Two New Albums Revisit The Magic Of Uncle Walt’s Band
Twenty five years ago this week, some of the greats of Texas music came together on Austin City Limits to pay tribute to their friend and colleague Walter Hyatt, who’d been killed in the crash of ValuJet Airlines flight 592 just a few months before. While the nation at large heard that news as the tragic death of 110 strangers, fans of American roots music were particularly shocked. Because there was nobody like Hyatt, a singer and songwriter beloved for his intelligence, his quirks, his timeless sense of swing and his subtle musicianship. A writer from the town where he had his most successful run as a bandleader said “Austin lost a piece of its heart” that day.
That show became a special Austin City Limits episode, but the recordings have never been commercially available before. Now Omnivore Recordings has released Mighty Fine, An Austin City Limits Tribute to Walter Hyatt, featuring 17 performances by luminaries including Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Marcia Ball, Junior Brown and the surviving members of Uncle Walt’s Band, Champ Hood and David Ball. (Hood has since died from cancer.) Earlier this year, the same label issued Uncle Walt’s Band Recorded Live at Waterloo Ice House, an enthralling time capsule of the band’s live dynamic captured over several nights in 1982.
Uncle Walt’s Band was Walter Hyatt’s most important vehicle as a performer and songwriter, a trio of friends who came together in their home town of Spartanburg, SC. Ball, who’d later have a successful country recording career, played bass. Hood played fiddle and guitar. Inspired by nearly every thread of classic Americana as well as the Beatles, they developed a tightly interlocked approach to both their instrumental interplay and their vocal harmony.
Their first forays to Nashville around 1972 attracted the support of Willis Alan Ramsey, but UWB didn’t catch Music Row’s imagination. A few years later though, after Ramsey convinced them to move to Austin, Uncle Walt’s Band became icons of that city’s discerning music scene in the early 80s. Jimmie Dale Gilmore called them the best band in the city. Austin journalist Peter Blackstock writes in the Waterloo set liner notes that “There were no casual Uncle Walt’s Band fans. You either just didn’t get it, or it was the greatest thing since tortillas.”
The ACL tribute album, which includes band staples “As The Crow Flies,” “Motor City Man,” and the tender love song “I’ll Come Knocking” reveals a circle of influence that still ripples through Texas music to this day. Lyle Lovett used to sit on the front row at UWB gigs and he’d later produce Walter Hyatt’s Nashville solo debut and take him on tour. And that’s just one example, says Heidi Hyatt, Walter’s widow who’s lived in Nashville since the 80s.
“A lot of these (artists) had enjoyed Walter’s music from the beginning in Austin. They thought Uncle Walt’s Band was the coolest,” she says. “These are the people who came out, so on that live record you get a feeling for the energy that was in the show. And then for these folks to play this music in this beautiful collection that is so varied and yet so cohesive, with their enthusiasm for the music. This tribute brings it all full circle.”