To call Robert Finley’s life story the basis of a movie is both accurate and overly facile. The musician, now in his sixties, grew up the son of a sharecropper in small Winnsboro, Louisiana. He toted water, milked cows and sweated along with his parents and his seven siblings, barely earning a living and never earning a fair share. As a kid, Finley would go with his family to church (his father was very religious) and he’d sing in the choir while watching the hands of the band members on their guitars.
Finley got his first guitar around 10 years old and he played any chance he could. Later, he joined the military and found himself a bandleader in the barracks. But after leaving the ranks, his creative career never found the proper footing. Finley worked as a carpenter. He eventually lost his sight. He aged. But one day his life changed. Recently, he began working often with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and the Louisiana native will release his second Auerbach-produced rock ‘n’ roll LP, Sharecropper’s Son, on May 21.
“If you hadn’t been poor, you don’t know how blessed you are to be rich,” Finley says. “I like to say that by the grace of God I made it from the cotton fields to Beverly Hills. From deep in the woods to Hollywood. I’ve been places I never dreamed I would go. Your gifts open doors for you.”
Finley says that ever since he can remember, music has been in his life. His older siblings had already begun participating in the church choir and, wanting to be like them, he followed their lead. He played in his first gospel quartet at 12 years old after a neighbor helped him get the gig. Finley took his guitar talents with him to the military in 1970 when he enlisted at 19 and they served him there almost immediately. The day after arriving, he got a gig playing for a military picnic for the whole battalion. He’d joined the service as a helicopter technician, but was soon needed as a musician. He found dependable players and a dependable position and an opportunity to play often. But when he left the service, that same dependability wasn’t there in the outside world.
“In the military,” Finley says, “if you had band rehearsal at 4 o’clock, if you weren’t there, you were AWOL. When I got out of the military, I couldn’t find dependable people for a band anymore. It got to be stressful so I just quit altogether.”
He began a little solo career, playing bars and restaurants. For a job, Finley, who now lives in Bernice, Louisiana, worked as a carpenter in his neighborhood, fixing people’s houses. On Sundays, he played in church. But after a while, his sight began to go—a 3 started to look like 8. Finley began to feel sorry for himself. He threw a “pity party” because he’d lost his sight. Then one day, a friend invited him to a three-day music festival in Arkansas that would go on to change his life. At the fest, Finley heard about a jam session. He went to find out about it and his inquiry turned into a solo performance, which turned into busking opportunities and then a show on the festival’s main stage. After the festival, he got a tryout with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which later led to recording with Fat Possum Records, which then led to Auerbach to hearing Finley’s recordings. That later grew to a joint tour and now multiple LPs.
“I went on tour with the Music Maker band,” Finley says. “Then the next year, I got a call from someone who said Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys heard your music. Fat Possum sent the stuff to Dan.”
Auerbach wanted someone to sing some songs for a project he was working on, but after he met Finley, he knew he had something more special. One small job turned into much more, including tours and multiple recording sessions. Today, Finley’s newest collaboration with Auerbach is stunning. The 10-song Sharecropper’s Son is autobiographical and emotional. It mourns and laments. It drifts and celebrates. It’s the blues at its core and it jumps with rock ‘n’ roll. It’s the result of a life lived in music, not one that ever strove for the spotlight.
“Growing up,” Finley says, “I didn’t realize we were poor until later on in life.”
As he was writing the new album, Finley talked with his siblings, all of whom are still alive, to make sure he had the details right. With their blessing, he sung the songs about being on the farm, about repenting for sins, about looking for the best things in life. He wanted to maintain his authenticity, saying there aren’t any three-piece suits on the farm. Rather, it’s overalls and a hat to block the sun as you work with mules to till the earth.
But today, as Finley contemplates how far he’s come, he knows that the thread that connects everything is the music. As he’s now toured the world (and made appearances on America’s Got Talent and played private parties for former NBA player, Karl Malone), he’s heard from fans from all over. Some even offer meals, places to stay. It’s genuine and, at times, astounding.
“Without the music,” Finley says, “people wouldn’t do that. It’s a blessing. Now, if I wake up in the morning and am still able to put the same hat on my head, then I know my head didn’t swell.”