My Favorite Albums of 2016 (and the songs i can’t get out of my head)


Here are my favorite albums of the year – not at all official, or in any particular order, just my own personal picks.  Let me know what records you couldn’t get enough of this year!

Bonnie Whitmore – F*@K With Sad Girls
Tim Easton – American Fork
Hayes Carll – Lovers and Leavers
Wilco – Smilco
John Prine – For Better, Or Worse
Highway Prayer: A Tribute to Adam Carroll
Coal Porters – No. 6
Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds
Michael Hearne & Shake Russell – Only As Strong As Your Dreams
Avett Brothers – True Sadness

Hayes Carll – “Sake of the Song”
Tim Easton – “Elmore James”
Steve Earle/ Shawn Colvin – “You’re Right (I’m Wrong)”
John Prine/Iris Dement – “Who’s Gonna Take the Garbage Out”
Band of Heathens – “Oklahoma Gypsy Shuffler”
Aaron Lee Tasjan – “Ready to Die”
Jack Ingram – “I’m Drinking Through It”
James McMurtry – “Remembrance”
Wilco – “If I Ever Was a Child”
Verlon Thompson – “Sideman’s Dream”

Best Day Ever

Last week, Brian and I went to Nashville for the Guy Clark memorial and celebration at the Ryman. It was an important trip for us. Brian and I met while working This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark – Brian wrote the liner notes and I worked the record to radio – which went #1 on the Americana chart, won AMA’s Album of the Year and was nominated for a Grammy and did amazing things for each of our own careers. So, we went to celebrate Guy’s life.

Now, in Nashville, at the end of Music Row, there’s a motel that for the longest time was infamously known as the “Hall of Shame.” At the time, the Country Music Hall of Fame was located on Demonbruen on the other side of the highway and the motel w  as officially named, The Hall of Fame Motor Inn, but it was in constant disrepair. The elevators broke down, the radiator never worked, and there was that unusual smell. It’s where all the songwriters would stay (if they couldn’t afford to stay at the Shoney’s Motel across the street).


One time, Dad was getting into the elevator at the same time as John Hartford (who wrote “Gentle on my Mind”) and a blue-haired old lady. Dad and Hartford nodded their hellos. Naturally, the elevator broke down on its struggle to climb the three stories. Hartford reached for the box where the emergency phone was supposed to be, but found only two wires poking out. He put one to his ear and the other to his mouth and jokingly said, “Hello? Hello?” The entire time, the bluehair was staring at him hard. He was trying not to let it bother him. Finally, she asked, “Are you John Hartford?” “Yes, Ma’am, I am,” he responded shyly. There was a pause. “Well, you sure do look like him!!” she snapped.

The Guy Clark celebration was incredible. Vince Gill hosted, Rodney and Emmylou and Steve Earle and Jack Ingram and many more performed Guy Clark songs – not a bad one in the bunch. Verlon Thompson had everyone in tears – especially with his beautiful version of Guy’s “The Cape.” I went to bed that night thinking it couldn’t get better than that.

I was wrong.

The next morning I awake with Dad’s B-25 guitar on the edge of my bed and know it’s going to be a pretty emotional day. I’m going to the Hall of Fame to donate a few boot boxes full of Dad’s memories and memorabilia for an exhibit that will go up in the spring of 2018. The Country Music Hall of Fame! The second most visited Hall of Fame in the world. I have the red bib-front shirt – his favorite – that he wore in The Kent and Jenni Finlay show, handwritten lyrics to “The Songwriter,” those custom made Jones boots (tan bottoms and green tops he got to match the colors of his custom made Mercury Cougar in 1977), the original painting Sean Tracey did for our book, one of the original Texas Hatters hats Manny Gammage made especially for Dad and the Martin B-25. (Dad would go religiously to Heart of Texas Music on South Lamar in Austin and covet this beautiful old Martin, playing it for hours. One day, it was gone. “What happened to my guitar?” he asked Ray Hennig. “Oh, someone came in and bought it out from under you,” he said. Dad was so sad. Then Christmas morning comes around and Mom and us kids present it to him.  My mother had scrapped together all of the money she could to buy it and he was so thrilled.  He wrote so many songs on that guitar.  And now it was going to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Like I said, a pretty emotional day.

First things first, though. We meet with Guy’s sisters for breakfast. Caro and Jan Clark are halfway through their first mimosa when we arrive.  They are funny and snarky and talkative and we went over every detail of the show the night before – Jack Ingram and Steve Earle doing “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” Jerry Jeff Walker playing “L.A. Freeway,” all the musicians who gathered to close the show with “Old Friends.” Caro kissed Bobby Bare flat on the mouth backstage! It was a blast, and I wished we could’ve stayed all day, but we had business to take care of.


We get to the Hall of Fame, parking in the underground parking lot, and take a secret elevator up to a long, blank hallway, so quiet and mysterious. The wall opens up into a huge cavity filled with other piles of history: Jim Lauderdale’s suit. A 1950’s exhibit ready to go or going back into retirement. Guitars and hats and starch-stiff dresses. I want to poke through all of it. Mary Gauthier takes a break from writing her new songwriting book to come join us. Everyone plays the guitar one last time.  She and Peter Cooper, Brian and I take a mini-tour of the Hall of Fame and it’s incredible. All I could think was I wish Dad could be here.


Peter shows us where the room where the exhibit will be and I get a little weepy. At the end of the tour, there is a large mosaic of vinyl record covers, some old, some new. I joke and point out the ones I’ve worked: Drive-By Trucker’s The Big To-Do; Jason Isbell’s 400 Unit, etc. On the edge is Bobby Bare’s Lullabys, Legends and Lies. This is the record Dad would play over and over and over again when I was a child.  We didn’t just get to enjoy it, we had to STUDY it. Dad considered Bare to be the greatest ear in the world. He knew how to pick a song, covering everything from Shel Silverstein to Billy Joe Shaver to Harlan Howard. And everything was spot on. I tell Mary this as we leave.

We have lunch down the street at a wonderful Italian place and run into Jack Ingram on the street. Only in Nashville, I think. We check into a dive motel (I didn’t realize we were going to be in Nashville the extra day when I originally booked the rooms) and I tell Brian I’m going to crash for 20 minutes.  We had an appointment at City Winery at 3:30 to do the walk-thru for our official pre-award show happy hour during AMA. When I awake 20 minutes later, I have 6 text messages and 4 voicemails from Mary Gauthier.  Oh Crap, I thought, thinking she was stuck in a wall somewhere in the Hall of Fame.  I check the message:  “Headed over to Bobby’s.  Wanna come? I can pick u up.” (Bobby Bare had just recorded a demo of her incredible, “I Drink” and wanted her to hear it.)


I jump up and run to bang on Brian’s door. “You wanna go to Bobby Bare’s house?” I ask but I mean it as a statement. We rush to City Winery, look around quickly and tell them, “Yes, yes, this will do just fine,” and promise to return later for Steve Poltz’ show.

We jump in Mary’s car and head to Hendersonville. It takes us about 20 minutes, but we’re both talking a mile a minute so the trip goes by in a flash. We revisit our trip to the HOF that morning. I tell Mary that I can just hear Dad say, “Well, I always knew I could get into the Hall of Shame, but this is something else! Mighty fine!” I wish I could call him. He would be so excited – would want to know every detail. Would want me to pitch Bobby “Be Nice to ‘Em Son,” LOL. I text James McMurtry. James has in his possession the coveted radio promo of Lullabys, Legends and Lies. In his response, he reminds me of that. Yeah, yeah, I think, jealously.

We arrive at Bobby Bare’s house and it’s not at all what I expected: Very suburban. Very nice. Very Country-Club. They have the Bed Bath and Beyond “B” welcome mat at the front door. His wife, Jeannie, opens the door. She is a ball of fire, 75 years old and fussing around proud and pointing out pictures and plaques that line the walls. She points to the plaque he received when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, “We had to send it back when we first got it – his head came clear off!”  She leads us into the kitchen to meet Bobby. I’m standing in Bobby Bare’s kitchen.  I clamp my hands to my sides.  “Do not bang on the pots and pans.  Do not bang on the pots and pans” I repeat to myself, his “Singin’ In The Kitchen” ringing in my head. “HERE WE GO!”

When did I meet your Dad?” he asks slowly. Wow, I have no idea. Dad would have been so amazed and proud that Bobby would even remember, I’m stunned. I tell him that Dad used to come up to Nashville regularly in the 70’s and 80’s with Darrell Staedtler, that he and Todd Snider were good friends…and his face lights up. He’s figured it out. “I met him 10 years ago at Todd’s birthday party.” We grin at each other.

A flock of grandchildren shyly slide in. He pulls one onto his lap, “This one is the prettiest,” he announces, as she bashfully looks down at her feet “….with the Bare features,” he explains, as the others look on. He pats her head and she slips off and away.

Let’s go to my office and listen to some music,” he says. The “office” is the two-car garage. He has a beat up old metal army desk covered in CDs in front of about 22 fishing rods, a mounted wide-mouth bass he probably caught, and large ashtrays filled with cigar butts. There’s a set of heavy lawn furniture that we haul over to the desk to have a better listen. He pops open the little Sony boombox CD player and puts in the first one:

He’d get home at 5:30
Fix his drink, sit down in his chair
Pick a fight with Mama
Complain about us kids getting in his hair”

It’s perfect. “I Drink” in that stunning Bobby Bare style. Mary goes back and forth from jumping up with an enthusiastic “YES!!” to sitting back holding back the tears. I’m watching Bobby. There is something so familiar about his mannerisms and I realize they resemble how Dad used to be. Bobby Bare is 81 years old. He talks very slow, gesturing lazily with his hand, elbow fixed to the table. Every once in a while, he gets stuck on a thought, and we wait until he gets it out. It’s something I hadn’t experienced in a while and I got pretty weepy watching.  I’m emotional now as I write this.

He searches the desk for the next disc. “This one is kinda scratched up” he says as he wipes it vigorously on his shoulder.  The music begins and we hear the first lines of “Mercy Now.” “Oh my God!” Mary says, realizing Bare has cut two of her songs for his next record.  Before we had to go, he wants us to hear a couple more.  “I just found this guy, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of him, but I think he’s a genius.  Leonard Cohen.”  We smile as he puts on his version of “Tower of Song.”

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play…”

You know, “ Bare says slowly, “I bet he got a lot of pussy when he was young.”

Still does,” Mary says, laughing.

The last song we hear is one of Bobby’s originals. It’s called something like “You Think You Want to be a Songwriter Like Me, But You Don’t” – a warning to the new hopefuls moving to Nashville.

They should play that at the airport,” I say. Bobby Bare’s face lights up and he laughs that Bobby Bare laugh. Holy crap, I made Bobby Bare laugh! It sounds just like on the records!

As we’re leaving, I give him a hug.

We scramble back to real life. We have to meet Mando Saenz at the 5 Spot to get him to sign a guitar we are giving to Adam Carroll (containing autographs by all the performers on the tribute record we just completed, Highway Prayer). Our friend from Texas, Jamie Lin Wilson, is playing when we walk in.  Dad always said she has the most incredible voice. She gets off the stage and comes over and I can’t help myself,

OH MY GOD!!” she shrieks. We both jump up and down like school kids.

We go back to City Winery and Steve Poltz is deep into his show, but we have no time to bask in the day. Brian gets a text asking for a press release about the Hall of Fame exhibit. Also, we need a quote from James McMurtry for the Rolling Stone premiere of his song for our Adam tribute. There is still much work to be done… But it can wait another 10 minutes. The final song Steve plays is Hartford’s “Gentle on my Mind.”

“you’re movin’ on the back roads
by the rivers of my memory
and for hours you’re just gentle on my mind”

Perfect, I think. Just perfect.




Blog Soundtrack:
Old Friends – Guy Clark
Gentle on My Mind – Glen Campbell
Be Nice to Em Son – Kent Finlay
Nothin’ To Fix – Jack Ingram
Lullabys, Legends, and Lies – Bobby Bare
Singing in the Kitchen – Bobby Bare
I Drink – Mary Gauthier
Mercy Now – Mary Gauthier
Tower of Song – Leonard Cohen
Just Like Heartache – Jamie Lin Wilson
When I Come Around – Mando Saenz
Highway Prayer – Adam Carroll
I Want All My Friends to Be Happy – Steve Poltz

Stock: It’s a good investment

I guess I’m true to my Finlay roots: our Scottish family creed is (no joke) “Not Too Much.” We were raised to used every part of the hog, so to speak. Waste not, want not. In that spirit, when my composter is full, I tend bag up and reserve the ends of the celery and green onions and carrots all week long. On the weekend, I make a stock, which I have found to be a wonderful meditation. You really can’t go wrong and it’s relaxing to have something to be poking at for awhile, watching the transformation. Plus you save five bucks buying storemade-stock.


I’ve been freezing my raw shrimp shells, cooked lobster shells (there was a big $5 sale at HEB a couple of weeks ago) and crab claws (Sprouts on a quick sale discount) for about a month – all of which is overtaking my freezer space. So today I’m making a homemade seafood stock. I’ll use the stock sometime in the next week or two to make Mermaid Soup.

Seafood Stock


1 stick of butter

shells from shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels and other seafood (salmon skins, snapper heads, etc)

2 cups roughly chopped onion

2 carrots, chopped

3 stalks celery

3 garlic cloves, minced

glug of white wine

1 tbsp kosher salt

sprinkle of peppercorns

1 bay leaf

(in my double batch today, I also have cilantro stems, onion skins, asparagus stems, 2 lemons (halved), and the butt end of a red cabbage – basically eyeball it to be as many veggies as shells).



Warm the butter in a big stockpot over medium heat. Add the shells and vegetables and saute for 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook about 1-2 minutes more. Cover with water and a glug of wine (one glug equals about half a cup). Add the salt, peppercorns and whatever else you think would be good. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour or an hour and a half (however much time you have), poking at it with a wooden spoon occasionally. When you think it’s time, strain it through a metal strainer or sieve, pressing all the juice out. The color will range between a shiny golden color to a deep rich brown (mine has a purple-ish tinge today because of the red cabbage). Let it cool before you put it in a good freezer container (a big ziplock works for me). You’re going to want to taste it and you won’t think it’s salty enough. THAT’S FINE. Trust me. You can add all the salt you want when you make it into a soup.


Mermaid Soup

Lisabella’s Bistro in Port Aransas, TX has been serving Mermaid Soup for as long as we’ve been going there. It’s the best soup in the world. I’m not even kidding. The description on the menu reads, “Coconut, Curry, Lobster, Secrets.” I’ve been trying to decipher their “secrets” for 15 years. I’ve gotten really close. Here’s what I’ve come up with.


2 tbsp coconut oil

About a quart of seafood stock

2 cans coconut milk

2 tbsp unsalted butter

4 oz green curry paste

1 small potato, finely diced

1 carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 green bell pepper, cored and seeded and finely diced

1 shallot, minced

1 tsp curry powder

½ cup clamshell mushrooms, separated

½ lb cooked shrimp, peeled, deveined, and roughly chopped

2 lobster tails, cooked, and roughly chopped
salt and pepper to taste


Heat your coconut oil in the bottom of your soup pot. Add the shallots and ¼ tsp salt. Give it a good stir until the shallots are soft. Add the curry paste, and cook over medium heat about 2 minutes. Add the potatoes, carrots, and bell pepper and cook until soft. Pour in your stock, butter and coconut milk. Cook over low heat, covered for about 30 minutes. Season with curry powder and salt and pepper. Add the lobster and the shrimp and mushrooms, and cook 5 minutes more. Serve immediately with cilantro and lime.

A Walk in the Park

IMG_5717“Let’s go to Disney World!” Clay announced excitedly as soon as school was out.  This was over a month ago.  I looked at him for a good long while and considered.  I’m not a roller coaster person…or a crowd person…or a children person…or a walking in the hot sun person. Frankly I don’t really do vacations, and was nervous at the very thought of it. Growing up, our family vacations revolved around gigs or writing assignments, so I never understood the high-falutin luxury of having a day off.  My “dream vacation” is to be left alone undistracted to read a book start to finish.  You want to take me to the happiest place on earth?  Lock me in the library over the weekend.  I imagined myself sitting on the floor crosslegged in some Disney store corner, reading David Sedaris surrounded by a protective fort of plush Dumbos. But Clay loves Disney World, so I agreed. It might be fun, I thought.  And anyway, I had 3 books I’ve been wanting to read.

I’ve never been to Disney World, and always joked that Clay has taken literally hundreds of girls there (as a band director on school trips) but has never taken me.  The one time I had the opportunity to go to Disney World was way before I ever met my husband. It was my freshman year in high school. The San Marcos Band had planned their school trip there. I had a fair to play that weekend, so I opted out.  That year, nine members of the band, including a drum major, several band officers and the kid of a school board member were arrested for shoplifting and taken to – believe it or not – Mickey Mouse Jail – which I can only imagine is part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The band director was meandering around Downton Disney and all of the sudden the mushrooms that had been piping in the music all day started talking to him, “Will Johnny Martinez of San Marcos High School please report to the… err… Mickey Mouse Jailhouse.” When the band went back home, they left the jailbirds behind for the parents to go their bail.  SMHS Band was banned from Disney World for the next several years, and it became a warning/horror story/wives tale that was told prior to every school trip after. I decidedly did not bring my letter jacket. 

After arriving at the airport at 7am for our 8:50 flight, we were delayed five hours (5 HOURS!!!)  Clay stared up at the tv monitor dazed.  “Is that what that really means?!” he asked, dumbstruck.  Held together with what later looked like bread ties, our plane was broken down and stuck in El Paso.  With no other options, we made the best of it and spent the first day of our vacation as Austin airport looky-lous.  We searched – to no avail – for the Dad book (Kent Finlay, Dreamer) at all the book stores, had tomato soup for breakfast, and got a couple of 20 minute chair massages (which is a little awkward all out in the open for passers-by to see).  It wasn’t the worst airport we could’ve been stuck at for five hours. I once spent the night in the Dallas Love Field airport. All the stranded and shipwrecked aimlessly wandered back and forth between the bar and the What-a-Burger, zombie-like. The Austin airport was much more interesting. People-watching is top notch.  Best of all, I managed to read an entire book before we even boarded.  Things were really looking up!

When we finally arrived in Orlando, we were whisked away to the water-slide hotel Clay planned to use for his band trip next year – a paradise for anyone between 5 and 16.  It was dark when we got in, and the street was lit up with tourist shops, liquor stores and fast food joints.  The big McDonald’s across the street advertised on it’s big flashing neon sign that it was the “World’s Largest Entertainment McDonald’s.”  I envisioned low light, exotic dancers and super-sizing of things until Clay explained that they meant the indoor playground…you know, for the children.  Slightly disappointed, I closed the blinds and cracked open a book.

Going through the security line at Magic Kingdom the next morning, I set my bag and bright yellow parasol on the table to be searched and prodded and waited in line to go through the magical metal detector.  “Come on in, Princess,” the security guard said, gruffly.  Instinctively, my head snapped back and my eyes cut across to him: “EXCUSE me?”…and then realized that yes, we were entering an actual castle, and yes, he was probably being nice and Disney-like.  Clay thought it was incredibly sweet and laughed so hard when I told him that I gave the poor guy a dirty look.  

The parasol I brought was initially intended to keep my head from burning, but soon I found myself wielding it defensively like an umbrella in a busy Brooklyn subway tunnel.   

I don’t do crowds. My mother tells a story about shopping in the packed-to-the-gills grocery store the day before Thanksgiving, and in the middle of the congested cheese aisle, some woman just went bat-shit crazy, screaming at the top of her lungs, “GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!” while using her basket as a battering ram, running people over and splitting the crowd in two. I have to admit, there were times I was wishing I had a shopping cart, and for the first time, I envied the people with strollers.

I don’t do children. Well, I don’t do other people’s children.  I love my niece and there are a handful of other small people I can deal with for several hours at a time.  But I don’t do stranger’s children – especially when they are over-familiar, over-stimulated, and completely over-the-top.  Regularly, the overhead announcement kept asking me to “take small children by the hand” which seemed more than a little forward and made me feel more than a little guilty – as if I would stand back and watch Suzie Q trip and bite the dust within arms reach. Mr. Announcer reminded me tirelessly over a dozen times a day, least I forget. Okay, okay, I get it. I will. Let’s talk about something else.  I have a friend who ends all of her emails, “Be good to each other.” And while I love the sentiment, it always makes me feel like she just caught me rough-housing with my brother. “Settle down now, and you two just get along.” Aw, come on.  We were just playing.

I don’t do roller coasters.  From the time my brother and I were 8 and 10 until we were about 12 and 14, we spent all our weekends and summers performing at countless fairs and festivals across the Southwest.  We played them all – Border Fest, Gator Fest, Cotton Gin Festival, Strawberry Festival, Red River Fest, Cantaloupe Fest…you name it, we were there.  Since we were just kids, the head of the carnival thought it was charming to “tip” us with Farris wheel rides and funnel cakes – believing, I’m sure, that we’d consider it a rare treat – not realizing that we were three days in to a seven day festival run.  But we’d smile and thank him and strap ourselves obligatorily into the faded and dented up cars.  This stopped directly after the “Tilt-a-Whirl Incident.” The Tilt-a-Whirl was a popular fair ride in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It spins your car around and around in a little circle while making a big circle around its hub…sort of like a drunk on the dance floor. At one point I looked over at Sterling and was shocked to see that he was the color of guacamole.  I am not even exaggerating.  Considering I was downwind, I was seriously alarmed.  It was our last ride.  And last funnel cake, for that matter.

Clay was totally in his element at Disney.  This was definitely his kind of place, and I got a kick out of the silly grin that spread across his face ear to ear.  He suggested we go “old school” and ride the “Small World,” a river boat that takes you through what appears to be the inside of a German music box, where child-sized puppets dressed in costumes from around the world sing the same song over and over and over.  In line, we all looked sweaty and dreary, like drones sunk headfirst into our iPhones as we were slowly herded through the corral as though waiting to be branded “WD” by Tinker Bell’s magic wand. I can’t lie – the actual ride scared the crap out of me.  If you have ever ridden it and it DIDN’T scare the crap out of you, you, my friend, have not seen House of Wax. I imagined we’d hook a left and the lights would dim, the music would slow down and get all minor-y and the puppets would begin to melt into bloodsucking demons.  (I watch a lot of horror movies.) 

In line at the Be Our Guest restaurant,  my friend Curtis texted me asking how I was doing.  “I’m in Orlando,” I responded. He texted “Does that mean not good?  The association of horrible mass tragedy has replaced the prior association of theme parks.”  But I explained I was in actual Orlando, theme parks and all. And it suddenly occurred to me that there had been no mention of the Orlando massacre in the parks.  I guess there’s no room for tragedy in the happiest place on earth.  Around that time, the shadow of the Dallas shooting fell upon the world.  From Orlando, it seemed both very close and very far away.  It’s a small world after all, I thought.

Later that night, we Ubered to Epcot. I got a picture that looks like Clay is hitting that big golf ball over the water – nice drive!  We ventured all over the world: Italy, England, Africa, Germany… sauntering into the little shops to buy trinkets and memories.  We finally made it to Morocco to enjoy kabobs and couscous and a real live belly dancer who circled around the room like Mariachis on the River Walk.  

We took more Ubers than I have in all of my life, and it was really wonderful. We made one guy take us by the place where that alligator ate that kid – a tourist destination for sure.  I have a weird habit – that only applies to taxies and Ubers.  When the back door is opened, I get in and sliiiide all the way over. And where we get to our destination, I sliiiide all the way out. I never do this in a friend’s car.  And though I’m pretty sure both doors work, when it comes to a person I’m paying to drive me around, I’ve never try the door on my side. I don’t know where it comes from.  It’s like those people who speak perfectly good English but can’t pronounce Worcestershire.

We began the next day with lunch at Cafe Tu Tu Tango – recommended by my friend Bert from the Forgotten Coast.  Cafe Tu Tu Tango is a fabulous cafe full of local artisans and sharable small plates.  I bought a refrigerator magnet that was painted to look like a giant green eye.  Brian’s parents came up – a two and a half hour drive – and it was great to see them. We laughed and visited for a good several hours.

I didn’t buy a wand.  Tell me I didn’t need to buy a wand. It was a really good one.  Probably works and everything.  Made by a real Hogwarts wizard.  Any Harry Potter fan worth her salt has to have an official wand.  It was $40.  I did the math and figured it equalled about 5 bottles of cheap wine, which goes a lot further in my house than it used to.  So I didn’t buy the wand.  Even thought I really wanted it. What’s the opposite of buyer’s remorse?

So yeah, Universal finally sold me.  I ultimately begin to buy in to the whole experience. We went to the world of Harry Potter and I became as giddy as the 12 year olds squealing and jumping up and down next to me.  I drank a sugary butter beer made of cream soda and cake icing. Cake icing!  I even rode a roller coaster – a scary one in 4D – which pitched me around and dropped me at a free fall several stories, truly making my chiropractor have to earn her keep next week. I wanted to buy everything.  I NEEDED a Hello Kitty lunchbox.  I NEEDED a Gryffindor robe.  I NEEDED a Mickey Mouse keychain.  I NEEDED a wand – a genuine wand with real magic in it made by an actual wizard. Gimme, gimme, gimme, I thought frantically, as the sugar rushed to my head.  It took all I had to refrain, calm down, and keep my billfold jammed way down in the bottom of my bag.

In line at the Hard Rock Cafe – our last bullet point on the itinerary – the pudgy middle-aged guy in front of me was wearing bright white Mickey Mouse Adidas and a brand new fuzzy Minions backpack.  Whoopsidaisy. The Disney Store got him, I thought.  I imagined that he bought the wand.

The last morning, I sat in a shady poolside lounge chair oblivious to the shrieks of children I could not handle earlier in the week, carefully editing stories and recipes I’m working on for a couple of cookbook projects coming up, promising myself to dedicate a full day to them next week…okay, maybe half a day.  I made an extensive list of things I needed to tackle when I returned home – feeling invigorated, restored and energized to get back to work.  It was only four days of vacation, and I can’t say there weren’t glitches and hitches in the road, but I managed to settle in. I managed to get some work done.  Bonus: I managed to read all three books!

Maybe I can do vacation after all. It’s really no big thing.  Just a walk in the park.

A Week in the Life

“What on earth for?” I ask amazed.  

“Why not?” James replies grinning. “I got the curly cord and everything.”

James just announced that he just purchased a twelve-string Ovation. The acoustic roundy-backed guitar that in the 70’s and early 80’s could be seen strapped around everyone who was anyone because of it’s state-of-art technology, but now conjures up images of Colorado ski resort folk singer. We’re sitting at the office, Enoteca, drinking sparkling water and flavored soda, boxes of cds spilled across the bar in front of us.  I shake my head and sigh. James is gonna do what he’s gonna do. New look.  New guitar.  New lease on life. James stares off toward the window that looks across Congress, probably imagining some new Ovation-perfect tuning. 

Later that week he hits the road for his two-month long “Back at it” tour.  We’re shaking off a bad year, getting back into the swing of things. We’re ready to get a move on.

It’s Wednesday. A few weeks into the tour, and I get a text:


It’s Wednesday.  The guitar has to be in Petaluma on Saturday before his show there Sunday.

I’d just returned from a whirlwind trip to Port Aransas and all I wanted to do was hop into my yoga pants and veg out to the Lifetime Movie Network.  But I haul myself over to James’ duplex and grab the guitar.  Turns out, James had it out the day they left for the tour, showing it off to Cornbread, but completely spaced it as they were packing up.

I get the guitar home and have Brian tune it down (fun fact: the entire time I was in college, i mis-trained myself to sting a guitar so I only end up doing half correctly, and half bass-ackwards.  I don’t remember which half is the right way, so I try not to think about it and have forbade myself to tune another guitar unless I absolutely have to).

I confidently walk into my neighborhood UPS store the next morning.  The kid that works there knows me by sight – throughout Dad’s probate, he got to see quite a bit of me (he’s the neighborhood Notary Public).  He perks up as I walk in, awkwardly juggling the guitar and a couple of boxes of cds as I push the door open with my elbow.  It’s Thursday.  Mr. UPS promises the guitar will be in Petaluma on Saturday.  Whew!  $700 later, I’m walking out the door, and the guitar is off to our friends at Lagunitas Brewing Company.

Lagunitas Brewing Company is the world’s most incredible Craft Brewery.  They are super cool and have been over-the-top supportive of me and James and lots of other artists and musicians.  The owner, Tony Magee, is the sweetest guy you will ever meet, but cunning in his business sense.  I once asked why they didn’t can their brews – why they only used bottles. What are we supposed to do on the beach, I probed…”You will wish you had a Lagunitas, and keep thinking about it until you throw in the towel and go find a proper bar,” he answered, matter-of-factly.  The staff at Lagunitas is the best group of down to earth people you can find, and I’m proud to call them my friends. 

I’m pretty proud of myself and my “take-action” management style as I walk out of the UPS, dusting off my hands in satisfaction.  That lasted for about an hour.

I get a text from our friend, Jimmy Jacobs –long-time Lagunitas executive and new head of their donations divisions.  “Wait,” he texts… “No one is going to be at the Lagunitas office on Saturday.  Can you re-route to my house?  I don’t want the guitar just sitting outside the door.”

Okay.  Okay.  Okay…?  I think to myself, unnerved..  

Anytime I’m stressed, my best solution is to yell at Brian. Try it sometime – it really works! After my freak-out, we come up with a plan.  Brian rushes back to UPS.  My guy, Mr. UPS is still there.  “Dude! The guitar’s already on the truck,” he wails.  But it’s for James.  And it’s for me (and to tell you the truth, I think Mr. UPS has been crushing on me for about a year and a half).  So he breaks the law.  Against all rules and policy, threat of being placed on a government watchlist, and the possibility of being stripped of his notary title, he gets the guitar out of the truck, victorious.  

….Only to find out that it will cost an additional $700 to print a new sticker.  This is beginning to be a long day.

“Hey, though, Dude,” he remembers suddenly, “you can go online and change the address.  This kinda thing happens all the time,” he beams as best he can, most likely having waked and baked just a few hours earlier.   

We go online.  It doesn’t work.  

We call.  it doesn’t work. 

I yell at Brian.  It doesn’t work. 

It’s Friday.  The guitar has to be in Petaluma on Saturday.  Brian goes back to the UPS store. Mr. UPS is not there, so he talks to Tattoo Girl.  Tattoo Girl is not at all pleased.  “This kinda thing NEVER happens,” she snaps. You can read her like a book: she is much too busy and important for this shit.  Irritated, she reluctantly gets on the phone and after a tense back and forth, changes the address to Jimmy’s home, and all is right with the world.  For now.

It’s Saturday.  The guitar should be at Jimmy’s by now.  Jimmy, who should be out Father’s Day fishing with his son. Instead, he’s texting me. Guess what?  The guitar is at Lagunitas Brewing Company.  The change in address did not go through in time.  ALL OF THAT rigmarole for nothing. He heads back down to the office and delivers the Ovation to James who begins twisting the strings back in tune.   Thankyouthankyouthankyou.  It all worked out in the end.

Just a snippet.  A glimpse.  A week in a life…  And as complicated as it was, we all pulled it together.  And to tell you the truth – there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life. 

Plus we all got a story out of it that I’m sure we’ll laugh about someday…

And James got his guitar…curly cord and all. 

For Dad

My eulogy from Dad’s memorial:


The quiet worries me.

We’ve been wiggling through Texas all week and are finally heading back home from some fairground’s flatbed trailer stage.  My hair still smells like funnel cakes and cotton candy.  Dad chooses a back road that winds through his old stomping ground, Fife, Texas, the place he feels most at home.  We stop at the Finlay family cemetery and wander through our generations: Finlays, Shorts, Mitchells.  I walk around aimlessly for a while and then look back.  Dad’s stopped.  He’s staring at his father’s headstone.  His head nods softly toward the ground.  I think about the first time my dad described the grandfather I was too young to meet, James Finlay, Jr.:  “He was the strongest man that ever lived, ” Dad said.  “Daddy was strong in every way.  He did things well. He could shoot a jackrabbit in the head at two hundred yards with a twenty-two.”

My father stands at his father’s headstone.  Seconds turn into minutes as he shakes his head over and over.  Then suddenly, he looks up and signals toward our old orange Chevy van.  We walk over together, climb in and start the five-hour trip home.  We don’t speak.  I tuck my legs under myself and curl up in the overstuffed front-seat captain’s chair, resting my head against the threadbare arm. My father weeps gently.  I listen to the air and gravel out the window and cautiously eye my father.  He coughs and tries to shake it off, noticing that I’m watching him.  I’m nine years old, unsure and uncomfortable.

So I sing:

“Talking to myself again, wondering if this traveling is good…”

Dad loves singing in the van.  We learned this John Sebastian song off an Everly Brothers cassette and it’s one of his favorites.  It’s not one of mine.  I know we’re not working this one up for a gig and we don’t have time to sing “for fun.”  We have plenty to learn for work already.  Dad’s still softly choking back tears, though, so I have to do something.  This is what I do.  It’s the only way I know to say, “It’ll be okay, Dad.”

“Is there something better you and I’d be doing if we could…”

I wait while Dad stares straight ahead.  I can’t read him like usual – my friend, father and duo partner.  I realize I’m holding my breath unintentionally but I can’t let myself breathe just yet.

Then he sings:

“But oh the stories we could tell
And if this all blows up and goes to hell..”

I sing harmony and Dad’s tears turn into a smile.

“I can still see us sitting on a bed in some motel
Singing all the stories we could tell”

We sing the song together and we sing another and another, all the way home. Our harmonies fill the air the entire trip.

“Thank you for that,” Dad says hours later when we climb out of the van and unload the gear.  “Thank you.”

I stand here today at my father’s memorial.  But suddenly I’m whisked back in time.  I can see Dad there bird-doggin’ our old van right now.  And all I want to do is walk over to him and climb in and head back to the house.

But of course, I can’t.

He’s left without me.

I’m no longer nine, but I’m still unsure and uncomfortable.  Sad. Lonely. Really, really lonely without my dad.

But you know what? I also feel incredibly blessed.  Grateful.  Thankful.  Think about what a man he was!  Sitting in the captain’s chair by Dad’s side, I learned so many lessons in integrity and inspiration. Dedication and devotion.  Living life to the fullest.  Dreaming.  Making dreams come true.

Thank you all for being here to celebrate my father, Kent Finlay.  I can tell you without a doubt: He was the strongest man that ever lived.

Jenni Finlay

The Animal Years

May 2007, I was in Philadelphia for the very first time attending the NonComm radio convention. I had just launched Jenni Finlay Promotions and James McMurtry was showcasing. Apparently American Songwriter was one of the big sponsors that year, because every time I’d turn the corner, this guy Josh Ritter’s brooding face would be staring back at me – 6 feet tall – from the magazine’s larger than life cover.  I’d not heard of him before, but he was all the buzz at the convention that year.  He was performing his debut showcase at some unheard of hour of the morning on the Saturday of the conference. I didn’t make it. And it’s entirely James’ fault. The night before, we hid from conference-goers in some out of the way cafe where he told me tale after tale about his hunting adventures…and introduced me to Dolcetto wine (still my favorite red). If Ritter is as good as that big cover story say his is, I’ll have another opportunity to catch him, was my thought at the time.

Years later, I found out Brian T. Atkinson wrote that cover story. He said Ritter was not just a good interview but a great guy:

I flew into Chicago earlier that morning for a whirlwind twelve-hour trip on my first magazine cover story assignment. American Songwriter sent me to hang out with this guy Josh Ritter for the day and listen to mixes of The Animal Years with his producer Brian Deck. Just us three. They played song after song and each one – “Girl in the War,” “Good Man,” “Monster Ballads,” the whole way through the epic “Thin Blue Line” – was better than the last. “What do you think?” Ritters eyes suggested after every other song. I think I said something like, “Pretty cool, man.” Either way, I didn’t let on that I was discovering my favorite new songwriter that day. We walked around the city for a few hours that afternoon talking and doing photo shoots and every time we stopped just to check out music at Reckless Records, sit on a bench to shoot the breeze about nothing to do with his music or my assignment or grab a coffee the conversations were more relaxed. He was a cool dude and a fun hang and we hit it off as much as anyone can in a situation set up like that. At the end of the day, Josh walked me to the L stop where I was grabbing a train back to the airport. Before I could reach into my pocket for money, his eyes lit up and he pulled a day-pass train ticket out of his. “Here, man, take this. Have a safe trip.”  I still had that ticket in my pocket six years and a thousand interviews later when he jumped out of a taxi at Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas and rushed toward the door for his in-store show. We looked at each other and I figured I’d just be another face in the crowd at that point. Instead, he grinned that big smile and came over and gave me a bear hug. “Brian, man, how’s it been going?” he said. I didn’t even get a chance to respond before he was headed toward the stage.  “

Ritter is probably Brian’s favorite songwriter. Well – live songwriter (Townes still takes the cake for all-time favorite).  Since the cover story, he’s interviewed him dozens of times – actually once for his Townes Van Zandt book – and has followed him throughout the course of his career.  He even named The Beast in it’s Tracks the best record of 2013 in CMT Edge the minute he heard it.

Flash forward to this year.  Brian’s birthday is coming up and Ritter playing Austin. Easy Peasy birthday gift for my best friend and business partner.  I buy two tickets even though I’m not sure how much fun I’ll really have. I mean, I like his music and all, but I’ve been in the music business all my life and don’t really go see live shows for a good time. I’m always working them. I was practically born and bred to notice every detail and nuance and potential problem. Even when I’m not working the show, I feel like the twelfth man ready to jump into stage manage or change out a string when one pops. 


Either way, we get to the show. I’m in my normal headspace but play along as Brian rushes us toward the soundboard (the best spot in the house if you’re looking for the best sound). It’s showtime. I’m studying the “spiderweb” lights because a couple of days ago, James and I were marveling at the fact that on this next leg of the Jason Isbell tour, the McMurtry band get their own lighting designer. We were wondering what colors would shine best (I suggested indigos since on the color wheel, I figure James to be an “Autumn”).


Shaking my head clear of my work brain, I look at Brian’s face: He’s clearly having the best time ever, a damn near giddy fan totally lost in the music. It’s a revelation. He’s normally as professionally jaded as I am, a music writer trained to analyze all the pros and cons in the shows and songs (I always am fascinated at how seasoned music writers can write clearly in the pitch black darkness of a venue, standing with one shoulder against the wall and a beer can wedged under their arm). As I watch, my brain starts slowing down. For the first time ever, I allow myself to melt into the music and just become a part of the show as well. The scene’s beautiful and something I’ve never seen: Everyone around me sways and digs every note, every word.

“This is my favorite song,” he says about 7 times.  When I call him on it, he quickly corrects himself: “my favorite off THAT record. It’s track 7.”

Of course, 10:00 comes along – obligatory smoke time for Brian. Even though his very favorite songwriter is on stage and could possibly play HIS FAVORITE SONG (again), Brian has a daily ritual he must stick to.  Creature of habit, he never wavers. So off he goes, leaving me in charge of writing down the next title on his notepad for his archives. Like I said, I like Josh Ritter, but I’m not well versed (pun intended) in his material.  I try to figure out what the title could possibly be: “Albatross…?” “What Katie done, What Katie did….?” “He’s going to sign a little bit…?”  

“Ah man!” Brian exclaims, “MONSTER BALLADS IS MY FAVORITE SONG!!” Ah. Murphy’s Law wins again.

People go to shows for fun on nights off. Holidays. Birthdays. People go to shows for no other reason than they love the music. Last night, no one had more fun than Ritter himself. He smiled at each song’s beginning and ending and several times between. 

After missing him in Philadelphia, the first time I finally experienced a Ritter show was at the Cannery Ballroom in Nashville during the Americana Music Fest.  At Brian’s insistence, our apprentice Mandy Brown and I tagged along with him and snuggled in-between shoulder-to-shoulder music fans. We were amazed by Brian – usually way too cool and collected began conducting – literally, bouncing his hands in the air like a symphony conductor from the back of the room – and the entire room bobbed along in perfect time. He has that same expression on his face this time. Josh Ritter will never get old. 

Four years ago at Folk Alliance, Curtis McMurtry made his debut official showcase performance in Kansas City. It was a powerful show and I was so proud of him (he was my first intern when he was 17 and watching him develop as a kick-ass songwriter and performer makes me feel like a beaming mama bear).  Before Brian took off to come home to Austin and reality, he gave Curtis a faded and wrinkled day-pass train ticket he’d kept in his wallet all these year.  The metro ticket Josh Ritter handed to him.  “Pretty cool, man.”

My Favorite Albums of 2015 (and the songs i couldn’t get out of my head…)

Hawkins Cover.jpg

Here are my favorite albums of the year – not at all official, or in any particular order, just my own personal picks.  Let me know what records you couldn’t get enough of this year!

James McMurtry – Complicated Game

Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins

Bottle Rockets – South Broadway Athletic Club

Shinyribs – Okra Candy

William Clark Green – Ringling Road

Jamie Wilson – Holidays & Wedding Rings

Blue Water Highway – Things We Carry

Rod Picott – Fortune

Ryan Culwell – Flatlands

Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks

Songs I Couldn’t Get Out of My Head in 2015

“I’m Convicted” – Danny Barnes

“24 Frames” – Jason Isbell

“Aunt Ramona” – Brent Best

“Bear” – Matt The Electrician

“Blue Smoke” – Gurf Morlix

“All Your Favorite Bands” – Dawes

“Hot Corn, Cold Corn” – Robert Earl Keen

“Farther Down The Line” – Bryan Hayes

“Sixteen Angels Dancing ‘Cross The Moon” – Chip Taylor & John Prine

“Southern Eyes” – Joe Ely

To The Class of 2016…

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