In the early 1970s, Texas music was coming apart at the seams. The ossified stylistic barriers that had arisen between rock, country, folk and blues were breaking down. Songwriters and bands were picking and choosing, mixing and matching — “stirring the gonzo stew,” as the saying went. In the process, they wound up creating a whole new hybrid, homegrown, no-place-but-Texas sound.
Into that creative ferment came three unassuming young men from South Carolina: Walter Hyatt, David Ball and Champ Hood. Though they billed themselves by the antique-sounding moniker of Uncle Walt’s Band, none of them looked old enough to buy a beer. But they could play like the dickens, and they sang and harmonized like fallen angels. Heads, as they say, were turned.
If you’ve never heard of Uncle Walt’s Band, you are not alone. But there is no better opportunity to remedy that deficit than with “Uncle Walt’s Band Anthology: Those Boys From Carolina, They Sure Enough Could Sing,” due out March 9 on Omnivore Recordings.
Celebrating its release on Friday at the Saxon Pub is Uncle Walt’s Band co-founder David Ball & That Carolina Sound, featuring Austin musicians Warren Hood and Marshall Hood (Champ’s son and nephew, respectively). The show is sold out; the group will return to Central Texas for a June 2 show at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
At the Saxon Pub, several special guests also will appear, including Austin mainstays Marcia Ball, Kelly Willis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Toni Price, along with Hyatt’s children Taylor and Rose Hyatt.
That Carolina Sound made its Austin debut last fall at Cactus Cafe. It is, Ball says, an emotional seesaw to be standing onstage with Warren and Marshall, singing the old songs for listeners familiar and new.
Though they were beloved by listeners (including this one, who recalls many a night watching the trio at the original Waterloo Ice House on Congress Avenue downtown), tragedy bedeviled the band. Walter Hyatt died in the crash of a commercial jetliner in Florida in 1996. Champ Hood succumbed to cancer in 2001. He was only 49.
Today, there is a bench along the southern shore of Lady Bird Lake, where Bouldin Creek empties into the larger body of water. Beside the bench is a small boulder, engraved with lyrics by both Champ and Walter, and the dates for each. It’s a quiet, understated monument, one they might appreciate.
Ball has carved out a successful country music career for himself, but the Uncle Walt’s era is seldom far from his thoughts.
“It almost is perfect,” he says. “At the same time, it’s kind of bittersweet. Both of those guys were a big part of my life, and it ended too quickly. But it’s been a long time and, looking back, a lot of the music stands up.”
Hyatt, Hood and Ball were soft-spoken and polite, but when they got onstage at the original Saxon Pub one night along about 1973, well, they made an impression.
“It was all acoustic, and they would just lean in together and sing,” recalled Paisley Robertson, a waitress at the Saxon who would go on to befriend the trio and even manage them for a time. “It was like the first time I ever heard the Everly Brothers — but there were three of them.”
She laughed, thinking back. “Besides that, they looked like a Clairol commercial! Champ looked like a little blonde lion, with all those curls. And David had that red hair, and Walter … they all had the most beautiful hair.”
Uncle Walt’s Band had a lot more going for them than just coiffure. Their deceptively sophisticated amalgam of blues, jazz, country and folk was less reminiscent of Willie Nelson than of classic Southern tunesmiths such as Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. Though they never broke through to widespread renown, their influence persists today, most notably through the music of Lyle Lovett, an early and devout acolyte. Much of the music collected on the new anthology anticipated what is going on in the Americana genre by three decades.
Warren Hood has been playing Uncle Walt’s music all his life, but he hardly has an image of the band performing. He has had to rediscover their body of work on his own.
“I was born in 1983, and they broke up around that time,” he said. “I don’t actually ever remember seeing them live. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19, and my dad had passed and Walter had long passed, that I really got into the music and started doing the songs on my own.
“I hear something new every time I hear their music. There’s so many intricate things going on. It’s amazing that three people could make that much sound.”
David Ball & That Carolina Sound
When: 9 p.m. Friday, March 9
Where: Saxon Pub, 1320 S. Lamar Blvd.
Cost: Sold out