A decade after his tragic death, Walter Hyatt's voice rises anew
On the afternoon of May 11, 1996, Walter Hyatt boarded a DC-9 in Miami. With the flight already an hour delayed, Hyatt was anxious to get to Virginia, where his daughter Haley was graduating college the next morning.
Only minutes after takeoff, a distress call was radioed to air traffic control. Fire had broken out in the cargo hold, and smoke began to fill the cockpit and cabin. The plane banked to return to Miami International Airport but at 2:14pm disappeared from radar. ValuJet Flight 592 had crashed into the Florida Everglades.
All 110 passengers and crew aboard the plane were killed.
The crash of the ValuJet flight was as much a national scandal as it was a tragedy, the first low-cost airline having already been the subject of countless safety investigations. Yet with the death of Walter Hyatt among the passengers, Austin had lost a piece of its heart. In his obituary for Hyatt in the Chronicle, KUT's Larry Monroe wrote: "It was like losing a member of the family. After all, we first knew him as Uncle Walt."
Alongside David Ball and the late Champ Hood, Hyatt founded Uncle Walt's Band, one of Austin's most popular acts in the 1970s and early 1980s. The acoustic trio's tight harmonies and swath of talent melded an amalgam of influences, folk and country cut with an easy jazz swing and a soulful lilt. Their high-energy shows and poignant, smart songwriting attracted devotion from Austin's musical elite; artists like Lyle Lovett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Marcia Ball, Junior Brown, and Nanci Griffith would all later mark Hyatt's and the band's influences in their work.
"I loved that band; I loved everything about them," attests Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who first heard Uncle Walt's Band upon moving back to Austin in the early 1980s. "A friend of mine had a tape, I think just a copied-off cassette. Stylistically, it was utterly different from the music I was coming from, but I just loved the sound of that band. And of course, when I got to know them, I loved all three of the guys, not only as musicians but as people."
On his solo work, Hyatt shone with a gently smooth croon rolling lightly atop jazz and blues accompaniment, songs like "Tell Me Baby" and "In November," striking in their directness, cut to the bone without pretense or affectation. In 1990, Lovett produced Hyatt's debut, King Tears, the first album for MCA's Master Series to feature a vocalist.
"That was just a great experience in my life, something I'll always cherish, getting to work that closely with Walter and getting to record some of his songs that people hadn't heard yet," remembered Lovett in a 1998 interview with the Chronicle ("Lyle Lovett," Sept. 10, 1998). "Walter's arrangements were just always so precise and thought out musically and lyrically. His songs are so thoughtful and complete and so honest – from his heart.
"Walter was like that as a person."
When he died at age 47, Hyatt left behind a mass of unfinished recordings, songs that his friends affirm are some of his finest work. Now, a decade on, those songs are finally beginning to be heard with the release of Some Unfinished Business, Volume One, a collection curated by his widow, Heidi, and featuring studio contributions from David Ball; Champ Hood's son, Warren; Dobro legend Jerry Douglas; plus Carrie Rodriguez, Allison Moorer, the Jordanaires, and Hyatt's 18-year-old son, Taylor. The album is a testament to Hyatt's timeless talent, a voice and art transcending his loss, hauntingly elegant and inconsolably beautiful.
When You're Alone
"I didn't want Walter to go," says Heidi Hyatt from her home in Nashville. "I loved him, and I have always felt like I was still with him. I raised my kids kind of with the idea that their dad was still there, that he was sort of only on the road. It would be like, 'Dad would like that,' or, 'What do you think Dad would say to that?' They were raised with me and with Walt, with his values. And having his voice and his likeness around, I think they felt really close to him. Other people, other families, when they lost someone on [the flight], that was it; they didn't have these recordings, the voice and pictures and the images."
The presence and memory of Hyatt scored into reels of magnetic tape offered a powerful, if incomplete, solace to those he left behind, especially his children: Haley, his daughter from a previous marriage; Taylor, who was only 6 when his father died; and then-8-month-old Rose. When Heidi received word of the crash, she immediately felt the responsibility to ensure Walter's voice was preserved and shared.
"I just knew when he died that, somewhere in a bigger design, it had to be that his music would be heard still in some other way," she recalls. "Friends and fans came to me and brought recordings that they had, and we went through the archives of studio work he had done in the last year and even some recordings he had that we kind of pulled up, a lot of material that hadn't gotten finished."
As artists gathered in the Nashville studio to finish his songs, the magic of Hyatt's music mingled with the palpable sadness of his absence. The grief was so strong that although the arrangements and recordings were finished nearly five years ago, Heidi has only now been able to follow through on the promise to distribute the songs with the help of David Dorris, who established the King Tears label to ensure the album's release.
"Now I feel like I can stand here and talk about it without breaking down and hurting other people with my own raw emotions," she acknowledges. "Even two years ago, to talk about it too much was just sad, so sad. Going in the studio, I got to where I could hear his voice, and I know a lot of people when they put this record on, they're not good for a while. It's so intimate, and you just feel like he's singing to you about the sadness that's there.
"I cried a lot in the studio," she sighs. "It's tough, and it's beautiful. There were tears of joy to just simply look at what we have, how beautiful these recordings are. And what if there were nothing, if he hadn't worked on it? It's like scrambling for that roll of film that had a picture, and you can't find it.
"But we had, and it's Walter, and it's beautiful."
To hear Walter's older brother, George, tell it, the Hyatts lived an idyllic childhood. Spartanburg, S.C., is a small city tucked into the northwest corner of the state along the sloping foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"Spartanburg was a lot of fun; we didn't know any better," laughs George Hyatt with an easy Southern drawl. "We grew up ramblin' in the woods and the fields all over the place. We grew up with that happy freedom to go and do and be, just to play or think or go climb a tree. To us, it was a very pleasant, happy time."
The small Hyatt family cabin sat on 13 acres just on the outskirts of town, thick forest and broad, fertile fields surrounding the home. Simpson Hyatt was a small-office defense attorney, often receiving payment Atticus Finch-like: in fresh vegetables and what his clients could spare. Emma Hyatt, who had studied music at nearby Converse College, taught Walter, George, and their younger sister, Kathy, to play the piano and took them to occasional symphonies and operas at her alma mater.
Nicknamed "the Hub City" because of its culmination of transportation routes, Spartanburg was also a confluence of musical styles. Bluegrass flowed down from the mountains while soul swept up from the South and Nashville country trucked in from the west. Spartanburg bred the Marshall Tucker Band but also boasted blues legend Pink Anderson. It provided a rich musical heritage that Uncle Walt's Band encompassed fully.
"We listened to everything," says David Ball, who joined Hyatt and Hood to form Uncle Walt's Band in 1969. "We weren't only adventurous playing music but listening to stuff. A lot of people were confused by our music, and I think that if we had maintained that Spartanburg connection, it would help define that."
Taking its name from the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band," the trio quickly became a local favorite. From the start, its shows were enthusiastic and virtuosic affairs, with Hyatt playing rhythm guitar to Hood's blazing lead and David Ball handling the upright bass. All three contributed to the songwriting, but Hyatt, the oldest of the three, emerged as the charismatic centerpiece.
"Walter was a great showman," says George Hyatt. "He could stand there in the middle of a crowded bar in the old days and everybody's clinkin' glasses and hollerin' and carryin' on, and he'd walk out and recite 'In the White Giant's Thigh' by Dylan Thomas or something, and the whole crowd would shut up and listen to him. He'd stand up there and scratch his head and look out at the audience and just launch into it, and I swear you could hear a pin drop before he was through."
Leaving Wofford College after his second year, Walter moved the trio to Nashville in 1972, where the group gained popularity but few breaks. After nine months, Texas songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey convinced them to move to Austin.
"Austin was just the opposite [of Nashville]," remembers Ball. "More work than we could handle, sun shining all the time, friendly people. I just loved it. It was so cheap to live down there that we could do nothing but play music. And there was an audience for us. We could always get at least 75 or 80 people, and we worked the town all the time."
In 1974, the group briefly returned east to record their debut, Blame It on the Bassanova, in Charlotte, N.C. They hoped to use the album to attract attention from a major label when they returned to Austin, and they almost succeeded, thanks to the Armadillo World Headquarters and a trunkload of Lone Star.
"The Armadillo World Headquarters was kind of happening then and had gotten a lot of national press," relates Ball. "So a bunch of them loaded up about 30 cases of Lone Star beer, they took a Freddie King record and Greezy Wheels record and a bunch of local music, and they went to New York and rented a suite and started calling people up, just anybody they could – major labels, record people, song people, songwriters, performers – and they were saying, 'Hey, we're over here at the hotel; come by and see us.'
"They had a 24-hour party going on for about four days.
"They were trying to get something going, get an Armadillo record label started or something. And way back on the bottom of the pile, as Eddie Wilson tells the story, someone had given him an Uncle Walt's Band record, that first album that we had done. So they're in there just playing whatever, and they start playing that Uncle Walt's Band record, and, to hear them tell it when they got back to Austin and were calling us up, the people up there in New York, that was the record that they responded to."
Warner Bros. contacted the trio and took them in the studio, but the sessions, according to Ball, were mired by personnel and execs who had differing visions of what Uncle Walt's Band should be. The members themselves were also feeling pressure to move in new directions. Nothing came of the Warner Bros. sessions, and by 1975, the trio had disbanded.
Outside Looking Out
Following the breakup of Uncle Walt's Band, Hyatt and his first wife, Marylou, who had managed the band in Austin, moved to Nashville. Their daughter, Haley, was born later that year.
Hood soon followed Hyatt to Nashville, and the two joined forces with Tommy Goldsmith and Steve Runkle of the Pritchard Avenue Band, adding drummer Jimbeau Tabard Walsh to form the eclectic roots-rock outfit the Contenders. The Contenders lasted until 1978. By the release of their eponymous debut, the group had already split.
"I was back in Austin looking to do something," remembers Ball. "I think Walter was on his own in Nashville, so he was interested in coming down. He and I just left Champ out of it and assumed he would come," he adds with a long laugh.
In Austin, Uncle Walt's Band had achieved a posthumous popularity, setting the stage for the trio's return. The group held a weekly residency at the Waterloo Ice House, which became regularly packed events as word spread.
Marylou had stayed behind in Nashville working as Waylon Jennings' manager, and she and Walter slowly grew apart. They soon divorced amicably, and a new woman entered Walter's life.
"I was working at the Buffalo Grill and the Waterloo Ice House Downtown, all the places they played, so Walter and I kept crossing paths," recalls Heidi. "He was very sincere, but not in a sappy, soft way, because he was quite witty and quite the funny guy. There was something just very quiet and powerful about Walter. He was really loving, but he was worldly, had been around and made his mistakes. Some call him an old soul; he had a strange sensibility. But he was so sweet. He would go to a show, and he couldn't leave for hours, because everyone wanted to talk to him, and he gave everyone his time. He really got his fan base one person at a time by giving of himself that way, and anyone who knew him felt extremely close to him."
In 1980, Uncle Walt's Band recorded their second album, An American in Texas. They appeared on Austin City Limits and found a modicum of financial success, but the same impulses to stretch beyond the confines of the band's acoustic sensibilities into different directions still pulled at each of the members.
"Once again, we fell into that thing of just playing live all the time, and we never rehearsed, and if someone wrote a new song, maybe we would start doing it, but more than likely we wouldn't," says Ball. "We just kept playing what Champ would refer to as 'the Hits!' We were so in the moment that I guess you'd say we weren't really professional, but that was part of the charm."
Following a live album recorded in 1982 at Waterloo Ice House, the band split a final time in 1983. The three Spartanburg boys remained close, however, contributing to one another's recordings and often covering the others' songs.
Walter and Heidi married in 1986 and moved back to Nashville to be close to Haley, now 12 years old. Hyatt's solo career was continually frustrated in spite of, or perhaps because of, the freedom he finally had to pursue his own unique art.
In 1990, Walter and Heidi gave birth to their son, Taylor. That same year, Hyatt secured a one-album deal with MCA, resulting in the Lovett-produced King Tears. The album was Hyatt's masterpiece but far from the mainstream appeal that the label had hoped. Hyatt was one of the most admired artists in Nashville yet was left working soundboards and small sandwich shops to support his family.
Out Where the Blue Begins
In the spring of 1996, Hyatt was offered a show in Florida. Since it was the same weekend as his daughter's graduation, he was reluctant to take the gig, but the pay was too good to pass up. Friends had already comped him studio time to lay down tracks for the follow-up to 1993's Sugar Hill release, Music Town.
The Friday night show was a roaring success. Supported by his recently formed King Tears Band, Hyatt was called back for two encores with standing ovations. During the finale, he stood on the stage and recited Dylan Thomas to the crowd drawn silent. The following morning he hurried to the airport, leaving the band behind to make his flight to Virginia.
"There's so many emotions that I don't even bother to categorize," says Ball. "It's the saddest thing in the world, and yet it's the greatest music and just goes on and on. If I step off into really thinking about Uncle Walt's Band and Walter's music and Champ's music like that, at the end of the day, I can get very melancholy and frustrated. I think Walter was in a good place with his music. He was creating some great stuff, and I know he knew it. And I think that's the most important thing."
Champ Hood succumbed to cancer in November 2001, at age 49. His and Hyatt's memory and talent, however, linger indelibly within the songs they left behind, songs that continue to inspire a new generation of artists. Young groups like the South Austin Jug Band and the Belleville Outfit display the contemporary influence of Uncle Walt's Band, and both have recorded songs from the group.
"It wasn't until I was a teenager that I was really able to appreciate that music," says Warren Hood, whose eponymous solo debut later this year will feature two songs each by Hyatt and his father, Champ. "It doesn't really start making sense to you until you hit about 16 or 17, and the older you get, it's amazing how the songs keep getting better and you keep hearing new things. They are certain types of songs that keep growing on you."
In the future, Heidi plans to release more albums of Walter's archive, which includes more than 40 more unfinished songs. An extensive catalog of Uncle Walt's Band live shows also exists, thanks to Darren Appelt, who frequently recorded the band's performances beginning as early as 1970.
"I really just hope that these people who are great singers out there get to hear these songs and discover them," says Ball. "Once you get into Walter and his melodies, it's got you for life, and you will be a fan always. Everyone that got to know Walter and really heard his songs, you just can't help but be amazed, but a lot of people never saw that side; they never heard that music. He would write something that was really great, and then he'd move on. He was always interested in the next song."
David Ball, Warren Hood, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Colin Gilmore, and the Belleville Outfit will celebrate Walter Hyatt with a special set at the 2007-08 Austin Music Awards at the Austin Music Hall, Wednesday, March 12.