Apart from worldwide acclaim, Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Strait and Randy Rogers have one thing in common: they all participated in Cheatham Street Warehouse’s Songwriter Circle, a Texas honky-tonk tradition established in the ‘70s by Kent Finlay, the warehouse’s owner and founder.
“Back in the day, there were five or six of us in the circle sitting around a wooden stove, writing songs,” Finlay said. “It has become a bigger thing than I expected, but it still revolves around the song and listening to each other.”
The Songwriter Circle was created because there weren’t any songwriting spaces in San Marcos, Finlay said. Being a songwriter himself, he decided to create a space for likeminded artists to express themselves. While Nashville’s acclaimed Bluebird Café is often credited with forming the country’s first songwriting circle in 1987, Finlay was ahead of the curve. The Cheatham circle began in the ‘70s, a Texas music trailblazer.
“I always loved music,” Finlay said, adding that he grew up working on his family’s farm. “I would create songs in my head while driving the tractor, and then I’d run back up to my pick up and write down a line and so-on. That’s where it all started.”
The Songwriter Circle, along with Finlay, has seen people like Randy Rogers grow into Texas country stars. Rogers’ songs made an impression on Finlay right away. As a test of Rogers’ commitment to the industry, he was offered Stevie Ray Vaughan night—the highly coveted Tuesday evening spot—to perform. According to Finlay, one hour after the proposal, Rogers had a band and was ready to go. Once the band made it big, Finlay appeared on Randy Rogers live performance DVD, “Homemade Tamales.”
“I told him, if you want to work harder than you ever have in your life, I will help you,” Finlay said. “He’s recorded a couple of my songs, and it has worked out really well for him.”
The fame of Cheatham’s Songwriter Circle has increased with each passing year. Artists from New York, L.A. and Nashville attend the weekly event, and Finlay brings special guests and performers from time to time. According to him, it’s all about creating art and being honest.
“I believe we have one of the last authentic songwriter circles,” Finlay said. “It’s not about selling beer or talking to people. It’s all about the song and inspiration.”
Cheatham Street Warehouse has started a non-profit called The Cheatham Street Music Foundation. The organization is in charge of funding the circle and carrying it further and helping it live forever, Finlay said.
“In 2007, the class of ‘87, as we call ourselves, reunited,” Finlay said. Many Texas songwriters turned up at the warehouse for a musical reunion.
“It was, as someone said, the proof in the pudding,” Finlay said of his friends’ return. “We all felt like we’ve made world a little better through songwriting.”
The Songwriter Circle is held every Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Cheatham Street Warehouse.