayou sounds different from Sharecropper’s Son, because there’s an influence of soul music. Was that something you had on your mind with this album, that it would be more rhythm and blues than blues, or is it what the band was jamming on?

The whole idea was to be able to cook a gumbo, and the gumbo needed to have something from every label, whether it was rock ‘n’ roll, Southern soul, jazz, blues, or country. Whatever you want, you should be able to find it; there needs to be a little bit of it in the gumbo. The compilation album came out first on Easy Eye Sound. We did “Tell Everybody” on it. They could have picked a prettier picture to put on the cover, but they decided to put me on the cover of the album, which I’m grateful for. I listened to that album and all the different people and styles on the album. My job is to get in where I fit in. I don’t try to change anybody. I don’t like it when somebody tries to change me, but when you’re hanging out with the best, it brings out the best in you. All of us guys got a chance to do a fish fry.

We got a chance to do a show in Nashville when we were doing the release party for that album. I loved it because I got to perform with and meet the people that I was on the album with. The more and more you build, the more people expect from you. Regardless of how good you are, or you think you are, there’s someone else always trying to be better, so you can’t take a championship belt, just hang it on the closet, and think nobody’s gonna challenge you for it. That’s probably the only sports that I’ve been into, wrestling and boxing. Those sports, I guess they’re willing to fight you for your talent. Thank God that in music, you can just claim it; they don’t have to beat you up to get to have it. It’s a blessing within itself.

The most important thing to me is that I know the work it took to get me to where I am and take me where I’m trying to go is just to stay humble and stay focused. Humbleness will open doors, and arrogance will shut doors in your face. If I get up in the morning, as I do every morning, and put the same hat on my head, then success doesn’t make my head swell overnight. I hate it when people get a little pat on the back, and they get a big head, and they get arrogant, get rude to people, and think they’re better than people, and so many crazy things go on..

Speaking of hats on your head, you have a lot of nice hats and clothes. You have a very special style of dressing. You have a really good look that’s very distinctive. How did you develop your style? Did it come from the area where you live in Louisiana?

You want to be different because you gotta be different to be noticed. Even in my music career, I used to try to be like somebody else and look like somebody else. I found out about DNA and fingerprints. You can go anywhere in the world and touch something, and they can prove you touched it, or if you spit on the sidewalk, they just scoop it up and get your DNA. And that lets me know every person is special. You gotta just be yourself and try to be the best that you can be. When you do that, I think that liberates all the problems of trying to compete against other people. I got several bands. I got a band on the East Coast, on the West Coast, a Nashville band, a band overseas, and a local band at home. I always talk to them about never competing against the other band.

Never go on stage competing against another artist, but just go on there being the best that you can be because nobody else on that stage can be you. Nobody anywhere on this planet can be you. After you, there will be no more. You gotta just take it for what it’s worth and say, hey, I’m the last of me. I’m the first of me, and I’m the last of me. Now, there will be offspring from me, but their fingerprint won’t match mine. The DNA will have similarities, but it could never be mistaken for mine. That’s why I tell my grandkids, you can follow in my footsteps and be all you can be, but at the same time, you’re not gonna be successful until you just be you. So don’t try to be grandpa, just be you, and be the best you you can be. That normally wins.

I read that you are friends with Bobby Rush, who also became successful late in his life. I wondered about your friendship with him and any other artists who have been inspiring to you. Who have you looked to for inspiration?

I never got to meet B.B. King, Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, or Sam Cooke. The thing about Bobby, we were on the same flight together. Then, we were on the same show. I didn’t know it, but we just happened to meet again at the airport, and when we were getting off, we found out we were going to the same place, and we were riding in the same limo. So, I finally got to talk heart-to-heart with Bobby. He knew all about me, but all I knew about him was from listening to his music. I did a little research and watched as much as I could about him, but I’ve seen him with everybody.

Then, I got to open up for him in his hometown. We did several shows together in Arkansas, like the King Biscuit Blues Festival. He was supposed to have been playing at a show in his hometown, he couldn’t make it, he recommended me, and I went down and did the show. I was telling them how me and Bobby actually met when we were in the limo together. We had about a four-hour drive from the airport to the venue we were going to, and we got a chance to talk heart-to-heart. That’s when I found out a lot of personal things about him. Then, I found out his family owned land right outside of the little town that I live in, Bernice. So, we were trying to get together and work out something when the virus came out and shut the world down for a couple of years. We had to get back on it, pick back up the pieces, and try to get back to where we were.

We were trying to do something where we would be out of the city limits for the summer. They had a lot of land, and we were just gonna cut the underbrush, keep all the trees, and have somewhere to have a picnic during the summer. Hopefully, we can get back on that. Bobby just turned 90. I’m gonna turn 70 in February. So we got a 20-year gap between us. I’m hoping by the time we do our 100th birthday, we will have it. Winners don’t quit; quitters don’t win. So, and that’s what I like about Bobby every time I see him. I’m like, damn, this man is 20 years older than me, so I can’t let him outdance me.

I saw him perform last year. He was dancing and jumping around on the stage. I could not believe this man was 90 years old. It was like a miracle.

Every time we meet, we take a photo together. What I like about him is his humbleness. He never comes out when another artist is performing. He only shines when it’s his time to shine. That’s really respectful, from one artist to another. It means a lot. I never show my face when an opening band is opening for me. I watch them from the side stage, or I’ll get somebody to go out in front and video for me, but I never walk out in the crowd when another artist is on stage. Most of the fans are respectful, but there’s always one out there that’s gonna be rude. They call out your name and interrupt the show when the other band is on stage. I stay focused. Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want done when you are a headliner.

You mentioned you’re going to be turning 70 this coming year. What are you looking forward to in 2024 as you continue to share Black Bayou with the world?

Man, I just look for a bigger crowd and a bigger check, I guess. At the end of the day, you gotta love this to do it. That’s why I sing the song about living out of a suitcase. You have to make some sacrifices. At the end of the day, when you go through your hassles with the airline or the train station or a problem with the van, it’s worth it because you look at the thousands of people who came to hear you or see you. That makes it worth whatever you had to go through to get to them. So it’s so important that they know. You tell them thank you for being there, and then they feel like they’re part of the show, not just someone at the show.

So sometimes, an artist just needs to say thank you to the fans, and that’s not hard or asking too much. Sometimes, I sign CDs and albums because it’s that one-on-one connection. You get to have a brief conversation and take a photo. Those are golden moments for the fans that they don’t forget. They enjoy it and show it to all their friends, loved ones, and family. Then, when you come back to town, you’re gonna need a bigger room. They’re going to bring their friends. Word of mouth is really powerful. Technology is leading the way right now, but word of mouth tells us what and who to look for on social media. The word of mouth will never lose its power. With word of mouth and technology, you can be all over the world at one time.

I’m sure people will keep talking about you, and you’ll keep bringing great music and those smiles to people. Is there anything else you want to share with us?

I would say to the dreamers, even when your dream comes true, don’t stop dreaming. If you ever accomplish everything that you want in life, then there’s no purpose. So you gotta keep a new dream, and as you accomplish one thing, reach out for another and say, if I did this, I can do that. That keeps life interesting and challenging. The thing you don’t want to do is say I lived my life because if you say I lived my life, then that’s a sign that your life is over. Keep hope. Hope is better than dope. Hope ain’t never killed anybody. All of the people that I really admire, they all died of some type of drug. It doesn’t matter if the doctor put you on it or if you got it from slick Willie on the corner. The thing I would tell the young people is to search for the hope and stay away from the dope. If you go to take a pill to make you stay woke, and you gotta take a pill to make you go to sleep, and then, every pill has got a side effect. So don’t be so quick to take the pill. I’m not saying don’t take your medicine, but don’t put all your hope into dope. It don’t take but one wrong medicine, and you don’t get no second chance.

It’s a good point. I think we are all still sad about what happened to Prince, that he never woke up. And so many people, even with help from a doctor, don’t make it. 

Prayer works. If people just try to pray their problems away, it would help. When I get tired, I’m gonna go to sleep. When I wake up, I’m ready to get rolling again. But I’m not gonna take a pill to make me stay woke because we have time to do what we have to do. I’m going forever to be real with myself and just go to sleep. I don’t do a lot of afterparties and this and that. I do the show, and then I rest for the next show. At my age, I can’t keep up. Some of the guys in my band are in their twenties. So what would I look like trying to hang with them after the set? I do more dancing than anybody on the stage during my set. That’s all I came to do. I dance, and I sit down, and I rest for the next day. I carry my back brace in case I throw something out; I can tighten it back in. I don’t try to live in my 30s when I’m in the last of my 60s. One thing about 69, either way, you turn it, it’s gonna be the same thing. At 70, I got to do something different. But 69 is the golden year; everything’s the same at 69. You can get away with a lot at 69, but at 70, you may regret what you did.