The story never gets old, and Robert Finley is always more than happy to tell it. Growing up, he and his seven siblings spent many a hard day under the hot Louisiana son picking cotton on a small plot of land rented by his father. Sweat was always easy to come by—prompt compensation not so much. “You got your share of the work, but you didn’t get your share of the money,” Finley recalls.
That’s the gist of “Sharecropper’s Son,” the title track from Finley’s second album for Dan Auerbach’s Easy Eye Sound label. “I went out to the fields to shoot the video, because I wanted it to be real,” Finley says. “It’s a true part of history, and who can tell it better than someone who lived it.”
The Finley family was religious, so there was no secular music in their ’50s household. Initially, Finley turned to gospel and a cheap guitar he found at a thrift store. “Once we moved off the farm and into town, there was this juke joint that played the music real loud because they were always trying to draw a crowd,” he says. “I was about 14 or 15, and back in those days, nobody cared about your age. If you ordered a bottle of Ripple, nobody asked you for photo ID—they asked you for 75 cents. The wino would send his grandkid to the liquor store with 75 cents to buy a bottle.”
For Finley, getting a job was more of a priority than finishing high school. After a stint in the Army, where he led a traveling band, he took a job as a carpenter back in Louisiana. He also worked as a part-time street performer, forming Brother Finley and the Gospel Sisters. “I did do an album in 1999, but it was like something you sell out of the trunk of your car,” says Finley. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t even have a car.”
By the time the Music Maker Relief Foundation discovered him busking before a gig in 2015, Finley was in his early 60s and legally blind from a disorder that also took his brother’s eyesight. With help from the nonprofit, he released his 2016 debut, Age Don’t Mean A Thing, and performed live on international packaged tours with the likes of Robert Lee Coleman and Alabama Slim. He also landed on the 2019 season of America’s Got Talent, reaching the semifinals. “From a blind man’s point of view, I just saw some bright lights,” says Finley of his experience on AGT. “I’ve been in front of just as big an audience overseas.”
Produced by Auerbach, Sharecropper’s Son follows 2017’s Goin’ Platinum! on Eagle Eye. Its 10 tracks feature contributions from guitarists Kenny Brown (R.L. Burnside) and Billy Sanford, along with pedal steel ace Russ Pahl and esteemed keyboardist Bobby Wood. The rhythm section features prolific drummer Gene Chrisman, who’s played with everyone from Elvis Presley to Wilson Pickett, and a multi-generational cast of bassists that includes Nick Movshon, Eric Deaton and former Johnny Cash bandmate Dave Roe. Nine of the 10 songs were either written or cowritten by Finley.
Auerbach also contributes guitar, and his sympathetic producer’s touch perfectly documents all the peaks, valleys and gnarled nuances of Finley’s force-of-nature voice—often in almost three-dimensional relief. “Recording with Dan ain’t like work; it’s more like having fun. There’s over a 30-year difference in our ages, but we’ve never had a problem from the first day we hooked up,” says Finley. “This first thing he did was hand me guitar and tell me what he wanted. He knew I was a good player, but I didn’t play it the way he wanted me to. So I said, ‘Why don’t you just play the guitar and let me sing.’”
Now 67, Finley still lives in his hometown of Bernice, La. He’s antsy to get the new music out there and play live. “I was in a hurry,” he says. “When they had to reschedule the release, I said, ‘Oh Lord, I hope I live to see it.’”
God willing, that story Finley has told so many times will continue to unfold. “It’s a lot easier telling it than it was living it,” he says.