Robert Finley is a 67 year-old Winnsboro, LA-born, Bernice, LA-based singer/songwriter and JOVM mainstay, who was one of eight children in a family of sharecroppers. As a child, a young Finley was unable to regularly attend school and often worked with his family in the cotton fields. When he was a teenager, he briefly attended a segregated school; but he dropped out in the 10th grade to help the family out financially.
As an adult, Finley has lived a full, complicated and often messy life: he’s an army veteran and a skilled carpenter, who has survived house fires, a bad auto accident and a divorce. Sadly, the Louisiana-born and-based JOVM mainstay lost his sight in his early 60s as result of glaucoma. And although, he was forced to retire from from carpentry, Finley realized that he now had an opportunity to purse a lifelong dream — becoming a professional musician and singer.
Finley believes that his sight was improved by the power of prayer — and that his faith has also helped him focus on launching a music career in his 60s. According to Finley “losing my sight, gave me the perspective to see my true identity.”
Finley’s rise has been rapid: As the story goes, Dan Auerbach immediately saw Finley’s potential, quickly proclaiming that the Louisiana-born and-based artist is “the greatest living soul singer.” As Auerbach recalls in press notes, “He walked in like he was straight out of the swamp.” He adds, “He had leather pants, snakeskin boots, a big Country & Western belt buckle, a leather cowboy hat and a three-quarter-length leather duster. The final touch was the folding cane the legally blind Finley wore on his hip, in a holster. Basically, he was dressed for national television.”
Auerbach went on to produce Finley’s 2017 breakthrough sophomore album Goin’ Platinum, an album released to widespread critical acclaim from the likes of the Associated Press, who praised Finley’s ability to lend “instant credibility to any song” and The Observer, who wrote “Finley’s versatile voice ranges from prime Motown holler to heartbroken falsetto croon.” The Louisiana-born and-based singer/songwriter went on to support the album with international touring across 10 countries — with his live show drawing praise from a number of publications, including The New York Times and several others. Finley was also profiled on PBS NewsHour, which led him to becoming a contestant on the 2019 season of America’s Got Talent, eventually reaching the semi-finals.
Finley’s third album Sharecropper’s Son was released earlier this year through Easy Eye Sound. The album continues the Louisiana-born and-based JOVM mainstay’s successful collaboration with Auerbach and features songwriting and cowrites from Finley, Auerbach, Bobby Wood and Pat McLaughlin. Much like other Easy Eye Sound releases, the album features an All-Star backing band that includes Auerbach (guitar); Kenny Brown (guitar), a member of R.L Burnside‘s backing band; studio legends Russ Pahl (pedal steel) and Louisiana-born, Nashville-based Billy Sanford (guitar); Bobby Wood (keys and as previously mentioned songwriting); Gene Chrisman (drums), who’s a Memphis and Nashville music legend; as well as contributions from The Dap Kings‘ Nick Movshon (bass), Eric Deaton (guitar); Dave Roe (bass), who was member of Johnny Cash‘s backing band; Sam Bacco (percussion) and a full horn section.
Sharecropper’s Son may arguably be the most personal album of Finley’s growing catalog, drawing directly from his life and experience. “I was ready to tell my story, and Dan and his guys knew me so well by then that they knew it almost like I do, so they had my back all the way,” Finley says in press notes. “Working in the cotton fields wasn’t a pleasant place to be, but it was part of my life. I went from the cotton fields to Beverly Hills. We stayed in the neighborhood most of our childhood. It wasn’t really all that safe to be out by yourself. One of the things I love about music is that, when I was a boy growing up in the South, nobody wanted to hear what I had to say or what I thought about anything. But when I started putting it in songs, people listened.”
In the past few months, I’ve written about three of the album’s released singles:
- “Country Boy,” a swampy and funky bit of country soul featured a tight, strutting groove, bluesy guitar lines, shimmering organ and Finley’s soulful and creaky falsetto paired with autobiographic lyrics, which were improvised on the spot with the tape rolling. “When we play live, I always leave room in the show for lyrics I make up on the spot while the band hits a groove,” Finley explains. “I guess the younger generation calls it free-styling, but for me, it’s just speaking from my mind, straight from my soul.” While lyrically, the song touches upon classic blues fare — heartbreak, loneliness, being broke, being a stranger far away from home and the like, the song is fueled by Finley’s sincerity. He has lived through those experiences, and you can tell that from the vulnerable cracks in his weathered croon.
- Album title track “Sharecropper’s Son,” a strutting blues holler featuring James Cotton-like blasts of harmonica, shimmering Rhodes, a chugging groove, a classic blues solo, and Finley’s creaky and soulful crooning and shouts. And much like its predecessor, the song is fueled by both the lived-in experiences of its writer and the novelistic details within the song: you can feel the hot sun on Finley’s and his siblings’ skin, the sore muscles of backbreaking and unending labor in the fields. But throughout the song, its narrator expresses pride in his family doing whatever they could do legally to survive and keep food on the table.
- “Make Me Feel Alright,” is a swampy boogie that’s one part John Lee Hooker barroom blues, one part Mississippi Delta Blues centered around a twangy blues guitar line, a shuffling rhythm and Finley’s expressive crooning. While being the sort of song you want your bartender to play loudly on a Friday or Saturday night, as you try to spit some game to some pretty young thing, the song as Finley explains in press notes “is about not looking for love, but for companionship. Sometimes you want to find someone to have a good time, You meet someone, have a fun night and then go on your separate ways with your own problems at the end of the night but still experience love in the moment.”
Sharecropper’s Son‘s latest single “I Can Feel Your Pain” is an old school soul ballad centered around twinkling Rhodes, Finley’s expressive crooning, a two-step inducing rhythm, bluesy guitar blasts and a soaring chorus. But at its core, the song is an earnest expression of empathy for everyone who has had a difficult time of things, during this most unusually difficult period. And it comes from the deeply lived-in place of someone who’s experienced profound difficulties and inconsolable loss.
From my own experience, sometimes you just need someone to say to you, “I’ve been there. I know how that feels. Grief and heartache come in waves but somehow, some way, life will push and shove you forward.” And this song says exactly that — and at a time when we all really need it.
“‘I Can Feel Your Pain’ relates really to what is going on today,” Robert Finley explains in press notes. “From people losing loved ones to the pandemic, all the marches going on, people being slaughtered by the police. Even if you don’t really know about the situation from a personal perspective you feel sympathy for that person who had to go through those things and this song is for them.”
Directed by Tim Hardiman, the recently released video for “I Can Feel Your Pain” is shot with a hazy and nostalgic-tinged filter but makes far larger, more powerful points: the righteous struggles for justice and equality of Finley’s youth sadly still go on. Life is a struggle. Heartache and loss are constant. But choose empathy and love, and you’ll get by.