Ballad for a Plain Man
Jeff Finlin might be one of the finest American troubadours since Bob Dylan. Just ask Bruce Springsteen or director Cameron Crowe. So why is he scraping by on the Front Range, playing gigs on a cracked guitar?
I didn't talk to Finlin for months. Then, one day, living on the road again, I was fiddling with my iPod and stumbled on those Finlin songs, the ones from his finest record, Somewhere South of Wonder, and again he lifted me right out of my fatigue, out of myself, nearly out of my airplane seat. I vowed that as soon as I got home I would dig out my Finlin story, find it a proper home. I e-mailed him and asked sheepishly if he was game, if he was willing to give me one more chance, and he said sure.
We met for sushi again, a cold spring night in Fort Collins. He looked well. He looked happy. He'd been painting houses all day, up near Red Feather, and after hours of watching the osprey pluck trout from the lake, after holding his face to the high mountain sun, Finlin radiated a deep contentment. Also, he reported cheerfully, he'd recently played a big concert in Knoxville, as the opening act for James McMurtry. Better yet, his new record was out. Though his label was taking a somewhat "mellow" approach to marketing it—I laughed—he held out hope that a song or two still might somehow find its way onto the radio.
If not, he said, so be it. "There's nothing that's going to happen in my life that's going to make me any safer," he said. "Nothing I'm going to accumulate that's going to keep me from dying like everybody else." Besides, he was already absorbed in the next record. He'd written 30 songs he liked, and the challenge would be winnowing them down to a dozen. He planned to descend to the basement soon and begin recording. He'd even thought of a title—Ballad of a Plain Man.
As Finlin talked about his work, I heard as always the distinct echo of Dylan, but also Walden. I recalled the first time I'd read that marvelous book, and the first time I'd read the letters of van Gogh, and the journals of Delacroix, because Finlin exuded that kind of monastic devotion to craft, that artistic purity. Once more I asked how he'd achieved this enviable calm, how he managed to remain so serene on the razor's edge of failure and fame. "It's beyond my control," he said. "If I chase it, it runs away. The only thing I have control over is the work."
Finlin loved books too, and he'd read everything. We talked about some of his favorites. Henry Miller. Allen Ginsberg. Charles Bukowski. They all struggled, starved, before achieving success. Then again, Finlin said, how much did their success matter when all was said and done? "Let's face it. Most people today don't know who the fuck Henry Miller is."