George Strait is mourning the loss of one of his close friends. Kent Finlay, a Texas-based songwriter and club owner who helped Strait land his first gig, passed away on Monday (March 2), at his home in Martindale, Texas. He was 77 years old.

Finlay owned the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, where Strait first played with his band, Ace in the Hole, on Oct. 13, 1975. In 1977, it was Finlay and songwriter Daryl Staedtler who began making trips to Nashville with Strait, in a cargo van.

"The truth of the matter is that every major label passed on George Strait,” Finlay told Nashville's Tennessean last year. "That van had two seats and an Army cot in the back. We took turns driving and riding and sleeping in the cot."

Finlay also championed many now-famous songwriters. The Cheatham Street Warehouse has hosted a songwriters open mic night almost every Wednesday for more than 40 years.

“[1987] was the most exciting year,” Finlay told Austin 360. “The regulars at songwriters' night were me and a bunch of nobodies: Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, Hal Ketchum, John Arthur Martinez and sometimes Tish Hinojosa. Those were the basic regulars, and nobody had every heard of them.”

Still, even with all of the artists who passed through the doors of the Cheatham Street Warehouse, Finlay always had a soft spot for Strait, whom he credits with reshaping the future of country music.

"[Merle] Haggard did his part, but George saved country music at that time," Finlay said. "After George and Ricky [Skaggs] hit, all those pop acts started losing their deals, and record labels started going out and finding people like Randy Travis."

Strait still has fond memories of the small club that gave him his start.

“It’s so unique when you’re in the middle of a song and a train comes roaring by,” Strait says. “Since Cheatham Street Warehouse sits right beside a railroad track, that’s what you get. You just start playing louder.”

In the country music legend's eyes, the loss of Finlay affects the entire country music community, and beyond.

"Country music — and just music in general really — lost a great friend today," Strait says in a statement. "His legend will live forever in Texas, though. We’ll never forget our friend Kent Finlay. Sad day."

Finlay is survived by his former wife, Diana Hendricks, three children, a granddaughter, three brothers and a sister. The Boot extends our condolences to his family.

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