If your aim is to drink liquor, watch football and get rowdy with your friends, the Cheatham Street Warehouse is not the bar for you.
But if you want to hear Texas songwriters pour their hearts and souls into every note they sing, then owner Kent Finlay wants you to come on inside.
The famed 35-year-old San Marcos honky-tonk remains dedicated to furthering the careers and talents of local songwriters, not ticket sales and alcohol revenue, Finlay said. "Excuse me for bragging, but we don't have a TV."
You might hear a Texas State University student who's on the verge of becoming one of the biggest names in music, which is what happened after George Strait played his first shows here in 1975. Or you might hear a kid who struggles to fill up clubs in Austin, but later becomes so huge that the city erects a statue in his memory, which is what happened after Stevie Ray Vaughan started playing every Tuesday night in the early 1980s.
And Finlay says the latest generation of musicians playing at his club have it in them to be just as big as Strait and Vaughan. Maybe bigger.
A lot of bars and restaurants might call themselves warehouses, but Cheatham Street is the real deal. The City of San Marcos used to store Christmas lights there before it became a music club.
Most of the light inside comes from neon beer signs and stage lights. The ceilings hang low, and a faint smell of tobacco lingers in the air. A Texas flag is proudly hung behind the stage. And the single-story, sheet metal building is on Cheatham Street right next to the railroad tracks that infamously gum up traffic in San Marcos daily. The trains shake the building and overpower the music inside.
"If the train goes by when you're playing up here, good luck," Finlay says in his gravelly Texan drawl. "It's all part of the experience."
While Cheatham Street has shows just about every night of the week, often selling out when high-profile acts are playing, what happens on Wednesday is what Finlay considers his true calling: the Songwriters Circle.
Each week, 17 songwriters sign up to sing two songs, and the crowd takes turns listening and then playing tunes of their own. The songs must be original compositions and are usually just played with a guitar. It's an informal, relaxed session. Finlay just asks that everyone pay as much attention to the performer on stage as they would like their own audience to do. He often kicks the evening off with some music of his own and usually features a special guest to show the newbies how it's done.
"We're here to listen to each other," Finlay said. "This isn't one of those things where you play two songs and run out the door."
On a Wednesday night, the members of the Songwriters' Circle can be seen tuning their guitars or poring over lyrics scrawled on paper.
Jordan Minor, who counts Johnny Cash and Finlay himself among his influences, has been a fixture at Songwriters' Circle since 2003. "It keeps me writing new songs and challenging myself, I guess," said Minor, who works in San Antonio and lives in San Marcos. "It's inspiring to hear what people are writing."
The list of Cheatham Street alums is a who's-who of country and blues rock stars: Strait, Vaughan, Joe Ely, Jerry Jeff Walker, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Eric Johnson, Randy Rogers and many others.
Finlay says he knows that someday, his current Songwriters' Circle members will be added to that list.
'Like ... an old fiddle'
In the early 1970s, Finlay was studying English at what's now Texas State University, and San Marcos felt like the big city compared to his hometown in McCulloch County, between Waco and San Angelo. He quickly fell in love with the city and its river, but one thing was missing: music.
Back then, if you wanted to hear live music, you had to go to Luckenbach or Austin, whose now-famous scene just was getting started. Finlay wanted to create a venue where artists from all over Central Texas could share their talents in San Marcos.
With the help of business partner Jim Cunningham, then a writer for the San Marcos Daily Record, he found a beaten-down warehouse with wood walls and a whole lot of character. The building was 60 years old at the time, but the acoustics were perfect for live music, Finlay said. (Finlay bought Cunningham out when Cunningham moved to Utah a few years later.)
"All this old wood is a great conductor of sound," Finlay said. "It's like the wood from an old fiddle."
Cheatham Street opened in 1974. Freda and the Firedogs played the first night, beer cost a nickel, and ladies got in for free. At the same time, Finlay said, he and Cunningham never let money be the deciding factor on who could play there and always allowed lesser-known acts to perform. Asleep at the Wheel and Finlay's own band — the High Cotton Express — had strong showings that summer.
Then, on Oct. 13, 1975, the Ace in the Hole Band debuted at Cheatham Street, featuring a new lead singer — Strait, a college student and Army veteran studying agriculture.
During the next few years, the band played at Cheatham Street once a week, garnering bigger and bigger crowds. The billing eventually changed to just "George Strait" to draw attention to the lead singer, who recorded "Unwound" in 1981 and exploded on the country music charts.
"George is the biggest thing that ever happened to this place," Finlay said. Today, Finlay has a shrine to Strait, with some early Ace in the Hole fliers and a signed album thanking Finlay for his support.
Then there was Vaughan, who had a hard time getting people to come to his shows, Finlay recalls. But not long after Vaughan played Cheatham Street, he went on tour with David Bowie in Europe, landed a record deal and became an overnight success. (His opening act at Cheatham Street, Charlie and Will Sexton, went on to see success, too.)
"I used to tell people they would be stars," Finlay said. "People would laugh at me. But listen to them now."
The next generation
John Gilliam, who Finlay nicknamed "Missoula Slim," says he's a lot like the Cheatham Street building itself — something that found its purpose later in life.
At 51, he's a regular at the Songwriters' Circle, but he's a few decades older than the men and women who tend to populate the event. It doesn't matter to him, Gilliam said. After running a law practice in Montana, he moved to Central Texas in 2004 to play music, which he calls his true love.
"This was where it was at," Gilliam said of discovering Songwriters' Circle. "It's where all the great songwriters hang out."
Still a lawyer by day in San Marcos, he also serves on the board of the nonprofit Cheatham Street Music Foundation.
For financial reasons, Finlay sold the lease in 1988. Under new ownership, it became more of a bar and less of a music joint, until Finlay took it over again on New Year's Eve 1999.
Finlay, who says he's in his 60s, eventually wants to put the building in the hands of the foundation's board of directors. It wants to return the building to the way it was 100 years ago, but the building needs refurbishing. The roof and floor need repairs, the support beams are rotting, and Finlay wants to add ramps to make it more accessible to people with disabilities.
The goal, he said, is to keep the venue going as a place that develops Texas songwriters.
"It hasn't just been a venue," said Tommy Foote, George Strait's road manager and a former member of his Ace in the Hole band. "Kent's been a real mentor to people who have an interest in the creative side of music."
People sometimes lose sight of the historical value of the club, Foote said, but that doesn't diminish its value.
"It's one of the best places to listen to music in Texas, still," he said.