Walter Hyatt: Some Unfinished Business

[14 February 2008]

By Steve Horowitz

Gone But Not Forgotten

Most people have heard of Walter Hyatt for two reasons. First, Lyle Lovett has championed Hyatt as a seminal influence. Lovett produced Hyatt’s lustrous first album, King Tears (1990), and has covered some of Hyatt’s best songs. Hyatt is also known because of his tragic death in the notorious ValuJet plane crash off Florida in 1996.

More people have heard of Hyatt than heard Hyatt himself. His two discs can be routinely found in the cut-out bins and discounted items at new and used record stores for a cheap price, and even then they mostly just sit there. He’s yesterday’s news whose idiosyncratic mix of folk, swing, blues, and pop no longer attracts attention. That’s a shame, but maybe one that will soon be remedied. A third Hyatt CD has just been released with 12 new songs that features contributions by old friends and fans, like singer Alison Moorer, dobro maven Jerry Douglas, fiddler extraordinaire Carrie Rodriguez, and many others.

As the title suggests, the contents of Some Unfinished Business: Volume One includes a dozen uncompleted tracks (out of 40) that were left behind when Hyatt died. The demos consisted of Hyatt singing and playing guitar by himself, but thanks to the miracle of studio production, they are now fully fleshed-out songs. This can mean everything from adding a lush string accompaniment, as on the romantic ballad “The Standoff”, to putting rockabilly-inflected vocal harmonies (by the Jordanaires, no less) on the rollicking “Reach for Me”. While one wonders what Hyatt would have done with these tunes if he were alive, there is little doubt that the appended polish makes this record a complete package wrapped up with a bow.

The most distinctive quality of Hyatt’s posthumous release is that no two songs sound alike. The different styles and sundry musicians employed give this recording a grab bag quality. Individually, each track creates a satisfying listening experience, but as a whole the disc seems oddly disjointed. Perhaps that’s an unfair criticism considering the music’s pedigree, but it should be noted. There are many times the listener gets in a groove and expects more of the same only to be smacked with something that completely breaks the mood.

That said, the disc containers some wonderful music. The opening track, “Motor City Man”, uses a honking horn section and a soulful bass line as Hyatt tells the story of the automobile industry’s rise and fall through the story of one family’s fortunes. “Deeper than Love” successfully employs bluegrass rhythms and accompaniment to evoke the memories of a simpler time. The gentle cadences of “Going to New Orleans” evoke the placid Delta breezes Hyatt sings about in his search for a better life. What these songs share in common is Hyatt’s smooth vocals. He never sings staccato. The lyrics flow like honey from his mouth.

Hyatt’s voice lures the listener in. It comes off as the expression of a long lost pal who tells you what you’ve been missing. Well, that much is true, even if you never knew him or his music before.

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