They Should Have Been Contenders
Douglas Corner show raises Nashvilles rock&roll Atlantis
The Tennessean - May 31, 2000
By Peter Cooper, staff writer
Its straight from Harry Connick, Jr. to The Contours as far as the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia
of Rock & Roll is concerned.
The Contenders, Nashville's great lost rock band of the 1970s, are nowhere to be found
in that or any other accepted history of the music. "We probably werent meant for a huge,
mass audience, although we thought we were," said Nashville bass player Steve Runkle,
one of four principal songwriters in the band, which broke up 22 years ago but will regroup
Thursday for a show at Douglas Corner Café.
"It was good music, though," Runkle continued. "I always say we were eclectic when
eclectic wasnt cool."
Runkles assessment is on the money. This is music that would endure in a world of sonic
righteousness, yet the Contenders problems were multi-fold as far as commercial viability
There was no front man in particular, as songwriters Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood, Tommy
Goldsmith and Runkle sang lead on various songs. The songs were intelligent, melodic
and well-crafted, but far too disparate in style and execution to be considered radio-ready.
And the notion of a soul-tinged rock band with fiddles and mandolins sounds like a natural
idea in todays age of alt.country and roots rock, but it didnt jibe well with the disco age.
"I guess we just got forgotten." said Austin, Texas, guitarist/fiddler Champ Hood, best
known as a member of Uncle Walt's Band (a trio which also included David Ball and the
late Walter Hyatt, both of Nashville) and as a Texas Music Hall of Famer.
Thursday's show should go a long way toward jogging memories. This is a band that
was no greater than the sum of its parts, yet its parts add up handsomely.
For starters, Hyatt's tragic death in the 1996 ValuJet crash in Florida ended a brilliant
songwriting and performing career. Hyatt was as prolific as he was esoteric, and the
songs he wrote and performed with the Contenders (many of which will be revived
at the Douglas Corner gig) are as artful and wondrous as his more celebrated work
with Uncle Walt's Band and as a solo artist. Hood is also a musician of no small
importance. A multi-instrumentalist in Lyle Lovett's Large Band for years, his fiddling
is an inspired and unusual confluence of Appalachian and western swing.
Add Runkle's fine bass playing and unearthly singing voice (he is also a hit songwriter,
having penned the Oak Ridge Boys' No.1 hit Love Song); Goldsmith's vocal mix of
Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Bill Monroe; and Jimbeau Walsh's steady backbeat
and you have an extraordinary band.
"I think we were rhythm and bluegrass, but also with a Beatles quality," Walsh
said. "Lots of times I would just be amazed at the power and grace of the songs
these guys would bring in." Walsh remembers that there was a considerable buzz
around the band at its inception, though that buzz never resulted in a major
record deal or big opportunities.
The Contenders released one self-titled album on Moonlight Records in 1978,
though it is years out-of-print and extremely difficult to find. This month marks
the limited release of Light From Carolina, a compact disc of live recordings from 1976-78.
Recorded on crude equipment by fan and friend Allen Stoddard, the 19-song album
includes five Hyatt tunes previously unavailable and a joyous rave-up of Goldsmith's
I Love My Wife.