AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN

Brad Buchholz, American-Statesman Staff
11-09-2001
The Austin American-Statesman

Champ Hood * 1952 - 2001, ; 2 steps out, of the spotlight,; A selfless and sensitive
 Austin guitarist, Champ Hood made fellow Austin musicians sound their best
 

                In my mind's eye, I see him still -- a man with a fiddle, lost in the music, standing in
                   the corner of a small South Austin recording studio. It is winter, 1989. The hour is
                   late. I barely notice as Champ Hood begins to warm up, drawing the bow across
                   his violin, for I have come to see the "star" of this two-man recording session:
                   singer Willis Alan Ramsey. Could this be it? The first session for what might be
                   Ramsey's long-awaited second album? My eye wanders. I watch Ramsey settle in
                   with a steel-string guitar. He fiddles with a microphone. Then -- oh so slowly, oh so
                   softly -- it begins to hit me. This man on violin, this unassuming guy with the
                   cascading ringlets of curly blond hair, happens to be playing the most wonderfully
                   delicate passage. And it's only a warm-up.

                   Champ Hood has been improvising for five or 10 minutes now, testing out a
                   variety of musical textures for a new Ramsey love song titled "Bayou Girl." Now, it
                   has become a composition of its own: a Delta suite. The spirit of Hood's playing
                   is rich with Cajun imagery, with contours that suggest a light breeze through the
                   boggy air of a bayou. It is achingly, longingly gentle.

                   Ramsey feels it, of course. Closing his eyes, he lets the song swing to him and
                   then sings the lyrics to "Bayou Girl," but in a soft and tender spirit inspired by
                   Champ Hood's interpretation. The spontaneous take is perfect, the moment as
                   sublime as summer starlight.

                   Sadly, there is no tape rolling in the control room. The musical moment will be lost
                   to history. Yet what could be more eternal, more triumphant, than the memory of
                   the time our hearts soared in the power of song? What could be more sacred than
                   the loving spirit of players dedicated to touching something sublime?

                   Though he's lost to us now, dead of cancer at the preposterously young age of 49,
                   I still see him in my mind's eye -- the sweetly understated Champ Hood. I never
                   knew the man. But like so many Austinites who really knew him, I will forever
                   cherish the memory of those transcendent notes that came from his heart, through
                   the strings -- notes of beauty, notes of selflessness, notes of joy.

                    What is Champ Hood's legacy? It boils down to this: All the man did, for some
                   25 years in Austin music, was to make everyone he played with sound better. He
                   brought luster to that which was already beautiful and made it shine. As a
                   musician, Hood was selfless and sensitive and loyal. He was fun-loving. He
                   was devoted to the power of song. He was beloved by his peers.

                   For the musicians in Austin, this loss is on the order of Doug Sahm and Townes
                   Van Zandt," says singer-songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who performed with
                   Hood for years at Threadgill's restaurant on North Lamar. "The public may not
                   be aware of what has been lost. But most musicians know it for sure."

                   Champ Hood played fiddle and guitar, sometimes mandolin, and he sang in a
                   sweet, strong tenor. He was widely recognized as one of the premier acoustic
                   musicians in town. Hood's career can be neatly capsulized in three phases: his
                   tenure with the popular Uncle Walt's Band in the 1970s, his Wednesday night
                   collaborations with Gilmore in the 1980s, and, finally, his nine-year stint with
                   bluesy songstress Toni Price. Along the way, he toured with Lyle Lovett's Large
                   Band, guested with his friends in the studio, and even fronted a band of his own --
                   the Threadgill's Troubadours.

                   There was never a more reluctant front man, however, than Champ Hood. It was
                   his preference to champion the work of others. From the very beginning -- as a
                   singer and guitarist with Walter Hyatt and David Ball in Uncle Walt's Band --
                   Hood's shy, workmanlike stage demeanor was a large part of his musical identity.
                   Stephen L. Clark, owner of the original Waterloo Ice House on Congress Avenue,
                   remembers this vividly:

                   "One of the things I loved to do at the old Waterloo was to take pictures," says
                   Clark, whose casual burger-bar and ice house was one of Uncle Walt's Band's
                   favorite venues in the late 1970s. "I'd have the lights set up carefully, so that there
                   was good and even light on each one of them -- Walter and Champ and David.
                   But whenever I'd get ready to take a picture, Champ would always step out of the
                   light.

                   "That was Champ's way, to be two steps out of the spotlight, even as he was
                   playing these sizzling leads."

                   Uncle Walt's Band was an all-acoustic ensemble, defined by its delicate three-part
                   harmonies and its affinity for swing, jazz, country and sweet ballads. As performing
                   musicians, they were first and foremost gentlemen. They respected music. Their
                   stage manner was rich with nuance. You see traces of it, today, in Lyle Lovett's
                   stage show. You saw it, as well, in Champ Hood's retiring stage manner.

                   "He was a sly kind of shy, with a twinkle in his eye," says Threadgill's Eddie
                   Wilson. "And all he ever wanted, as a musician, was to be a better player at the
                   end of the day than he was in the morning."

                   Fiddler Alvin Crow remarked this week on KUT-FM radio that Champ Hood was
                   the only guitarist he'd ever met who learned, and mastered, the violin as an adult.
                   Most guitarists talk about doing it, he said. But most give up upon discovering that
                   the discipline and difficulty of mastering the instrument outweigh the allure.

                   "During the old Waterloo shows, I would sit in the audience with other musicians --
                   accomplished guitarists, better than Champ, or accomplished violinists, better
                   than Champ," recalls Stephen Clark. "But they would just look at him and say,
                   'How does he do that?' Even though these other players were more technically
                   gifted, Champ's expression was so much greater than the others." For Champ
                   Hood, the beauty of his playing was always anchored in feeling.

                   Champ Hood kept his lung cancer a secret from all but his closest friends. His
                   passing was sudden and surprising. He was diagnosed in the spring, dead in the
                   fall. The only consolation seems to be that he was allowed to die in the country, in
                   a house that overlooked the hills, donated by friends who knew the end was near.

                   "Everybody is devastated," says Clark. "But amidst the tragedy, there was some
                   great joy. An amazing group of people came together to take care of him at the end.
                   I witnessed such a great depth of human character: It restored my faith in
                   humankind." (Those friends will gather one last time -- Sunday, 2 p.m., at a
                   memorial service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church -- to say goodbye.)

                   Hood's passing has affected people in complex ways. It's not just that a leader
                   in the music community has died. It's that Champ Hood has died.

                   Much of that pain comes with the understanding that a second member of Uncle
                   Walt's Band -- a group of musicians that exuded grace and gentility -- has died
                   young. It was just five years ago that Walter Hyatt died when a ValuJet passenger
                   airliner caught fire in flight and crashed into the Florida Everglades.

                   They'd been the best of friends, Hyatt and Hood. Champ backed Walter on
                   guitar, playing his familiar, Django-inspired licks, on Hyatt's critically-acclaimed
                   1990 solo record, "King Tears." The album had been produced by Lyle Lovett, who
                   used to play between Uncle Walt's Band sets at the Waterloo Ice House. Hyatt
                   spent his last birthday at Threadgill's, in fact, and sang as a guest in Hood's
                   Troubadours band.

                   There is also the understanding that Champ Hood was one of the really good
                   guys of the local music scene -- a giver in the truest musical sense. His ambitions
                   were simple, personal ones. He was a man with no pretense. He also was loyal to
                   his hometown.

                   While Hyatt and fellow bandmate Ball left Austin and found fame in Nashville,
                    Hood pulled his shirttail out, cracked open a beer and stayed home, much to the
                   delight of fans who saw him as the quintessential "front porch" musician. How
                   appropriate that Hood found his perfect match, in music as well as friendship, in
                   Toni Price.

                   The West Coast record executives bemoaned that Price wouldn't dance to their
                   tune. She wouldn't stand up on stage. She wouldn't shave under her arms or lose
                   the tattoos. She wouldn't tour. They couldn't understand it. But Champ Hood did.
                   To these two, the feel and integrity of their music, the spirit of independence,
                   always came first.

                   "You know what I like most about this record?" Price mused aloud, upon the
                   release of her debut album, "Swim Away," in 1993. "It's the CD. The color of the
                   CD. (A cool and soothing blue.) It's exactly the same color as Champ's guitar."

                   All the man did, for 25 years, was bring luster to every band, to every piece of
                   music. His violin solos on Price's torchy ballads ("Just to Hear Your Voice" or
                   "Wishing Well") are heart-wrenching, drenched with feeling. As a guitarist, he
                   developed a sense of grit to go along with his trademark sweetness. Until a month
                   before his death, Hood continued to play in Price's famous "Hippie Hour" show
                   at the Continental Club, even on a night when his own son was guesting at "Austin
                   City Limits." "These Tuesday night shows, they mean a lot to Toni," he told a friend
                   who urged him to catch his son's show. "That's what I need to do."

                   How could it be? How could it be that a player of such sensitivity, who gave so
                   much of himself to music -- and to his friends in music -- might not have reacted
                   quickly enough to the first warning signs of his own declining health? So many
                   times, he answered our call with love. "Another song! Another moment!" It's sad to
                   wonder: Did he not save enough love for himself?

                   In my mind's eye, I still see him -- a man and his blue guitar, lost in the music,
                   seated on stage at the Continental Club. There are four players seated in a row:
                   Casper Rawls, Toni Price, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, Champ Hood always on the
                   far left. The club is jammed. The air is thick with smoke, the room filled with the
                   flurry of strings. Toni's eyes are closed, her left arm swaying skyward as the three
                   guitarists trade licks.

                   What are they playing? "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover?" Everyone in the
                   crowd is swaying or dancing. What happened yesterday? What of the worries that
                   come tomorrow? At this moment, all that matters is the music -- and it's deep
                   within our hearts. The music builds. It's Champ's turn to solo on slide guitar. He
                   holds us in his hands . . .

                   The love that passed through the music: It is Champ Hood's gift to us all. The
                   memory of it will not die.
 
 

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