The Contenders

About The Contenders

The Contenders are considered one of the great "could have been" bands from the progressive country scene, featuring several of the brilliant players associated with Uncle Walt's Band in combination with a pair of North Carolina pickers and songwriters. It wasn't the quality of music that kept this group from ever hitting it big, despite the adage "the worse the music, the more the people." But it very well could have been the group's name, since a band that calls itself the Contenders is going to have to compete with a religious cult, a Kinks album, a television series, a film, and an eight-piece Minneapolis ska band, not to mention the category of shreeves running for public office that refer to themselves as "contenders" as well. The Contenders under discussion here originally formed in Nashville in the early '70s. Singer and guitarist Walter Hyatt and Champ Hood, a pro on fiddle as well as guitar and vocals, joined up with Steve Runkle and Tommy Goldsmith. Hyatt and Hood were two of the three members of Uncle Walt's Band, a group that had formed while still in high school in Spartanburg, SC. Drummer Jimbeau Walsh consolidated the Contenders lineup, which boasted a whopping (or horrifying, depending on one's point of view and band politics) four songwriters and lead vocalists.
Fans of the band tend to feel the wonderful harmonies and ace picking was severely overlooked by the country rock audience. The success of groups in this genre, such as the Eagles, could have been the Contenders'. Yet not a single recording made by the Eagles had the complexity or musical interest of the Contenders, which goes a long way toward explaining one group's popularity and the other's lack of it. Ragtime and swing influences came into the band via Hyatt and Hood, while Goldsmith brought in an authentic old-time country-rock sound that is completely out of the Glenn Frey universe. Runkle's lovely ballad "Snowing Me Under" revealed another side to the group. As much praise as it received from critics, Light From Carolina, Vol. 1 was unable to do much for the group's career, because unfortunately, the Contenders had broken up and were no longer in the contending when the album was released. Hyatt and Hood continued on with a re-formed Uncle Walt's Band into the early '80s, followed by solo careers for both and a busy schedule as a fiddle session man for Hood. In 1997, Hyatt died in the awful ValuJet crash in the Everglades. Runkle remained in Nashville as a writer and player, working and recording with artists such as David Olney and Tom House. Goldsmith, on the other hand, became a journalist while Walsh is supposedly in Hawaii doing who knows what. Of interest to song collectors obsessed with American cities would be Runkle's "Greensboro Blues," supposedly inspired by Olney's "Original Greensboro Blues." Other songs about Greensboro include "Greensboro Woman" by Townes Van Zandt and yet another "Greensboro Blues," this one by Bruce Piephoff, the only one of these jokers who actually lives in Greensboro. The Contenders, minus Goldsmith, who was recovering from an operation, backed Olney up on short tours in the late '70s. ~ Eugene Chadbourne