Gadfly Records is proud to announce the first-ever reissue of "The Contenders," the landmark self-titled release from the popular roots-rock band comprised of Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood, Steve Runkle, Jimbeau Walsh, and Tommy Goldsmith. Gadfly’s reissue includes extended liner notes, photos and 3 bonus tracks produced by Don Dixon for the group’s never-released follow-up album.
FROM THE LINER NOTES:
This re-release of the Contenders’ only album, along with some previously unreleased recordings with producer Don Dixon, is a document of a short-lived venture that yielded a remarkable blending of American roots music.
From 1976 until June 1978, the Nashville-based Contenders - Walter Hyatt, Champ Hood, Steve Runkle, Tommy Goldsmith and Jimbeau Walsh - got together, toured from New York City to San Antonio, built a cult following, made some memorable recordings and broke up. The recordings re-issued here represent a significant part of the group’s legacy.
"They were wonderful - just a kind of unique band," says Dixon, himself a one-of-a-kind music maker whose credits just begin with REM’s Murmur.
Says Willis Alan Ramsey, the legendary Texas singer-songwriter: "They were five of the most interesting musicians I know, and they were all in one band."
From the cuts chosen here from the band’s wealth of songs, we have Hyatt’s swinging "Lean on Your Mind"; Goldsmith’s "Talk," a rocker that would have done George Harrison proud; Hood’s "Whatever Reason," reminiscent of Carolina beach music; and Runkle’s rhythm-and-bluegrass anthem of love and home, "Light From Carolina." With Bob Wills-inspired twin guitar parts, driving rock and roll, sophisticated chord structures, and harmonies based on everything from mountain music to the Beatles to the Coasters, this collection will bring to mind a wide assortment of styles and better-known artists.
"They were just a magnet for all the different influences," Ramsey says. "You couldn’t throw too much at them. They could incorporate it all into their sound. "It was just always intuitive and pure. Pure love of the music was where they were coming from. They took many forms of music and instilled them into their own unique songs."
But as fan Marcia Ball, the Austin-based blues singer, points out, the Contenders weren’t merely trolling for a sound that might stick. "It’s sad to say as a piano player from Louisiana, but they introduced me to Professor Longhair, one of my biggest influences," Ball says. "They really understood the music. Their influences were so broad, and their taste was so good that they really knew what the best music was and picked from it. They didn’t skim. They definitely delved into the music."
Goldsmith and Runkle, friends since childhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, were still teenagers when they ran across a couple guitar-playing, folk singing lads in a Chapel Hill bar in 1971. Hyatt and Hood had ventured up from Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they were attracting a following with their tight harmonies and eclectic blend of blues, swing and mountain music."They blew my mind," says Goldsmith. He and Runkle, fans of bluegrass and soul and blues, were well inspired and made quick friends Hyatt and Hood. After only one year in college, Goldsmith was convinced by Runkle, just out of high school, to head for Nashville, where the two would have the fortune to work in the studio with former Elvis sidemen Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana and such top acoustic session players as Buddy Spicher. In Nashville, Goldsmith and Runkle, known as the Pritchard Avenue Band, again encountered Hyatt and Hood, by then working under the name Uncle Walt’s Band, a three-piece that included fellow Spartanburg musician David Ball on upright bass. The Uncle Walt’s guys soon moved onto Austin, Texas, and Goldsmith followed not long after. "(Uncle Walt’s) was the toast of the town in Austin in those days," recalls Goldsmith, who wasn’t doing badly, either - the young guitar player had accepted an invitation to be lead picker in bands led by Alvin Crow and Marcia Ball. Gigs were plentiful in Texas, but if you hoped to get songs published and play on top-selling records, Nashville was the place to be.
Meanwhile, Uncle Walt’s Band had broken up and discussions among friends led to the formation of the Contenders. Goldsmith, Hood and Hyatt moved back to Music City from Austin and Runkle roamed back from some time in Raleigh, as well. The four friends, having mainly specialized in acoustic music, decided they’d plug in electric guitars and go at it that way. A rock band needs a drummer, and acquaintance Jimbeau Walsh was brought in from Wisconsin. Walsh provided the backbeat for a kind of "songwriters-in-the-round thing," as Hyatt described the Contenders to writer Peter Cooper shortly before his death.
Don Dixon, who produced some live recordings for the band after Hyatt left, agrees that the Contenders had something special. Asked to pin down the band’s sound, he says, "They definitely fit in that country-rock thing with the Flying Burrito Brothers. But their style was pretty raw. Not slick, like Poco or something." In the 70s, though, slick sold more easily than soulful, and the Contenders broke up for good in 1978.
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