When Champ Hood succumbed to cancer last fall at age 49, we lost a musician's musicianone of the most talented sidemen not just in Texas but anywhere.
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THE PREACHER EULOGIZED CHAMP Hood with Scripture; the musicians did it with song. Dozens of them were at his funeral—famous ones like Lyle Lovett, David Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Kelly Willis, and also the working stiffs of the Austin music scene. Along with seven hundred fans and friends, they crowded into the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Central Austin, lining the walls, packing the vestibule, and standing outside and listening on speakers set up for the overflow. Ball sang Champ’s best-known song, “High Hill,” accompanied by Warren Hood, Champ’s eighteen-year-old son, on fiddle. Lovett, with cellist John Hagen, joined Warren on the Walter Hyatt song “I’ll Come Knocking.” Other musicians who had played with Champ in the past twenty years played his songs or told stories of his years in Austin and his native Spartanburg, South Carolina. Afterward, everyone stood around in groups telling more stories. It was like one of those scenes at a beloved policeman’s funeral, where the fallen officer is mourned by an army of his brethren as a “cop’s cop.”
Carroll DesChamps “Champ” Hood was a musician’s musician. He lived for the moment: the melody played, the chorus sung, the beer drunk, the companionship shared. The now was all important. He was about as laid-back as you could be, self-deprecating and humble, with a sly smile and a dry sense of humor. Though he was known as an Austin sideman, his reputation carried much further. “Every musician from Texas knew him,” says Ball, a high school friend who played with him for years and is now a country star in his own right. Champ was self-taught, a natural, one of the most gifted musicians in the state, yet there was more to him than that. You might find someone else who could read charts or talk music theory, but you’d never find someone with more soul. Or more decency. “He had a true heart,” says Lovett. “He was absolutely true in everything he did, faithful to everybody in his life.” Singer Toni Price, who leads a band that Champ played in for more than nine years, remembers, “He never said a discouraging word about anybody.” This is not the way of most musicians, a backbiting, envious lot. But Champ wasn’t like other musicians. He didn’t care about fame or getting his own name out front. “He would inspire you to do your best work,” says Mandy Mercier, who often sang with Champ at the Wednesday night Supper Sessions he led at Threadgill’s restaurant in Austin. “I always felt he wanted me to shine.”
Champ played guitar and fiddle with dozens of bands during his career and backed up better-known artists on more than sixty albums (for a complete list, log on to texasmonthly.com/champhood); he was an underachiever who somehow achieved more than most people dream of. But when he finally got around to doing a solo album last summer, he had been diagnosed with several kinds of terminal cancer and was too weak to finish it. He died on November 3 at age 49. Friends pitched in to help complete his debut, Bon Haven, which was released January 20 by South Congress Records. It’s a fine recording but an imperfect measure of his legacy. Champ will be best remembered for the time he put in backing everyone else.
And not just sophisticates like Lovett. Champ spent plenty of time elevating the music of rock and roll dilettantes like me. Ten years ago, when I put together a tribute album to a brilliant but obscure singer-songwriter named Jo Carol Pierce, I muscled up the courage to ask him to accompany me on the fiddle. I knew him a little and had once played with him at Threadgill’s, but I wasn’t in his league. He was an all-star. To my surprise, he said yes; he even seemed flattered that I had asked. “Heaven and Hell (Their Exact Locations)” was a beautiful song about love, identity, and the heaven and hell inside us. My arrangement was almost ascetic, and in the studio Champ told me he’d keep playing the solo until he came up with something I liked. That didn’t take long, of course. On the third take he played a gently soaring passage that translated all the longing of the words into pure emotion; a minimalist skeleton now had a heart.
We recorded again two years ago when I called to ask him to play violin on an album I was recording. “I don’t know about violin, but I can try some fiddle,” he said in his gentle South Carolina drawl, laughing his easy laugh. He played with Hagen on a couple of songs, and he and Price sang a sweet, high harmony on a third. We sat around afterward drinking and laughing, and I remember his liquid, raspy cough. I didn’t think too much of it; it was a typical smoker’s cough, and he smoked a lot. I left around midnight to go home, but Champ stuck around, smoking and drinking and laughing with Price and producer Jud Newcomb. For him this was the second-best part of being a musician.
HE WAS BORN IN 1952 in Spartanburg, a small city with a rich musical history. His mother was a housewife and his father, who had played clarinet in the Louisiana State University marching band, owned a lumberyard. Champ picked up a family Dobro at age eleven or twelve. He took lessons for three months, his brother, Robin, recalls, “and then he said, ‘That’s all I need.’ From then on he was self-taught. He’d hear something and be able to play it right back.” Soon he picked up the guitar and began playing in rock and roll bands. “Even back in junior high, he already was known as a great player,” Ball says. When Champ was a senior he met up with a college student named Walter Hyatt, a guitarist who loved the Beatles—particularly their vocal harmonies. They first played together in the Walter Hyatt Consort; Ball later joined them, and the three then formed Uncle Walt’s Band.
The three friends all wrote and sang, and they worked up beautiful, unpredictable harmonies in tightly arranged songs with complicated rhythms. They made eclecticism their reason for being, tracing folk songs back to their sources, learning old English ballads and Beatles songs, giving their own songs a sophisticated swing. Uncle Walt’s got real popular real quick, outgrew Spartanburg, and moved to Nashville. At a club in 1972 the band caught the ear of Willis Alan Ramsey, a Texas singer-songwriter who would soon be a darling of the progressive-country movement. Ramsey persuaded them to come to Texas to play some shows and record with him. They did and stayed for a year, but nothing ever came of it, so they moved back to Spartanburg, eventually making their eponymous debut record on their own.
Uncle Walt’s toured for a while around the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Texas (Champ taught himself to play the fiddle while riding around in the van) and then disbanded in 1975. Champ and Hyatt moved back to Nashville and played in a soulful rock band called the Contenders until 1978. Ball called the two back to Austin for Uncle Walt’s reunions that went so well the group got back together again, playing almost every Friday and Saturday night in 1978 and 1979 before near-sellout crowds at the old Waterloo Ice House on Congress Avenue. “It was real entertainment on one level but real serious music on another,” says Stephen Clark, who owned the Waterloo. The band’s rapport with the audience was remarkable; shows were communal, like family affairs. The three friends were gentle, handsome young men who said funny things on the stage and played smooth, swinging music. Champ was the most fun-loving of the trio but also the shyest about the limelight. When Clark lit the stage so he could take photos of the band, he remembers, “Champ would literally duck out of the spotlight.”
You can hear the seventies in Uncle Walt’s (and see it in the mustaches and hairstyles—Champ looked like Robert Plant), but you can also hear the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. One night they’d cover Leadbelly and Bob Wills, the next Neil Young and Fats Domino. Fans would sing along with favorites like Champ’s “High Hill,” probably the group’s most popular song. Clark remembers musicians, especially the younger ones, cutting short their own gigs to watch Champ and the others play. Sitting in the crowd would be people like Jerry Jeff Walker, Lucinda Williams, Nanci Griffith, and Lovett, then a shy singer-songwriter.
Uncle Walt’s appeared on Austin City Limits in 1980, toured around Texas (Lovett often opened for them in College Station), and made a few poorly distributed albums. But they couldn’t break out of Texas, so they broke up again, in 1983. That year Champ and his wife, Elizabeth Haynes, had a son, Warren. While Hyatt and Ball pursued solo careers, Champ backed up Ramsey, Walker, and other front men. Along with Hyatt and Ball, he played and sang on Lovett’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band; he also played on Hyatt’s major-label debut, King Tears.
In the late eighties Champ began playing with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was hosting a weekly Wednesday night gig at Threadgill’s backed by members of his band. The likes of Williams, Butch Hancock, and Tish Hinojosa would get up with Gilmore and his group and perform old country, folk, and traditional songs for a dinnertime crowd. Soon Champ was co-hosting, and when Gilmore got a major-label deal, Champ took over the Threadgill’s Troubadours, playing fiddle and guitar and singing lead and backing vocals. The group never rehearsed in its eleven years, but they were so good they never had to.
Champ spent the nineties playing with the Troubadours, backing up people he’d once shared the stage with, like Ball and Hyatt (who died in a plane crash in 1996), and playing with dozens of bands and appearing on scores of albums. “He was comfortable in his sideman’s status: Sit down, play his music, walk away, and be done,” says his old friend Brad Brobisky. Bandleaders knew that he had a way with a song, that he listened and knew how to play as well as how not to play. “He wasn’t a hot-licks, flash type of player,” says Ball, “though he could do that. He would become an integral part of the song.”
As Warren grew older, Champ turned down touring work so he could spend time with him (he and his wife divorced in 1985). His main gig the past decade was playing with Price, whose Tuesday night “Hippie Hour” early show at the Continental Club was usually standing room only. Price was the main attraction, but the crowds also came to see Champ and her other back-up musicians—including, at various times, guitarists Newcomb, Rich Brotherton, and Casper Rawls—playing against each other as if their lives depended on it. He had long since stopped writing his own songs; he was too busy learning other people’s, which Ramsey, for one, regrets. “Everybody loved Champ as a person, a musician, and a singer,” he says, “but I think he was a better writer than anything else. He had an amazing dry wit.”
LAST SPRING CHAMP BEGAN feeling terrible and took to his bed for several weeks. In early April he started coughing up blood and went to see a doctor, whose diagnosis must have shocked even someone so laid-back: He had cancer in his lungs, bones, and liver and might live another year. True to form, he didn’t tell anyone. He went in for surgery but told friends the operation was to remove his gall bladder. They suspected otherwise, especially when he lost weight as a result of chemotherapy, but he would always claim to be fine. “He didn’t want to make anyone sad,” says Price. This public person and ensemble player was very private and very solo. The whole situation was made even more difficult by the fact that his friend Mambo John Treanor, who often sat in with Price’s band, was also dying of cancer.
In August Champ called producer Marvin Dykhuis, an old friend, and said he was finally ready to make a solo album. “I’d been trying to get him to do something for years,” says Dykhuis. “Being the underachieving slacker that he was, he didn’t want to do it.” Champ didn’t reveal the reason for the sudden inspiration. He told Warren about his cancer in late September. “He made it funny,” says Warren. “He called it his ‘tumor rumor.'” The conversation took less than a minute, and afterward they never talked about it again. Champ told Dykhuis in October, on their last day in the studio. Not long after, Dykhuis told Champ’s closest friends and gathered them for a sort of intervention. Champ, fading fast, finally let people help him. “He was so private,” says Warren. “He didn’t want to inconvenience anybody. It was a big deal for him to accept help. He was driving himself to and from chemo.” His friends helped move him to an old house in the Hill Country owned by longtime friend and bass player Ivan Brown.
When I heard he was dying, I was like many people—I wanted to do something, if only to let him know how much his music had meant to me. But even some close friends like Ramsey and Lovett weren’t able to see him one last time—he would be gone before they got the chance. (When Lovett talked to Champ on the phone in late October and asked him why he was being so secretive, his friend replied dryly, “I told everybody, whatever you do, don’t tell Lyle.”) Two days after moving to the house, one of Champ’s doctors delivered the bad news: His liver had shut down, and he had only three to five days to live. In his last week, Champ would sleep all day and stay up all night—in truth, not that different from his normal routine. He didn’t talk about what was coming. “He wanted to be treated like a normal person,” says Warren. He got a surge of energy right before the end, staying up for 48 hours straight—hanging out with friends on the FP, as he called the front porch, watching TV, and strumming his guitar in bed while Price sang. Then he went to sleep, slept most of the day and night, and died early the next morning.
IN HIS FINAL MONTHS, CHAMP had two main concerns: make his album and be with his son. Dykhuis suggested they get some of the great guitarists he’d played with in the past to appear on the CD. Champ politely demurred, telling Dykhuis, “This is my turn to do my record.” He clearly saw his debut as his epitaph, though it’s not the complete Champ Hood album. Most of the songs are his—a few from the Uncle Walt’s days (“Chain of Emotion,” “Sad As It Seems”) and a few he wrote for the album. Unfortunately, he never got to write lyrics for the new ones, so they wound up as instrumentals. The only finished new song, and the only song Champ completed in years, was one he wrote for a Contenders reunion a year ago. “Bon Haven” is a sweet tune in which he sings “I wanna go home” in a tired voice. He was so sick that the slide fell from his finger three times while the song was being recorded.
Champ told Dykhuis he wanted the album to sound like a Ray Charles record, so he played electric as well as acoustic guitar, and he was backed by a few old friends (Price, Marcia Ball, and his son, Warren, among others, added tracks after his death). He played his electric guitar parts while he sang his preliminary, or “scratch,” vocals, which are generally sung to help guide the band through the recording. Once high and shining, his voice has a mellow vibrato that often falters. He’d hoped to redo all his scratch vocals when he felt better, but he never got the chance. All over the album you can hear Champ wheezing, his voice cracking, the air running out. Yet there’s so much life in the lazy, soulful playing and singing, especially when you consider how weak he was. As rich as the Uncle Walt’s albums were, they were sometimes smoothed to death; Bon Haven is rough and vital, with an R&B sway, even on the countryish songs. At the end of “Baby What Do You Want Me to Do,” Champ laughs—in his last days he was having fun, doing what he loved to do.
ON THE NIGHT OF HIS father’s funeral, Warren and his band of young traditionalists played a packed show at Momo’s, a club on West Sixth Street in Austin. Many in the crowd had spent the day mourning Champ, and now they were there to check out his son, the prodigy. Warren began playing classical violin in junior high and was one of two high school students to play with the Austin Symphony Orchestra last year. He debuted with his father at Threadgill’s at age twelve and learned early on how to improvise, something that many classical players never do. At Momo’s, people shook their heads when Warren played a minute-long classically imbued intro to an old Uncle Walt’s song, “Green Tree.” It was almost like he was showing off, something his father rarely did. Warren, with high cheekbones and his father’s twinkling eyes, has the poise of a pro and the good looks that Charlie Sexton had as a teenager. “He’s going to be famous,” says Dykhuis. “He has so much talent and a good attitude.”
Though Warren currently plays three nights a week, sometimes backing up stars like Bruce and Charlie Robison, he wants to learn his instrument even better and will attend the prestigious Berklee College of Music, in Boston, in the fall on a scholarship. But he wants to come back when he graduates and play in the clubs. “The gigs are always going to be there,” he says. “With all the bands I play in now, I’m just a sideman, and all sidemen are replaceable. I want to do my own thing some day. I’d like to front a band.” He is determined to be many of the things his father wasn’t while maintaining the things his father was. Well, not all of them. Warren refuses to be laid-back. “My dad waited for things to come to him. He didn’t want a big solo career and all the responsibilities. I’m more of a go-getter.” The two used to kid each other about the father’s lack of formal training and the son’s abundance of it. Indeed, as a violinist friend of mine insists, Champ had terrible technique. But, says Warren, there are some things you can’t quantify. “From him,” he says, “I got the soul.”
After the funeral, at Momo’s, everywhere people gathered to remember Champ, they expressed disappointment at the things he left undone: good-byes unsaid, songs incomplete. He spent so much time living in the moment, but friends wish he’d cared more about the moments to come. That, of course, wasn’t Champ’s way. He had terrible technique. But from him we got the soul.