One can certainly argue with the moniker “Greatest Living Soul Singer” after we’ve heard just in the past year alone from Sonny Green and Alabama Slim, not to mention that Eddie Floyd is still with us. Yet, Robert Finley, 67 years young, and hailing from north-central Louisiana is a unique cat who brings a rare rawness and primal quality. Finley also has range and remarkable versatility in his voice that’s capable of a deep growl, sensuous purr, or natural falsetto not only within a song but sometimes even within phrases.
Typically, Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, who dubbed Finley as “The Greatest…,” finds these relatively undiscovered talents and boosts their careers. In this case though, Finley was an America’s Got Talent semi-finalist that drew Auerbach’s attention via a video. Sharecropper’s Son is the follow-up to another hyperbolically named album, 2017’s Going Platinum. Discovered busking the streets in Helena, AR in 2015, Finley has ascended quickly, this being his third and most realized album.
This is one of Auerbach’s bigger projects (and he was also at the helm for the recent posthumous Tony Joe White release covered herein) drawing songs from Finley, Bobby Wood, himself, and country songwriter Pat McLaughlin. The band includes Auerbach on guitar, Mississippi hill country’s Kenny Brown – a blues veteran of R.L. Burnside’s band, and studio veterans Russ Pahl, Billy Sanford, keyboardist Bobby Wood and drum legend Gene Chrisman. Bass comes from Dap King Nick Movshon, Mississippi hill country stalwart Eric Deaton, and former Johnny Cash bandmate Dave Roe. There is also a complete horn section and percussionist Sam Bacco is aboard on some cuts, all cut live in the studio.
The eclectic Finley is one of eight children, he’s an Army veteran who lost his sight in his ‘60s when he began to seriously pursue music. He has overcome divorce, house fires, an automobile accident and is legally blind with glaucoma which forced his retirement from carpentry. But his deep faith has led him to a successful second career in music, enabling him to tell his life story here ranging from picking cotton, country childhood, city life scuffling, time spent behind bars, and the love and pain of loving.
This is all captured in several places – “My Story,” (“Cause there’s one I’ve learned/That dreams do come true/That’s why I tell my story/So you can start dreaming too”). He gets swampy CCR-like “Country Child,” (“And the country girls look at you/Give you a country smile/But these city girls look at me/And they just walk on by”). He delivers “Country Boy,” on the other hand, as a slow, simmering shuffle backed by Auerbach’s slide and Ray Jacido’s B3, sung in Al Green-like falsetto as he again plainly states his preference for the country life (“My money’s running out/Cost too much for a hamburger/And they want too much for fries/Better not talk to the big lady woman/Cause they want too much for the thigh/I guess I’ll go back home/Where a country boy belong.”) Apparently, Finley was so focused that he improvised his lyrics and vocal approach on the latter two during the recording session.
You hear a combination of gospel and strains of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the single, horn slathered “Souled Out on You,” moving seamlessly from that deep growl to falsetto. On the searing shuffle title track, he testifies with conviction behind a robust backing about too much work to be done in the blazing sun, clearly sung by one who has lived through the experience. The infectious beat of “Make Me Feel Alright” would get even the most exhausted up on the dance floor with its pulsating energy, Auerbach’s slicing guitar and a host of background vocalists. Gleaning other titles, it’s clear that his is an autobiographical effort unlike anything Finley has recorded – “Starting to See,” “I Can Feel Your Pain,” and “Better Than I Treat Myself,” aside from those already mentioned. Throughout it’s impossible not to feel some goosebumps and chills in his poignant, raw delivery.
As easily as his voice can move through different timbres, his songs can emit pain in one moment and in the next spill out unbridled joy as in the segue from “I Can Feel Your Pain” to the band’s high grooving “Better Than I Treat Myself.” Fittingly, Finley sings a gospel hymn, in his deep robust voice “All My Hope” as the closer with his daughter Christy Johnson joining him on background vocals. It’s one of his best vocals on an album just packed with them.
Finley and Auerbach vary tempos and sound and with Finley’s changing vocal treatments, the album does a nice job of blending classic blues, R&B, and soul in an inviting mix. This project will likely receive much consideration for awards and year-end lists. Robert Finley is living proof that faith and determination can carry one to undreamed-of heights.