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The Contenders Reissue Revives Nashville’s Finest, Circa 1976

Every Americana fan should know the story and sound of Uncle Walt’s Band, the remarkable acoustic trio from Spartanburg, SC that became stars of the Austin, TX scene around 1980. Led nominally by the literate and charming songwriter Walter Hyatt, UWB created a clever and beguiling fusion of country, jazz and Beatles-inspired pop. They were beloved inspirations for Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, true “musicians’ musicians” as problematic a term as that is.

In their early days, Walter Hyatt, David Ball, and Champ Hood moved to Nashville, where they impressed the songwriting community and the musically savvy local scene. That’s how they met two other talented newcomers, Tommy Goldsmith and Steve Runkle of Raleigh, NC, who performed as the Pritchard Avenue Band. They shared some stages and some good times, and when Uncle Walt’s Band took a hiatus, these creative fellows birthed a new project (adding Jimbeau Walsh on drums and letting Ball pursue other things). The quintet became the crafty rock and pop band The Contenders, and for a couple of years, they were Music City’s hottest, coolest combo.

Now Steve Runkle’s brother Ben has re-mixed the tapes of The Contenders’ one and only album, released in 1978 only after the band had broken up, and reissued it with proper ado on his newly formed Southern Moon Records out of Raleigh. What a delight it is to conjure humid nights at the 1970s Exit/In and an unconfined love of timeless roots music in 12 surprising, spirited songs that take the harmony parts at least as seriously as the leads from four of the five musicians.

Hyatt's warm crooning is in the foreground on his songs “Lean On Your Mind,” a gently shuffling 12-bar blues that opens the album, and “Smokey Night Life,” a standout road song co-written with Runkle that glows with jangly guitars and jungly drums. Runkel brings a commanding and soulful quality to the twisty power pop “Silver Cup” and “The Lack Of Love,” a crooning Motown-infused lament. Tommy Goldsmith, author of this reissue’s liner notes and arguably the hardest rocking cat in the cast, steers an unorthodox chord progression and angular melody on the bright “Dim The Light” and twangs Chuck Berry style on “Talk.” While Champ Hood, who did such magnificent multi-instrumental work in Uncle Walt’s Band, authors “Walking Angel” which sounds to me like the most UWBish tune here.

Goldsmith remembers his band in the notes as “a crowd who set out from Nashville to play their songs and to make a certain kind of pop music focused on an unusually evolved, song-based style extracted from the wilder sounds of folk, rock, blues, jazz, country, and soul.” And yes, there’s a refinement and nuance here that wasn’t to be part of Music City’s next rock and roll wave led by Jason and the Scorchers. Their special sound carried the band to full houses around the country and told a story of Nashville that needed telling and one that set the table for the city’s widely appreciated breadth and depth today.

Goldsmith survives as a celebrated journalist who’s lived back and forth in Raleigh and (now) Nashville. So does Walsh, who moved to Hawaii to preside over weddings. Runkle and Hood passed away young from cancer. While Walter Hyatt tragically died in the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida. But through this CD, so nicely designed and sounding so crisp and vibrant, a too-short but special musical experiment lives on to charm and beguile new generations.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org