MAY 14, 2002
Champ and Walter
Acclaimed Spartanburg musicians honored with hometown celebration
BY DAN ARMONAITIS
LEGENDS IN THEIR TIME: A Celebration of the Lives & Music of Champ Hood & Walter Hyatt is being held Saturday, May 18 at Greenfield ExcursionThe Music Camp located north of Spartanburg.
In the music world, Austin, Texas, is a lot like New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Spartanburg natives Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt certainly lived up to that dream once they relocated to the “music capital of the world” during the 1970s. Although never achieving success on a mainstream level, Uncle Walt’s Band, a trio rounded out by fellow Spartanburg native David Ball, certainly left an indelible mark on the music industry, influencing a wide array of top-notch roots-based artists in Texas and beyond. Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis and Junior Brown are just a few of the artists who have cited the band as a major influence through the years.
Unfortunately, the world sometimes works in mysterious ways and before either Hood or Hyatt reached the age of 50, both were gone. Hyatt died tragically aboard the ValuJet plane that crashed into the Florida Everglades six years ago, and Hood passed this past November after a battle with cancer.
This weekend, some of their closest friends from Spartanburg, Austin and Nashville come together for an event that’s being billed as a celebration of the lives of Hood and Hyatt. Featuring the South Austin Jug Band (led by Champ’s son Warren Hood), Toni Price, Casper Rawls, Tommy Goldsmith, Tommi Lynn Lunsford, David Ezell, Jennifer Prince, Ben Runkle, Marshall Hood, Steve Clark and other special guests, the =elebration is the kind of event that seems destined to go down as a magical night of music in Spartanburg lore.
“Champ and Walter deserve this and a lot more attention,” says Nashville-based Tommy Goldsmith, who played with Hood and Hyatt in another seminal pre-Americana outfit, the Contenders. “Both were great players, great songwriters and great singers who had an unusually broad range of styles that they could perform in and write songs in. And they were just charismatic friendly good people as well.”
The Uncle Walt’s Band legacy began in the early 70's in Spartanburg, where Hood, Hyatt and Ball got together to produce a no-frills brand of acoustic music that drew from several influences ranging from bluegrass to Rubber Soul-era Beatles rock n’ roll.
“I always felt like Uncle Walt’s Band was the Beatles of the ‘70s. They just never quite got out there,” Goldsmith says.
John Featherston, the owner of Greenfield Excursion-The Music Camp, which is hosting the celebration, echoes Goldsmith’s feelings.
“I hate to draw parallels but these guys had something going that was up there on the level of a Crosby, Stills & Nash or something,” he says. “They did some phenomenal things musically when other people weren’t. When I was coming along, the thing to do was to be electric and louder with lights and stage antics and all. And they didn’t do that. They just had a real gentle stage presence. They wore collared shirts and neckties and their harmonies and music were just phenomenal. And I think it caught people’s attention. And then that drew people’s attention to what gentle people they really were.”
Spartanburg singer-songwriter David Ezell perhaps best sums up the kind of reverence so many people had for Hyatt and Hood when he describes a moment during the ‘80s when both he and Hyatt were living in Nashville and he’d allow Hyatt to use his apartment when he’d go out of town.
“I remember getting a thank you note from Walter the first time that he stayed there,” Ezell says. “It was a neat feeling to think that maybe Walter had written some song in my apartment. That’s the kind of reverence that you had for those guys. And Champ was a lot of fun to be around, too. Anybody will tell you that. Together they were just a powerful force. They were charismatic whether they were on stage or not, and individually just wonderful to be around. I wasn’t nearly as close a friend as many others were, but they made me feel like I was. And that’s saying a alot right there.”
At 19, Warren Hood is too young to have really experienced the magic of Uncle Walt’s Band (in fact, he says that he doesn’t even recall ever seeing Hyatt perform live), but through stories told by his father and through countless recordings, he’s developed an appreciation for what the legendary outfit was all about.
“The chemistry they had from the time they were my age all the way to the end is amazing,” Warren says. “With most bands, you don’t have that many talented people come together like David, Champ and Walter did. Usually, it’s just one really talented guy surrounded by a bunch of people, and he goes off and becomes a star and they just kind of get lost. But in this case, they were all phenomenal musicians and they all became successful in their own right once the band split up.”
While the success of Hood and Hyatt can’t be measured in record sales or chart topping hits, they nonetheless left behind a musical legacy that will likely be heralded for years to come. Soon after Hyatt’s passing in 1996, tributes were held in both Austin and Nashville, as well as a television special on the PBS series “Austin City Limits,” and a tribute to Hood was recently held in Austin. But this week will mark the first time that either of the two has been honored in Spartanburg, a long overdue event in their hometown.
“A lot of the people in Spartanburg haven’t had any closure from Champ or Walter because there really hasn’t been an event that’s happened there,” Warren says.
“I’ve had people ever since Walter died saying, "when are you going to do something in Spartanburg?’” Featherston says. "This is their hometown and a lot of their friends just love those guys. So to finally be able to do something for the community is a great thing.”
The Celebration of the
Lives and Music of Champ Hood & Walter Hyatt is being held Saturday,
May 18 at Greenfield Excursion-The Music Camp, Gossett Rd. & Rd. 57
(off Exit 80 on I-85), north of Spartanburg. Tickets are $15. Children
under 7 are admitted free. Gates open at 3 p.m. with music starting at
7 p.m. Free primitive camping is available. For more info, call 864-463-0202
or visit www.greenfieldexcursion.com.