REVIEW: The Contenders Self-Titled


The Contenders – Self-Titled

This band came from a combination of musicians from North Carolina & South Carolina who rose from the same seeds that gave us the wonderful Uncle Walt’s Band (a blend of bluegrass harmonies & country music). This self-titled CD was originally recorded in Nashville, TN (1977) & initially produced by The Contenders & David Robert.

There are 12 songs sculpted by 4 songwriters & lead vocalists who in unison managed to provide excellent musicality. The reissue was produced by Ben Runkle & Tommy Goldsmith & The Contenders (Drops July 28–Southern Moon Records) & is loaded with danceable story songs. It’s music for fun.

In 1968 on Epic Records a band called West featured Ron Cornelius & was produced by Bob Dylan’s producer Bob Johnston. They had similar tonality with varied approaches on covers of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Four Strong Winds,” Fred Neil’s “Dolphins” & “Six Days on the Road.” I’m not making a comparison but showing a musical trajectory between these bands. A more country taste developed with The Contenders (“Hollywood Girls”) & West focused more on a folky flavor (“Everybody’s Talkin’”).

Both had multiple singers & which gave each a diversified showcase. With The Contenders the songwriting was more acute & prior to his tragic death Walter Hyatt went on to a respectful solo career as Gram Parsons had. No controversy, politics, or hardline.

One punchy tune is Steve Runkle’s “Silver Cup,” with wonderful lead vocals & back-up that while not in the tradition of CSN&Y, The Eagles, or even Hot Tuna, may be closer to Sea Train or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils. The tunes coalesce into an atmosphere a step away from Country but not quite deep folk.

It’s an interesting collaboration. The instrumentation (“Chain of Emotion”) reminded me of what Gram Parsons tried to achieve & what Chris Hillman shaped on some of his solo albums. There’s nothing complicated it’s just what California singer-songwriter bands would later claim as their own genre. But this band, The Contenders — caught the early freight.

While the band never ignites with James Gang-type lead guitar the underlying impression comes from the expertise of the musicians. There’s delicacy & fluency displayed throughout the songwriting & vocalizing (“Smokey Night Life”). A worthy reissue.

Highlights – “Lean On Your Mind,” “Walking Angel,” “Hollywood Girls,” “Silver Cup,” “Chain of Emotion,” “Smokey Night Life,” “Whatever Reason,” “Talk” & “Getaway.”

Musicians – Tommy Goldsmith (vocal/guitar/mandolin/acoustic guitar solo), Champ Hood (vocal/guitar/fiddle/piano), Walter Hyatt (vocal/acoustic rhythm guitar), Steve Runkle (vocal/bass/grunge guitar) & Jimbeau Walsh (drums/bgv). Musicians on this reissue play “Getaway” a track not on the original LP by musicians also not on the original LP: Marcia Ball (vocal/piano), Warren Hood (fiddle/vocal), Willis Alan Ramsey (vocal), Jeff Barnes (saxes) & The Lunsfords (bgv).

Cover photo courtesy of Jackson DeParis. RIP: Walter Hyatt, Carroll DesChamps “Champs” Hood & Steve Runkle. The 38-minute CD @ Amazon +

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