That’s Right, They’re Not from Texas

But Austin wanted Uncle Walt’s Band anyway. Did we ever! MICHAELCORCORAN MAR 24, 2024

Those boys from Carolina sure could play. Walter Hyatt, David Ball, Champ Hood at Waterloo Ice House circa 1979. Photo Kathy Hill.

“Of all the musical groups which have moved here since the Austin music scene began to develop about six years ago, I don’t think any have intrigued, captivated, hypnotized or won the hearts of Austin fans like Uncle Walt’s Band.” – Townsend Miller of the Statesman, announcing the trio’s reunion, after a three-year hiatus, at Liberty Lunch in July 1978.

The rebirth was sensational, as Uncle Walt’s Band—and their diehard fans—found a musical home at the original Waterloo Ice House at 906 Congress Avenue for the next five years. It was as strong a marriage of room and talent as Austin has ever seen. 

UWB played completely acoustic at first, but the crowd’s size and enthusiasm called for mics. “People went crazy over them,” Waterloo Ice House owner Stephen Clark said of guitarists Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood and bassist David Ball, who all hailed from Spartanburg, S.C. “Someone called them ‘the Bluegrass Beatles,’ but they played a bit of everything.” Their trademark was harmonies so crisp they could remove wrinkles. 

Not everyone in this guitar town got their fresh take on “folk swing,” however. “We had some people ask us, ‘Why do y’all sing at the same time?’,” Ball told an interviewer in 2019. 

The trio was championed by fellow musicians, especially Lyle Lovett, whose sophisticated country/jazz style came right from Hyatt. “Uncle Walt’s Band gave me my career,” said Marcia Ball, who’d been singing country covers as Freda with the Firedogs. “When they brought that first album (the self-released Blame It on the Bossa Nova) to town, there was a cover song on it called ‘In the Night.’…I asked Champ what that was and he said ‘that’s Professor Longhair’ … and there I went.”

You can also hear the influence of David Ball’s “Don’t You Think I Feel It Too” on the songwriting of Lucinda Williams, another Waterloo Ice House regular.

Clark opened the burger/beer joint in March 1976 with Roger Swanson, but didn’t have live music in the beginning. The first booking, Ain’t Misbehavin’, dictated that the Ice House would be a swing club, not a folk joint. Eaglebone Whistle, featuring future Lyle Lovett cellist John Hagen, was another regular act, as was David Ball, who’d recently moved back to Austin from Spartanburg to try to get a new band together.

Instead, the countertenor (dude sings like a lady) got the old band back. Hyatt and Hood were living in Nashville, where their five-piece roots rock band the Contenders were building a cult audience and working with R.E.M. producer Don Dixon. But Walter and his first wife Mary Lou, who managed Waylon Jennings, were in the process of breaking up, so Austin was looking good. To sweeten the relocation, Clark gave the trio free rehearsal space upstairs from the club, so Ball had to move his standup bass just down the stairs for gigs. The trio received 100% of the door which, at three dollars cover, put as much as $200 in the pocket of each musician, twice a week. That was livin’ XXL in Austin in 1978.

The first go-round in Austin at the original Saxon Pub circa 1972.

Uncle Walt’s Band had everything—the looks, the songs, the harmonies, the musicianship, the cool covers. It felt like history was being made on Congress Avenue. Soon, the trio would be a national act, so enjoy the up close and personal experience while you still could.

But stardom never came, and after five years back, UWB broke up again in 1983, with Ball, the best singer of the group, headed to mainstream country success in Nashville (“Thinkin’ Problem,” “Riding with Private Malone”). Hyatt and Hood continued as a duo for a few weeks, but two-thirds of the trio drew less than half of the former crowd. Walter and his second wife, the former Heidi Narum, moved to Nashville in the mid-’80s to be near his daughter Haley. His acclaimed 1990 solo LP King Tears (the name of an East Austin mortuary) was produced by Lovett, but Hyatt was one-and-done on MCA.

Champ stayed in Austin, where his guitar and fiddle (self-taught as an adult) backed many acts, most notably Toni Price for nine years of Tuesday “Hippie Hour” shows, and the Wednesday night sessions at Threadgill’s. His violinist son Warren Hood and guitarist nephew Marshall Hood have kept the Uncle Walt repertoire alive every Wednesday for years at ABGB.

Tragedies felled Hyatt and Hood in their forties, with Walter perishing in the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Florida Everglades, and Champ succumbing to cancer in November 2001.

Their music, most of which they put out on their own, was gloriously reissued by L.A.’s Omnivore Recordings from 2018-2021. Listen to the first album, 1974’s Blame It on the Bossa Nova (self-titled by Omnivore) and there’s little doubt that Uncle Walt’s Band was one of Austin’s all-time greatest groups. The Lost Gonzo Band certainly thought so, covering such Walt Band origs as “Getaway,” “High Hill” and “I’ll Come Knockin’” on their MCA albums.

Walter, Champ, and David first touched down in Austin at the invitation of Willis Alan Ramsey, who saw them in Nashville at Our Place on March 5, 1972. Ramsey’s sure of the date because it was his twenty-first birthday. He was also celebrating that day’s completion of recording the album that would make him the Harper Lee of redneck rock.

Ramsey brought the trio to his Hound Sound studio in a shack on Baylor Street, but like the earlier sessions UWB recorded in Nashville with producer Buzz Cason, there was not much label interest. There was no proven market for what they were doing.

But the trio was smitten with Austin, where they drew crowds to the original Saxon Pub, and to Castle Creek. Big fan Gary P. Nunn gave the trio a place to stay at his “Public Domain Inc.” complex on N. Lamar, where scruffy cottages rented for fifty dollars a month.

“The boys from Carolina” (as Lovett immortalized the band in “That’s Right, You’re Not from Texas”) especially loved how quietly attentive the audiences were when they played, then erupted at the end of the song. “Uncle Walt’s was not a bar band,” Ball said. “We were a listening band.” 

The closest UWB—the Unpeggable White Band—got to a major label deal was when they were briefly courted by Warner Brothers in ’75. The Walts were viewed as the next Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, but when that well-promoted group failed to sell many records, WB eventually passed.

But Austin City Limits didn’t. When Terry Lickona booked Uncle Walt’s Band to play in front of a national PBS audience in 1980, the unsigned trio was playing small clubs. “I was looking for something different than the cosmic cowboy electric sound that dominated the scene, and being a bluegrass fan, I loved their acoustic vibe,” said Lickona. Here’s the entirety of the segment, which aired with a half hour of Ralph Stanley:

Label apathy facilitated the trio’s first breakup in ‘75. Hyatt and Hood went to Nashville, where the Contenders (with Tommy Goldsmith, Steve Runkle and Jimbeaux Walsh) recorded an album in 1977. It was recently reissued with an additional track, the UWB fave “Getaway” (the only song the trio wrote together), enhanced by overdubs from Marcia Ball, Warren Hood and Willis Alan Ramsey. Listen to it here.

Meanwhile, Ball went back to Spartanburg to open a bar. Three years went by. And nobody forgot Uncle Walt’s Band.