The Player

When Champ Hood succumbed to cancer last fall at age 49, we lost a musician's musician—one of the most talented sidemen not just in Texas but anywhere.
SOUL MAN: Champ (pictured in 1992) "had a true heart," says Lyle Lovett.
Photograph by Steven Clark Gallery

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

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