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'Sharecropper's Son': Louisiana Musician Finds Success Decades After Trying

May 25, 2021
Originally published on May 24, 2021 12:27 pm

While Robert Finley doesn't live far from where he grew up – less than 200 miles – he's come a long way. "I don't really like sharing nothing too much now, because I never got my share as a sharecropper."

"All of my parents on grandparents on both sides were into music, even if they were just singing in the cottonfield." He bought his first instrument at the age of 10, with money he'd been given for a new pair of shoes.

After trying, but failing, to find a reliable band to play with after his time in the armed forces, Finley pivoted to building houses, running his own business for many years. But then, he lost his eyesight to glaucoma around the time he turned 60 years old. His life seemed irrevocably changed. "I had my little pity party ... but sooner or later, you've gotta pick up the pieces."

In 2015, Finley was spotted by the Music Maker Relief Foundation while busking outside of an Alabama music festival, and eventually shared Finley's songs with some record labels. Sooner than later, he was in the recording studio... and a short time after that, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and a busy person around Nashville besides, reached out.

The next thing he knew, Finley was jamming with veteran session players. "He had on leather pants, and snakeskin boots, and a giant gold belt buckle... he was ready to rock," Dan Auerbach says. Finley more than held his own. "When he walks in the room, he's like a star ... he has this magnetism. I don't know what it is."

Robert Finley's Sharecropper's Son was released on May 21.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The story of the power of perseverance, it's the story of a musician from Louisiana. He'd lost his eyesight around the time he turned 60 years old. His life seemed irrevocably changed for the worse. But it was then that he found the success in music that he dreamed of his whole life. Here's our colleague Vince Pearson.

VINCE PEARSON, BYLINE: His name is Robert Finley.

ROBERT FINLEY: I live in Bernice, La. I'm from a little town called Westborough, La. They're about 105 miles apart.

PEARSON: While he's not that far from where he grew up, Finley's come a long way. And he takes us on that journey on his new album, "Sharecropper's Son."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARECROPPER'S SON")

FINLEY: (Singing) Ain't no time for education, too much corn in the field. Ain't got time to go to school, y'all. We got too much work around here.

PEARSON: He was raised on a farm in a family of 10.

FINLEY: Farming cotton, corn, tomatoes, okra. Anything that would grow out of the ground, we had a spot for it. And we grew it on somebody else's land. So they meant they was entitled to it, any part of it they wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARECROPPER'S SON")

FINLEY: (Singing) Me and my brothers, we was praying for rain 'cause we still got to haul that hay.

I really don't like sharing nothing too much now because I never got my share as a sharecropper. And my dad never said he got his share.

PEARSON: What Finley did get was music, gospel at church with his family, blues and rock 'n' roll on the radio when his parents weren't home.

FINLEY: All of my parents and grandparents on both sides were into music, you know, even if they were just singing in the cotton field, you know? I just felt like if I ever get a chance, this is what I was supposed to been doing.

PEARSON: And so he got himself an instrument.

FINLEY: At the age of 10. I bought it myself. I was supposed to been buying a pair of shoes. But I bought a guitar.

PEARSON: That didn't go over well. But he did learn how to play it well enough to perform with a military band.

FINLEY: If it was country and Western and rock 'n' roll, hard rock, Elvis Presley - just whatever they wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTRY CHILD")

FINLEY: (Singing) I'm down from a country boy, misunderstood - always heard old folks say, that boy ain't going to be no good.

PEARSON: But when he got out of the Army, Finley couldn't make the music thing pay. He tried to get a band together.

FINLEY: In the military, when you tell them to be there at 5 o'clock, they were there at 5 o'clock or they were AWOL. In civilian life, people show up when they want to. They run late. They go and they got a problem. It just didn't work out. They would not show up. Somebody would always be late.

PEARSON: And so after a while, Finley just couldn't do it anymore. Music became a sideline.

FINLEY: I went to building houses for a living. I had a company called All-In-One Construction.

PEARSON: It was a good living. But when Finley was about 60, he started losing his eyesight. He was diagnosed with glaucoma and declared legally blind.

FINLEY: It was shocking. I had my little pity party. You know, I tell everybody, you owe it to yourself if you want to have a pity party for a couple days or a couple weeks. But, sooner or later, you got to pick up the pieces. And you got to move forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FINLEY: (Singing) Yeah, I'm going to buy me a bulldog.

CHRISTY JOHNSON: So that's when, you know, he had to pick up that guitar and, you know, just start going around to local restaurants and stuff.

PEARSON: Christy Johnson is Finley's daughter

JOHNSON: And it's basically, like, hey; let me sit out here and just play a little bit. And he kind of made it, like, a little job to do.

PEARSON: Then in 2015, Finley and a friend drove to this blues festival in Arkansas. He was busking on a sidewalk when he was spotted by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helps aging Southern musicians. Finley recorded some songs for it, which it shared with some record labels. And before he knew it, Finley was in a studio cutting his first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AGE DON'T MEAN A THING")

FINLEY: (Singing) Age don't mean a thing.

PEARSON: Then Finley's music was shared with yet another producer. Dan Auerbach is the lead singer and guitarist of The Black Keys. Impressed, Auerbach invited Finley down to his studio in Nashville, where Finley made an immediate impression.

DAN AUERBACH: He was just like - he had on leather pants and snakeskin boots and a giant gold belt buckle. And (laughter) he was ready to rock.

PEARSON: Now, Finley didn't know who Auerbach was either. But he caught on pretty quickly when he saw the Grammys on his shelf.

FINLEY: That's when I called my daughter. She went online. And she was like, dad, (laughter) you're in the big league.

PEARSON: And next thing he knew, Finley was jamming with veteran session guys, people who'd made records with Elvis and Aretha Franklin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDICINE WOMAN")

FINLEY: (Singing) Medicine woman, have mercy on my soul.

PEARSON: Auerbach says Finley more than held his own.

AUERBACH: Robert's like a dynamo. Like, he walks in the room, he's like a star. Everybody pays attention to Robert. It's just like he has this magnetism. I don't know what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDICINE WOMAN")

FINLEY: (Singing) I can't get it on the corner. I can't get it at the store. But every time I get it, I want more, more, more. Medicine woman...

PEARSON: They recorded the soundtrack to a graphic novel, cut an album and toured in several countries. Finley also competed on the 2019 season of "America's Got Talent." He made the semi-finals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEDICINE WOMAN")

FINLEY: (Singing) You've got that healing touch.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

PEARSON: On the new record, Auerbach wanted Finley to dig deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STORY")

FINLEY: (Singing) I'm going to tell my story as long as the Lord allows.

AUERBACH: I wanted it to be all about Robert, you know? I wanted Robert to be able to tell his story and come up here into Nashville and write the songs ahead of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STORY")

FINLEY: (Singing) Because if my mom and dad could see me, I know they'd be so proud - looking down from heaven and smiling on me now, smiling on my now.

PEARSON: And so Finley wrote about growing up on a farm, working hard, losing his eyesight, and about the way dreams sometimes come true.

FINLEY: The album is not a make-believe thing. It's not fantasized. It's reality. It's just being thankful for where you come from to where you are. And if I went from the cotton field to Beverly Hills, then, I mean, there's hope for anyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STORY")

FINLEY: (Singing) 'Cause there's one thing I've learned - that dreams do come true. That's why I told my story, so you can start dreaming, too.

PEARSON: Robert Finley's new album is called "Sharecropper's Son."

Vince Pearson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY STORY")

FINLEY: (Singing) So you could start dreaming, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.