THE STORY OF ONE SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN’S MUSICAL CONTRIBUTION
By Rush Evans
When Champ played the fiddle, it was effortless. It was always as though he were just playing around, not a job, not a big deal. But the sweet sounds that poured out of that instrument and the man behind it were original, passionate, otherworldly. Champ Hood played the guitar with the same casual ease, never playing a song the same way twice, letting a new story unfold each time. He was a natural, with little formal training but lots of heart and style.
Expressing himself through the music worked out just fine, because he didn’t have too much to say otherwise, on or off the stage. Not that he was aloof or troubled or deeply introspective, quite the contrary. Hood was the kindest, gentlest soul that the Austin, Texas musical community ever produced. He was just shy, which is perhaps the reason he was so content spending a remarkable music career out of the spotlight.
When we lost Champ Hood at age 49 to lung cancer on November 3, we lost more than just a great player and a sweet man. We lost a piece of American music’s soul, which, thanks to folks like Champ, has quietly continued being carried forth in the oral tradition, even in an era of computerized popular music and style-over-substance commercialism. In the truest folk sense, Champ kept the works of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams alive, but contributed his own material as well, which usually felt as though it could’ve been written in Johnson’s time and carried from town to town by a singing troubadour.
Champ really was a troubadour; that was the name of his band in the only musical incarnation that put the reluctant star up front. For eleven years, Champ Hood and The Threadgill Troubadours played every Wednesday night at suppertime at Austin’s famed Threadgill’s Restaurant. Every week, they would laugh and play through songs of every kind with joyous abandon. Even sad songs and waltzes had a great sense of fun about them with the Troubadours at the helm.
The supper sessions were themselves keeping the long burning flame of Southern American music alive in a spiritual sort of way: Janis Joplin had sung there each Wednesday night with yodeler Kenneth Threadgill, back when his joint was a gas station and bar. When Threadgill’s revived Kenneth’s Wednesday night sessions in the late 1980s, country/folk traditionalist Jimmie Dale Gilmore was enlisted to sing the old Jimmie Rodgers tunes the way they were meant to be sung. Gilmore did so with Champ by his side, harmonizing and playing with the highest and lonesomest of sounds. When Gilmore moved on to wider national fame, Champ continued to hold down the fort on Wednesdays.
He had made a significant musical contribution long before that. DesChamps Hood, Walter Hyatt, and David Ball all grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is where they came together as Uncle Walt’s Band in the early 1970s. All three were gifted songwriters and vocalists, especially so when the voices came together in an ethereal three-part harmony. They brought together styles of music that might have seemed to not belong together: Cajun, country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and folk, with a pop sensibility threaded throughout. It was not uncommon to follow a Fats Domino song with a Grateful Dead, Leadbelly with Sly and The Family Stone, Gershwin with an Uncle Walt’s Band original. A peer would later refer to them appropriately as “the bluegrass Beatles.”
Ball had an angelic, sometimes falsetto voice to carry originals like “Bluebird” and “Dish Wiped Clean.” Hyatt’s crystal clear, often mournful singing gave depth to songs he’d written, with jazz and folk equally mixed, like the swinging “As The Crow Flies” and the sorrowful “Motor City Man.” Hood’s contribution was more deeply rooted in the rural South, with a beautiful yet unadorned traditional vocal style carrying gems of his own which sounded a hundred years old, like the plaintive “Sad As It Seems” and “Walking Angel,” a delicately sweet love song. The combined instrumentation was part Charlie Christian, part Bob Wills, part Carter Family, all Uncle Walt’s Band. When the three sang these songs together, it was organic, meant to be.
It made perfect sense when the trio brought its original sound to a musically rich town where styles and categories were utterly irrelevant. Austin, Texas took a liking to Uncle Walt’s Band, and the feeling was mutual. It was a simple set up: all three singing and writing, two on guitar, Ball on standup bass. When it was apparent that a fiddle could bring so much more to their arrangements, Champ decided he’d just start playing it himself. He took up the instrument as an adult, safely into his twenties.
They played to a packed
house every weekend in the shadow of the State Capitol building at the
Waterloo Ice House. They also served as a perennial opening act at the
legendary Armadillo World Headquarters.
“To me, it was like a big room with a small room feel,” Champ once told me of the historic concert hall. “They just had a really loose, relaxed feeling to it. It was just a lot of fun.” Uncle Walt’s Band would open up for folks like Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur, David Grisman, Country Gazette, then head quickly to downtown Austin in time for their own opening act to finish playing at the Waterloo, where they would close the show, in a controversial double booking scenario. “There was some sort of backlash of other bands getting kind of jealous for us getting all those opening slots. [The Armadillo] knew we’d put on a decent show, and we were small and easy to deal with, you could get us on the stage and get us off the stage, but those other bands didn’t like that. I didn’t take it too personally,” Hood laughed. “I thought it was kind of funny, really.”
Such whimsical care-freedom was typical Champ, and that same low-key sense of humor came from his band mates, and was clearly apparent in their work. Uncle Walt’s Band released four albums during those Austin years, and in one of those bizarre music business ironies, didn’t see national release until years after they had split up in 1983.It was not until the early 1990s that the independent Sugar Hill label compiled and released some of their work -- a delayed recognition that only added to their musical mystique.
Champ took the weird timing in stride, quite literally laughing it off, with characteristic humility. “We’re kinda famous for not ever having a record contract,” he would later tell KUT radio’s Larry Monroe. “We got a record contract seven years after we broke up!” Their biggest fan and frequent opening act in the ‘80s, Lyle Lovett, wrote the sleeve notes for the reissues. In between the first UWB breakup and reunion, Walter and Champ had spent a brief period in Nashville and a few years back in South Carolina as members of The Contenders, another cultish incarnation which again produced a rare gem of an album in 1978--also released after the band’s break-up, and further fueling the underground legend of Hyatt and Hood. A second collection of old Contenders recordings would surface on CD in 1999.
In pursuit of a country
music career, David Ball headed for Nashville. Walter Hyatt eventually
followed him there, hoping to find a home for some of his ever-growing
collection of songs. Champ stayed home. Aside from the Threadgill’s gig,
he’d become the most valuable session player in Austin’s booming musical
recording world. His contribution was always original and distinctive,
and it defied categorization in much the same way as the artists with whom
he was recording. That’s why they’d come to Austin to practice their craft
in the first place.
Champ worked with Kelly Willis, Jerry Jeff Walker, and countless others. Uncle Walt’s Band would still appear as a trio when the spirit moved them and schedules permitted. Hyatt’s solo career an MCA recording artist would benefit from Champ's contributions, and he would later tour, with Champ in tow, as the opening act for Lyle Lovett. Lovett felt it only appropriate that his musical inspirations be shared with his ever-growing audience. (He’d also recorded a track with Uncle Walt’s Band, “Once Is Enough,” on one his own albums, and would later include a verse about the Carolina transplants in his song, “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas.”)
Champ became a member of Lovett’s touring band a few years later. He would find himself playing to thousands in ornate theaters, and be back in Austin a few nights later backing up another singer/songwriter in a living room house concert to twenty people. He would view both as good nights. That was the job he’d signed up for anyway; to get up each day and make music somewhere, an honorable endeavor, and one he made appear simple.
He was a singer and performer in his own right, an accomplished songwriter, but he had become best known for making the work of others sound better. His personal sensitivity came through in his complex yet constrained contribution to the careers of so many artists. In the early 1990s, he began a long tenure as blues singer Toni Price’s most prominent sideman. Price would develop a cult following in Texas, which rivaled that of Uncle Walt’s Band.
When Walter Hyatt perished
in the 1996 Valujet crash in Florida, Hood had lost his best friend and
musical partner since childhood, but his first obligation superseded his
own sorrow. His taller order was that of championing Walter’s music. Driving
into Austin from a gig upon learning of Walter’s death, he went straight
to KUT radio where DJ Larry Monroe was paying tribute to Hyatt.
Champ walked into the control booth with unreleased Hyatt demo tapes that happened to be in his car. He handed them to Monroe and let them hit the airwaves, unadorned. When asked by Monroe what he’d like to share with the radio audience about his friend, he simply said, “Well, he was a good friend of mine, and I’m gonna miss him.” Beyond that, the songs could speak for themselves.
Champ would let the music speak for itself right up until the very end of his life. He hid his illness from even his closest of friends as long as he could, while continuing to play his heart out at every Toni Price gig, most notably at her legendary Tuesday night Hippie Hours at The Continental Club.
He produced an Uncle Walt’s
tribute album, featuring prominent friends covering Walter Hyatt tunes,
and he quietly began work on a first-ever solo album, something permanent
to leave behind. It would continue the after-the-fact tradition inadvertently
established by Uncle Walt’s Band and The Contenders. A few weeks before
his departure, he played a Troubadours reunion gig at a friend’s ranch
outside Austin. Even in his compromised physical state, he maintained his
Southern gentlemanly demeanor and musical prowess,
with his equally, somewhat eerily gifted eighteen-year-old son, Warren fiddling and singing by his side.
The elder Hood, with his gentle grin and humble presence seemed to be passing a torch of sorts on that sunny Texas afternoon. (Warren had just made his first Austin CIty Limits appearance a few weeks prior, as a member of country rocker Charlie Robison’s band, on a stage that his father had graced a half dozen times.)
Shortly thereafter, friends
moved Champ to a house on a high hill in the Texas Hill Country, where
he could find comfort for his ever-weakening body. They even dubbed the
home High Hill, after one of Champ’s own songs, one written nearly three
decades earlier and seeming to describe this place that he’d found at the
The news of Champ Hood’s death on November the third devastated the only surviving member of Uncle Walt’s Band. David Ball had become a Nashville Big-Hat success, and was on the road supporting his new radio hit, “Riding With Private Malone.” When his tour bus broke down the same day, the Top Ten country music star got out on the freeway and hitched his way home, alone.
Several days later, he and Lyle Lovett would sing Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt songs at Champ’s funeral in Austin, with Warren Hood filling in those special fiddle licks right where his dad would’ve placed them with his own gentle touch. David Ball reached back a quarter of a century to the time of Uncle Walt’s Band, America’s best-kept musical secret, which had itself recalled a more dignified and innocent musical time. Ball’s saddened tenor soared as he sang Champ’s words:
“I live upon a high
I work my hands in wire and wood, and I sing like a whippoorwill.
And every night there’s one thing on my mind.
Only that you love me until the day I die.
If you love me then, you know I would not mind.”
--From “High Hill”
by Champ Hood, 1974