Champ Hood: 1952 to 2001

Toni Price took the stage at the Continental Club on November 6, as she does every Tuesday night for happy hour -- but the chair at stage right was empty. In its place rested a bushel of flowers, a scattering of guitar picks and mementos, a small fiddle-playing stuffed doll, a longneck beer, and a beautiful framed photo of Champ Hood. Three days earlier, Champ had died at age 49 after privately battling cancer for several months. Few people outside a small circle of friends and family knew of Champ's struggle until a few days before the end, but the outpouring of sentiment that followed his death was overwhelming. I wasn't the only one who gladly waited in line for two hours to get into the overflowing Continental that night, and hundreds more turned out for a formal memorial service a few days later. We came to pay our respects to a man who made our lives better through music. As a guitarist and fiddler with countless Austin artists over three decades, Carroll DesChamps Hood was one of the town's most valuable players, the kind of musician who instinctively knew how to bring out the emotion in a song. His instrumental versatility and easygoing personality were a perfect fit for Price's long-running Tuesday-evening engagements. "When I first heard him with Toni, I was knocked out," said David Ball, Champ's former mate in Uncle Walt's Band and a friend since their junior-high days in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "It was a little more structured than Uncle Walt's Band was, and I thought that was really good. Champ thrived in that situation." It was Uncle Walt's Band -- led by Walter Hyatt, who was killed in the Valujet plane crash in Florida in 1996 -- that originally brought Champ to Austin. Their unique acoustic blend of country, folk and jazz made them local legends in the 1970s, though they never quite reached beyond a regional sphere of influence. In the 1980s, Champ was best-known for co-hosting a Wednesday supper series at Threadgill's Restaurant with Jimmie Dale Gilmore. They played their own set each week and also invited a couple guests to play a few songs. Champ frequently sat in with the guests, effortlessly reeling off exquisite fiddle runs that would make a young songwriter's day. (Indeed, he did so for me on one of those Wednesday nights.) His focus shifted to Toni's Tuesday gigs in the '90s, though he also stayed plenty busy with studio sessions and occasional tours, most prominently as an occasional member of Lyle Lovett's Large Band. On record, his credits are found everywhere from the Bad Livers to Richard Buckner to Evan Johns to Tish Hinojosa to Jerry Jeff Walker. Champ's resume also included plenty of lesser-known adventures. I was amused to find his name on a 1994 record by former Dead Kennedys leader Jello Biafra, and was equally surprised to learn that he had played briefly in Guy Clark's band in the mid-'70s. Mostly, though, I'll remember those Tuesdays at the Continental with Toni, from modest beginnings in 1992 with maybe two dozen of us in the crowd, to the joyous packed houses a few years later. And now I'll remember November 6, 2001, when Toni and her band eloquently rendered their songs without Champ, leaving a hole in the music as wide as Congress Avenue. And yet when she played "I Doubt If It Does To You", we could hear Champ's fiddle -- in our minds, in our hearts, in our memories. And then we heard it in his son. Halfway through the second set, Toni introduced 18-year-old Warren Hood, the only person who could fill Champ's void -- not only because he's family, but also because he's one of the most extraordinary fiddlers to emerge in ages, possessed with the kind of talent that likely will take him anywhere he wishes in the years to come. There was really only one song that mattered: "The Old Fiddler's Waltz", a Richard De La Vega tune from Toni's Sol Power album. As the strings of Warren's fiddle swooned sweetly beneath his fingers, Toni sang the words I will always remember: His smile is sincere As he stands on the stage And plays on forever The old fiddler's waltz.