Nashville in the seventies was an exciting place if you were a young songwriter. Change was in the air and it attracted a great many young people who wanted in on it. A few became stars, many went back home, and some stayed on to fight the good fight. Among the first of that wave were Tommy Goldsmith and Steve Runkle, a couple of school friends from Raleigh, NC who played together as the Pritchard Avenue Band. They soon made contacts in the music world thanks to their memorable original songs and on-stage proficiency. Just a year later another group of high school pals from Spartanburg, SC arrived under the name Uncle Walt’s Band. David Ball, Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt made an impression on the scene thanks to their tight, jazz-inflected trio singing, hot playing, and great original songs. PAB and UWB were both acoustic acts and shared many of the same influences but had very different sounds. Together they covered most everything from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, to the Beatles and Stones, to Percy Sledge and James Brown. The five fellows soon became friends, did a lot of hanging out together, and even shared the bill on a number of shows. Eventually, though, both groups split up. A year or so later, the idea arose to form a new group to play their own material in an electric setting. Goldsmith (electric guitar), Hood (electric guitar, fiddle), Hyatt (acoustic rhythm guitar), and Runkle (electric bass) made up the front line. Drummer Jimbeau Walsh was recruited from Wisconsin and fit the others perfectly with the musicality of his style. Rehearsals began in early 1976 and in a few months they started playing both in and out of town under the guidance of agent Bobby Cudd, also a Spartanburg boy.
The Contenders never lacked for work, appearing in the music bars of Austin, all the way up to New York’s Lone Star Café, and just about every college town in between for the next two and a half years or so. They were quite popular in Nashville and pretty much the darlings of the EXIT/IN at the time. A major label record deal eluded the band, however. R&R was a rare thing in Nashville then, no matter how much country influence was present. Eventually, David Robert, owner of Cat’s Cradle, a venue in Chapel Hill, NC, decided to record the band and began his own label to do so. That was Moonlight Records, which recorded and released their only album in 1978. Trouble was, the band had broken up a few months before it came out, so it was not widely heard. The studio master tapes were acquired by Steve Runkle’s brother Ben, who had them restored and digitized, then remixed with Tommy Goldsmith and Dick Hodgin at Osceola Studio in Raleigh.
After the Contenders were over, Uncle Walt’s Band reunited and were the toast of the Austin music scene until breaking up in 1983. Tommy Goldsmith went on the be lead guitarist of the now-legendary David Olney & the X-Rays but left the band in the mid-eighties to begin a distinguished career as a journalist and author while producing albums for Olney, Tracy Nelson, and others. Steve Runkle stayed in Nashville writing, singing, and playing in various settings, finally grabbing a piece of the pie in 1983 with his “Love Song” which was a number one Country hit for the Oak Ridge Boys. Jimbeau Walsh went to work for AT&T before retiring to Hawaii, becoming Rev Jimbeau, and starting a business, Simply Divine Weddings. David Ball has a successful career as a country singer, scoring a no.1 hit in 1994 and a no. 2 in 2001. Champ Hood stayed in Austin, playing with such luminaries as Lyle Lovett as well as hosting a series of weekly shows at various spots in town. Walter Hyatt continued writing and performing in Nashville and had albums released on MCA and Sugar Hill.
Now the bad part. Walter lost his life in the Florida ValuJet crash in 1996. In late 2001, both Steve and Champ were taken by cancer. All three were not yet fifty years of age. Tommy is still writing and Jimbeau recently returned to Nashville.
It’s not easy to convey in words the appeal of the Contenders. They were bright, charming, likeable, and funny onstage and off. They could harmonize their voices to astonishing effect. They could play just as sweet or as raunchy as you like. They must have been one of the most literate bands ever, and their songs were unlike those of any other group. They told stories you could dance to and they were always quintessentially Southern.
The 2023 reissue of their 1978 album will most likely be something of a revelation for their many original fans and friends due to its vastly improved sonics and previously unseen photos. Our hope is that there will be new fans as well, who will enjoy the music and be intrigued enough to learn about one of the best groups ever to fall through the cracks of the record business, the Mighty Contenders.