Flash back, for a moment, beyond the just-finished South by Southwest to last year’s SXSW. Its 10-day run had just kicked off when, in a show that wasn’t even part of the festivities, Nashville songwriter David Ball joined cousins Warren and Marshall Hood at the Saxon Pub to revisit the music of beloved 1970s-'80s Austin trio Uncle Walt’s Band.
Marveling at the magic brought back to life, listening to the sincere testimonials and lovely guest-vocal turns by Uncle Walt’s Band devotees Kelly Willis, Marcia Ball and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, I wondered how I could see anything for the rest of SXSW that would be as good as this. And I didn’t.
An encore at a larger venue was well-deserved. It comes this week, when Ball and the Hoods, along with bassist Nigel Frye and drummer Scott Metko, set up shop at Stateside at the Paramount for a two-night stand Thursday and Friday. (The Friday show sold out quickly, prompting the added Thursday show.)
And now there's more Uncle Walt’s material from the vaults to celebrate. Last year’s show coincided with the release of a 21-song anthology on the renowned archival label Omnivore. This week, Omnivore reissues the band’s self-titled first album and doubles its length by adding 11 previously unreleased tracks, a combination of studio demos and live recordings.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Ball had a handful of top-10 country hits (including “Thinkin’ Problem” and “Riding With Private Malone”), but many Austinites still remember him most fondly as the upright bassist joining guitarist Walter Hyatt and fiddler/guitarist Champ Hood in Uncle Walt’s Band. Relocating here from South Carolina in the 1970s, they quickly became one of the best bands ever to call Austin home.
Mixing folk, country, jazz and swing styles, all three members wrote original tunes that highlighted the perfect blend of their tenor voices. As Gilmore reminisced last year at the Saxon, “The three best singers in Austin were all in the same band.”
They eventually went their separate ways. Both Ball and Hyatt moved to Nashville, pursuing solo careers with major record labels. Hood stayed in Austin and played regularly with Gilmore, Toni Price and many others while touring occasionally with Lyle Lovett.
Any possibility of Uncle Walt’s Band reunions ended when Hyatt was killed in the ValuJet plane crash in Florida’s Everglades in 1996. Hood died of cancer five years later.
But soon to follow in Champ’s footsteps was his son Warren, who’s now in his mid-30s and is one of Austin’s most accomplished musicians. Meanwhile, Champ’s nephew Marshall moved here from South Carolina in 2005, playing guitar for years with local group the Belleville Outfit.
The Hood cousins have long included some Uncle Walt’s Band tunes in their own repertoires, and they’d done a few UWB tribute shows over the years. But this new opportunity to play these songs with the group’s lone surviving member is something special.
“This is the coolest thing I could imagine doing, and I think Marshall feels the same way,” Warren said on a mid-March morning with his cousin at Cosmic Coffee. Warren has been playing there semi-regularly on Tuesday nights in recent weeks, complementing his long-running Wednesday residency at ABGB.
Marshall learned to play much of the Uncle Walt’s Band catalog when he was still in high school. “I spent many, many hours sitting there and watching as many videos as I could find of Champ playing, watching where his hand was and figuring it out,” he said.
All that practice paid off in spades a couple of years ago when Ball was in Austin to play a house concert for Daren Appelt, a music gear manufacturer who recorded dozens of Uncle Walt’s Band shows at venues such as the old Congress Avenue location of Waterloo Ice House. Warren and Marshall were at that house concert, and Ball eventually called them up to join him.
“What was supposed to be an hour show wound up being about two hours as David just started calling Uncle Walt’s Band songs,” Warren recalls. “He didn’t really know that Marshall and I knew ALL of them. And they’re not easy songs to learn.
“Marshall really blows my mind with all the chords and stuff. I play some guitar and I pretend to know about music, but this guy sat down and learned all the songs, and they are hard. So we started singing them and playing them, and David’s eyes grew big and we were having fun.”
Ball has known the Hood cousins for all their lives, but until recently, their interactions were more a matter of “seeing them off and on over the years,” he said by phone from Nashville last week. “We never did really do that much playing, so this is a great opportunity. These guys can swing just right, and it’s a joy.
“It’s funny, because Marshall reminds me a lot of Champ. He acts like him and looks like him; he’s always doing something that reminds me of him. Whereas Warren is kind of like Walter AND Champ. He’s a little more serious.”
Like his father, Ball says, Warren is “a natural” at playing fiddle, but he’s also taken the instrument to another level. Formal training at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music helped Warren better understand and appreciate how the music of his father’s band was well beyond what most Austin pickers were playing in the clubs back then.
“A lot of the music that they wrote and played, you can’t just write a chord chart out for it and be like, ‘Oh, that’s G6, or C, whatever,’” Warren said. “There was a specific voice leading a melody hidden in the chords. So the hand shapes are not conventional hand shapes; they’re really intricate. That’s why the songs are so hard to learn. It’s like learning Bach, and then singing on top of that. Every part is a melody.”
Ball concurs. “It wasn’t really acoustic fiddle music. They had a lot of that kind of stuff, but at the same time, the music went a lot further beyond that. It’s very hard music to pick; it’s not like a back porch, sitting around, plucking on an acoustic guitar thing.”
Perhaps that’s why many of their peers appreciated the trio so much. “The great musicians in Austin responded to what Walter was writing,” Ball said. “They took to us because there were three guys singing together and we had this harmony thing going. It was kind of like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul & Mary format, but we really weren’t like that at all (musically).”
Among those drawn in by the Uncle Walt’s Band sound was a young Lyle Lovett, who has sung the group’s praises for decades and frequently plays their music on the house PA system as concertgoers arrive for his show. Both Ball and the Hoods hinted that Lovett might well be around for the Stateside shows.
Might he sit in for a song or two? “Let’s make this an open invitation,” Ball said with a laugh. “We don’t want to apply any pressure.”
Lovett first brought Hyatt’s song “I’ll Come Knockin’” to wide attention when he recorded it for his 1998 album “Step Inside This House,” a tribute to Texas songwriters who influenced him. The original Uncle Walt’s Band version of the song finally surfaced on last year’s “Anthology” collection.
The bonus tracks on the reissue out this week attest to the thorough archival work of Heidi Hyatt, Walter’s widow, and reissue co-producer Mark Michel. “A lot of these songs I didn’t even know about until a couple years ago,” Warren says. “It’s really obscure Uncle Walt’s Band material that even the die-hard fans don’t have live recordings of.”
At the Stateside, the focus will be on Uncle Walt’s Band material, but Ball and the Hoods will also play some of their own songs. Ball’s big hits “Thinkin’ Problem” and “Riding With Private Malone” are likely selections. His new record, “Come See Me,” includes a song called “Little Ranchero” that Hyatt and Hood used to play when Ball would go see them in Spartanburg, S.C., just before Uncle Walt’s Band formed.
Warren says that part of the joy for him in these shows is drawing a line for fans of Ball’s country hits back to the trio’s work.
“There’s a lot of people who are big David Ball fans who have no idea about Uncle Walt’s Band,” he said. “And if you play the two side by side to them, they can’t believe it’s the same person. But for me, because I’ve studied the whole thing and been there for most of it, I can hear the connection.”
In Austin, it’s easier to find the die-hard Uncle Walt’s fans — to a point. “There’s a handful of people who are still here who were there and remember the live shows,” Warren said. “When we sold out the first night (at the Stateside), that was basically the 300 people who remember. So what we’re trying to do with the second show is to reach some of the people who had never heard about it who would get into it, and should know about it.”
A tantalizing question lingers: Have Ball and the Hoods written any new music together? “We have not,” Ball said, “but that would be fantastic. I would welcome doing something like that. We could do a whole new record of new music.”
Perhaps it could lure Ball back to Austin for a spell. “Oh, I would love it,” he said. "I miss Texas all the time. Maybe I could find my old flip-flops that I left down there, and eat some Mexican food. That sounds perfect to me.”