Singer-songwriter Walter Hyatt’s widow releases his unheard gems
by Michael McCall
Nashville Scene Jan. 17, 2008
Walter Hyatt never quite seemed of this world. His gentlemanly demeanor, one of elegance and wry insight, shined through in his musican orderly tastefulness that counteracted the messy, clanging, violent world around him. His music didn’t reflect his worldit provided a respite from it. He sang like Cary Grant walked through a crowded nightclub: He was a stylish, debonair fellow who resonated intelligence, compassion and romance.
Unfortunately, Hyatt didn’t stay of this world long, either. He died at 47 in a Florida jet crash that ended his life and 109 others. Even the details of that horrible day evoked Hyatt’s life and priorities: He and his band had been flown to Key West by a wealthy fan to perform a specially arranged show. Afterward, as the band headed home, Hyatt rushed to catch a different flight so he could attend his daughter’s college graduation ceremony in Virginia.
That was Hyattworshiped by a cult of devoted followers who’d go to great lengths to attend his shows or acquire his small stock of hard-to-find albums, both solo works and those of Uncle Walt’s Band, an Austin-by-way-of-South Carolina trio that Hyatt led. The wise, soft-spoken musician had devoted himself to art, family, friends and being a good guy. The very things that made him special kept holding him from reaching greater heightsright up to, and including, his tragic end.
But the tragedy also touched on another aspect of his life. Hyatt had always struggled financially, which led him to risk a cut-rate flight on a troubled airline, ValuJet, infamous for its problems. In February 1996, the Atlanta office of the Federal Aviation Administration had recommended ValuJet be grounded because of on-going safety issues. The airline had encountered 57 emergency landings in 1995 (and went on to have 57 more between January and May 1996). The potential for disaster caught up with the airline on Hyatt’s flight, which also carried a San Diego Chargers running back, Rodney Culver, and a University of Miami football star.
Now, 12 years after his death, the singer’s widow, Heidi Hyatt, has organized and produced an album of material he left behind. The album, Some Unfinished Business, was a labor of love for many who loved the artist and shared his music. Like the man singing the words he wrote, it’s a graceful, laid-back gem that is impossible to pigeonhole.
At his best, Hyatt updated the masterful ease of classic songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen, and new recordings of “Sheik of Sh-boom,” co-written with Ken Spooner and Austin Church, and the unforgettable “Going to New Orleans” would line up well next to American pop standards “Georgia” and “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road).” He wrote melodies that would have worked for Sarah Vaughan or Tony Bennett as well as they worked for singer-songwriters and country singers.
The new album features a couple of Uncle Walt Band classics, including “Motor City Madman,” which gets a string arrangement from Chris Carmichael, and “Deeper Than Love,” which has been covered by Jerry Jeff Walker. But several get first-time airings, and songs like “The Standoff,” “Rollin’ My Blues” and “Foolin’ Round” feature Hyatt at his most suave and achingly melodic.
Fittingly, the album showcases musicianship by a large collection of Austin and Nashville regulars. A Spartanburg, S.C., native, Hyatt spent part of the ’70s and ’80s in Austin before moving to Music City in 1987. Both artistic communities eagerly claim him, but as much as Hyatt enjoyed musicians of both towns, he was always something more, too. He was a worldly guy whose music was out of this world. It’s sure good to hear him again.