Singer and songwriter Walter Hyatt was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on October 25, 1949. He was the son of Simpson and Emma Hyatt and grew up in the family cabin on the outskirts of town. Hyatt's early musical influences included his attorney father, who sang such songs as "Darkness on the Delta" in the home for the family, and his mother, who taught Walter and his siblings to play the piano. The Hyatts listened to everything from classical music to Louis Armstrong; Walter's older brother, George ("Buzz"), favored rock-and-roll and rhythm and blues. Hyatt's favorite musical styles included British ballads, folk, and blues. He was also influenced by Carolina coastal music and bluegrass. Some of the most important musicians in his life were Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Django Reinhardt, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams.
When Hyatt began to play the guitar, he experimented with blending jazz, black gospel, and pop music styles. By combining a variety of styles with increasingly sophisticated chord structures and a rich baritone voice he soon developed a unique style. Hyatt formed Uncle Walt's Band, the group with which he achieved his greatest musical success, in Spartanburg in 1969. The acoustic trio included Champ Hood and David Ball. In 1972 Hyatt moved the band to Nashville, where his unique melding of swing, country, and jazz made the group popular in the local club circuit. Singer-songwriter Willis Alan Ramsey persuaded Hyatt to move to Austin in 1973. There, Hyatt, Hood, and Ball attracted a following of musicians who appreciated the group's three-part harmonies and eclectic arrangements.
At the height of their popularity, Uncle Walt's Band appeared on Austin City Limits and produced four independent releases: Uncle Walt's Band in 1974, An American in Texas in 1980, Uncle Walt's Band Recorded Live in 1982, and 6-26-79 in 1988. In 1991 Sugar Hill Records re-released these four albums as a two-compact disk set entitled The Girl on the Sunny Shore and An American in Texas Revisited. Although the members of Uncle Walt's Band went their separate ways to pursue solo careers in 1983, they often played together until the early 1990s. They also performed in various combinations with other musicians. In 1976 Hyatt and Hood played with the Contenders, a Nashville folk-rock band. In 1989 Hyatt, Hood, and Ball reunited to play and sing backup on "Once Is Enough," the closing song on Lyle Lovett's Large Band album. Hood and Ball also accompanied Hyatt on his solo albums in the early 1990s. Hyatt and Hood performed as a duo at the Kerrville Folk Festival in 1992. In October 1995 (coincidentally, on Hyatt's forty-sixth birthday) Hyatt, Hood, and Ball joined several other artists at Threadgill's Restaurant in Austin to record the "live" album Threadgill Supper Session: Second Helpings. A few other recordings featuring Hyatt's music include the Kerrville 1980 album, the movie soundtrack from Clay Pigeons (1998), James Hyland's 2000 CD release, and The Contenders: Light from Carolina, Volume 1 (2000).
Hyatt produced two major solo albums: the jazzy King Tears, coproduced by Lyle Lovett for MCA in 1990, and the swinging Music Town, for Sugar Hill Records in 1993. He also produced some independent recordings, including Fall Through To You, in the mid-1980s. Hyatt's voice has been described as sultry, at times creaky, but always as a versatile, soulful baritone. He played in a variety of Texas venues, including Threadgill's and the Waterloo Ice House in Austin and Corky's and the Anderson Fair Retail Restaurant in Houston, as well as at Austin's South by Southwest music conference and the Kerrville Folk Festival.
By 1995 he had formed a new band called King Tears, named after his 1990 album. Hyatt and the four-piece band had been working on new album material at the time of his death on May 11, 1996, when he and 109 other people died in the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades. He was survived by his wife of ten years, Heidi Narum Hyatt; a son, Taylor; a daughter, Rose; and Haley, a daughter from a previous marriage.
Lovett, one of Hyatt's biggest fans, adopted Uncle Walt's Band's swing and jazz combination. Before his debut on the national music scene Lovett opened for Uncle Walt's band. Once Lovett became a success in his own right he helped Hyatt produce King Tears and supported Hyatt as a solo performer by including Hyatt as his big band's opening act on the road. Other musicians influenced by Hyatt include Marcia Ball and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
A Walter Hyatt bench beside Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) in Austin provides a memorial for Hyatt's many fans. After Hyatt's death many musicians participated in benefits, tributes, and memorials to him. Champ Hood, Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, Mandy Mercier, Toni Price, David Heath, Christine Albert, Erica Wheeler, Darcie Deaville, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Jim Roonie, and Butch Hancock performed tributes on radio, at Waterloo Ice House, and at Threadgill's within days of the crash. Willis Alan Ramsey, B. J. Thomas, and Lyle Lovett sang at a benefit for Hyatt's widow and children at the Ryman Auditorium (the former location of the Grand Ole Opry) in May 1996. Lovett also paid tribute to his mentor and friend by recording four of Hyatt's songs on a double-CD set, Step Inside This House (1998). In 1998 the Austin City Council recognized Hyatt with a certificate of appreciation signed by Mayor Kirk Watson. That same year Hyatt was inducted into the Austin Chronicle's Texas Music Hall of Fame. Ramsey and Lovett participated in a televised memorial to Hyatt on Austin City Limits in 1999. His widow championed the effort to complete and issue a number of Hyatt's unfinished recordings, a project that culminated in the releases of Some Unfinished Business, Volume One (2007) and Some Unfinished Business, Volume Two (2009). Walter Hyatt was inducted into the Austin Music Memorial in 2011.