The red-headed stranger
Singer-songwriter James Finch Jr. emerges as a bright light in the local Americana movement
James Finch Jr. was bored.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter, already an accomplished musician, was drifting into the easy torpor of a day-to-day existence in Midtown. So, he got an idea: Why not record an album?
“I decided that I was languishing,” he recalled while sitting inside a 21st Street café on a recent rainy December evening. “I was looking for something that would pretty much force me to start playing out more. I was getting to a point, internally, where it was like, I’m gonna either do this, or I’m not. I needed a project. Something to make me focus.”
Luckily, he had a pretty good idea of how to go about it. “I tried to make everything fit together,” he said. “You’ve got those albums throughout music history like that. For me, it’s Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, or The Wall by Pink Floyd. I wanted to do that.
“And it’s worked,” he added. “It’s made me believe in myself.”
The result, a CD he titled Cornbread & Bourbon, contains 12 original songs by Finch, who accompanied his gruff singing voice with various guitars, mandolin, percussion and upright bass; other musicians back him up on fiddle, drums and background vocals. For someone who just turned 23, his musical vision seems wholly realized. If the late acoustic-guitar giant John Fahey had a singing voice like early Tom Waits and could write songs that evoked the Band, he would have sounded like Finch does now.
“I been thinking ’bout four or five women that I’d like to trick into bed,” Finch wheezes over a finger-picked 12-string on “Tiny Chain,” the album’s opening track. “Maybe it’s the nature of being a man …” The next lines Finch mangles like someone whose esophagus just backed up after he threw down a double shot of Old Grand-dad, but it sounds something like: “…or the curse of alcohol, a limousine ride straight to the bar.” It’s a line that would do Johnny Cash—apparently the patron saint of local singer-songwriters—proud.
Finch casts a long shadow; his close-cropped red hair and patch of chin whiskers give him the presence of someone out of time, like a figure from an old Civil War photo. Although his parents were Hoosiers, he grew up here, in South Sacramento. Later, his family moved to the north end of downtown, just east of Alkali Flat. He started playing music pretty early. At age 15, he joined the local jam combo Uncle Harlan’s Band as its bassist. “I was gigging in bars when I was 16 years old,” he said. “I was the bass player before the series of, like, eight or nine bass players.” He left Uncle Harlan’s Band in 1997.
“That band was kinda like Spinal Tap,” he said, laughing.
Finch started writing his own songs about four years ago. “The first song that I really remember writing, I wrote during history class,” he recalled. “I usually write away from my guitar; I start with the melody and the words, and I figure it out on guitar later. I write a song, and then I simplify it down to three chords.”
Although not a genuine hillbilly, Finch figured out where he wanted to go, musically, and traced a path backward via old recordings of the masters. “I honestly think there’s a conflagration going on in American roots-based music right now,” he said, citing the success of Ryan Adams and the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou, along with the bible of resurgent Americana, No Depression magazine.
Now that Finch has a finished record to get him off his ass and onto the stage, he’s begun to introduce his music at venues around town. He shared a bill at True Love Coffeehouse on a recent Saturday with two of the key figures in Sacramento’s current roots-music renaissance, Jackie Greene and Las Pesadillas songwriter Noah Nelson, who was performing solo that night. And Finch occasionally plays bass with songwriter Bill Harper’s band, Derelict Country. “I’m booked every weekend into late January,” Finch said.
Check your local listings and go see this guy.