Uncle Walt’s Band: Those Boys From Carolina
The first time I met Uncle Walt’s Band was at a small graduation party in 1972. I was getting into some bluegrass at that point, nothing hardcore, but albums like the Dillards’ Wheatstraw Suite or the Country Gazette’s Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, both albums with great harmony singing. Most bands at parties those days in Nashville were either rock bands or R&B, and here were these three guys with two guitars and a standup bass. They joked around with us while they were setting up. Younger than me, and very laid back. And then they started to play. I can’t remember which song they played first, but there were two things that grabbed me: their unbelievably tight harmonies and the variety of songs they played. Some of them I have loved for years… the swing-oriented “Seat of Logic,” with a great a capella kickoff, and two ballads that I still play all the time, “High Hill” and “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too.” They played blues, pop-oriented stuff that occasionally sounded like the Beatles, swing jazz with a hint of Django… and all of it with layered, unusual and rich harmonies. And each of them sang lead, so the harmonies were always changing. I was a fan immediately, and I followed them for years. Their story includes a lot of elements: success, failure, tragedy… but basically it’s a story about music and those who love to play it regardless of the challenges.
I live upon a high hill
Work my hands in wire and wood
And I sing like a whippoorwill
And every night there 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-
Walter Hyatt, DesChamps (Champ) Hood and David Ball were all from Spartanburg, SC. When Walter was a student at Wofford College, he formed a band with Champ, who was a high school senior at the time and the hot guitarist around those parts. But he also had a three-octave vocal range and loved the Beatles, and that fit well with Walter’s smooth lower-register voice. Ball was the younger kid around town, but he loved to sing. He tried to join the band but wasn’t really that proficient on any instrument, so he taught himself to play standup bass, and they became Uncle Walt’s Band, borrowing their name from the Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.”
It was clear this band was meant for more than bars in their hometown, and they packed up and moved to Nashville in 1972. They didn’t stay long. Willis Alan Ramsey, the legendary Austin singer/songwriter, heard them and enticed them to move to Austin. They made an attempt at a major label contract with RCA in 1974, but their eclectic mix of songs weren’t viewed as marketable, and they disbanded in 1975 after recording their first self-released album, originally called Blame it on the Bossa Nova and later re-released as Uncle Walt’s Band.
Hood and Hyatt returned to Nashville and joined Steve Runkel, Jimbeau Walsh, and future newspaper/music reporter and author Tommy Goldsmith in a more rock-oriented band, the Contenders. Like UWB, they had a committed cult following, and their eponymous album is still available. They only stayed together for two years, but the album is a classic and worth a listen. Ball enticed Hood and Hyatt back to Austin for a reunion show, and it stuck. They began the second half of their career, and it was more successful. Lyle Lovett opened for them at shows, and they influenced Lucinda Williams, Marcia Ball and Nanci Griffith, among many others. Jerry Jeff Walker was a big fan as well. They recorded a second independent album, An American in Texas, in 1980, followed by a live album, and appeared on Austin City Limits that same year. They recorded with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band and many other Texas legends, but they never could get a national following, and they split up once again in 1983 and began to explore solo career opportunities.
Walter Hyatt continued his quest for success and survival in the business. He moved back to Nashville in 1987 and wrote profusely. He recorded two solo albums, King Tears in 1990 on Geffen Records, and a second album, Music Town, on the Sugar Hill label. On May 11, 1996, Walter died in the ValuJet crash in the Everglades at age 46. In 1997 Lyle Lovett organized an episode of Austin City Limits as a tribute to Hyatt that included Hood, Ball, Junior Brown, Shawn Colvin, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Gilmore, and Lovett’s band. After his death, his wife Heidi and producer Michael Killen put together a two-record set of songs written shortly before his death; these were released to great commercial success as Some Unfinished Business, volumes one and two, in 2008 and 2010.
Champ Hood played mostly as a sideman, with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and others, including Guy Clark, Kelly Willis, Blaze Foley and David Rodriguez, and led a band called the Troubadours, another legendary Austin band. He was known as a player’s player and writer. In the spring of 2001, at age 49, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He did his best to record an album that he considered his legacy before he died in November of that year, and Bon Haven was released in January of 2002.
David Ball returned to Nashville and recorded three country music singles for RCA that did not take off, but he was signed by Warner Brothers, and his debut album for them, Thinkin’ Problem, became a hit. The title song reached No. 2 on Billboard’s country charts, and the album went platinum. He has continued to tour as a country singer.
Uncle Walt’s Band was destined to be remembered by those that had a chance to see them, but those that loved their music were not about to let it die. In 2018 Omnivore Records released a full anthology of tunes from all their albums as well as five unreleased tracks. The title of the anthology, Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Enough Could Sing, comes from a Lyle Lovett song praising them after their breakup, called “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas)”.
“Those boys from Carolina,
They sure enough could sing.
But when they came on down to Texas,
We showed them how to swing.
Now David’s on the radio,
And old Champ’s still on the guitar.
And Uncle Walt, he’s home with Heidi,
Hiding in her loving arms.”
Within the past few years, surviving member of the band David Ball, with Warren Hood, Champ’s son, and his nephew Marshall Hood have been doing occasional shows as That Carolina Sound and revisiting UWB material, along with Ball’s catalog. Keeping those songs alive is a great way to introduce people to a truly groundbreaking band, one that very few Americana music fans have ever heard of, in spite of the fact that they could have invented the term. And a whole new audience is now learning about their music; Mike Judge, the animator/actor/director, included two of their songs in the HBO show Silicon Valley last year.
As for myself, I still love to listen to their songs. At Americanafest last year in Nashville I caught up with David Ball and talked about some old times. His set at the Station Inn included several UWB songs sung with his daughter Audrey, and it was as if they were still here, and that was a good thing.
UNCLE WALT’S BAND