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?

July 2007

I just wanted to give the guy a little help. Helping him, I realize now, was always part of it.

How could I not want to help him? I felt indebted to him, felt I owed him some cosmic payback, ever since that day, early last year, when I found his music and it gave me a second wind, a much-needed burst of faith and clarity. I loaded his songs into my iPod and while living on the road, while sitting on planes and trains, while lying in strange motel rooms, I closed my eyes and focused on his lyrics and thought: This guy's channeling the angels. This guy's got the gift. This guy can conjure a heartbreak, a hangover, moonlight, the Deep South, with a few words. I wondered: Who is this guy? Who the hell is Jeff Finlin?

I assumed he was British, because he was so literate, and because three of his records were on a British label. But mainly because there didn't seem to be any other explanation for his obscurity in the United States. Then I got home to Denver and discovered that Finlin was American. Not only that, he lived just north of me. In Fort Collins, of all places. Fate, I thought. Clearly I was meant to find Finlin.

He was a story, after all. A quasi-anonymous musical prodigy. An undiscovered Bob Dylan in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. That was intriguing, that was news—and I was a journalist. Naturally I wanted to write about him. As for helping Finlin, that was a vague notion at best, a half-formed impulse in the back of my mind, easily rationalized because it seemed like no more than that basic reflex we often feel toward the great artist who toils in anonymity. Who hasn't felt the desire to go back in time and float van Gogh a loan, give Mozart a steady gig, drag Emily Dickinson by her petticoats to a publisher?

Still, I see now, my gratitude for Finlin's music grew, evolved, and ultimately complicated everything. In trying to help the guy, I made his life harder. In seeking to write about Finlin, I became the most recent of his many disappointments.

It began last fall, this Finlin fascination, and carried into winter, until finally I sent him an e-mail, telling him I was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and that I was interested in writing about him. He phoned me right away. I explained how I'd discovered his stuff while on the road and said I couldn't understand why he didn't have millions of fans. He laughed softly, and we made plans to get together soon.

While writing other stories I collected research on Finlin. I learned that, despite his lack of commercial success, he'd received plenty of lavish praise. He'd gotten reviews any singer-songwriter would kill for. Critics gushed about his vocal debt to Dylan, and noted his resemblance to other beloved troubadours like Steve Earle, Randy Newman, and Tom Waits. They called his lyrics "literature," dispatches from the social margins, and compared his sensibility to that of iconic masculine writers like Raymond Carver and Sam Shepard.

I learned that the Oscar-winning director Cameron Crowe chose a Finlin ballad for the soundtrack of his 2005 film Elizabethtown. At the movie's climactic moment Crowe set Finlin's earnest, yearning, soulful voice in the background. But the voice, so strong, so raw, spilled into the foreground. It seemed fitting, poetic, that Crowe of all people had given Finlin his biggest break to date, and that so little had come of that break, since Crowe was also the writer-director of Almost Famous. I learned that Bruce Springsteen was a Finlin fan. At Springsteen concerts the walk-up music is sometimes a song by the almost-famous Finlin.

Then last February I saw my chance, the perfect peg for a Times story about Finlin—the Grammy Awards. With the music industry gathering in L.A. for its biggest night, I told my editors, I've got a story about a 46-year-old unknown who ought to be there, collecting Grammys by the armful, but instead, for some reason, will be watching the show from his house in Fort Collins. Sounds interesting, the editors said. Write it up and we'll put it on A-1.

So I met Finlin for lunch at a sushi place in downtown Fort Collins. I liked him right away. He had flair. He wore a pale yellow blazer and purple eyeglasses. He looked like an artist. Then, as the winter twilight deepened, he looked a bit like Chris Isaak, with a few more clicks on the odometer, a few more disappointments under his belt.

I told him I was hoping to get his story onto page one. Better yet, I hoped it might run Sunday, the day of the Grammys, when millions of readers, including hundreds of music industry people, might see it. Great, Finlin said, but he sounded blasé. He didn't really care about the Grammys, he said. He had no plans to watch. He just didn't give a damn anymore about all that fame crap.

I asked about his life. How on earth did he land in this quiet college town, where the wind smelled like horses and the best-known musicians in the phonebook were the Subdudes? A natural storyteller, he started in medias res, and I had to coax him to go back to the beginning. He was born outside Cleveland, to a factory-supervisor dad and stay-at-home mom. From the start he felt restless, out of place, not all that happy. In his song "Love and Happiness" he wrote: "I was raised a pilgrim's son / Saying I'm sorry for nothing I done."