Kevin Abernathy moved back to Knoxville at the end of 2001. He grew up in Madisonville, in Monroe County, and lived here briefly in the early 1990s, between a long stint in northern California and eight years in Nashville. He spent most of that time playing guitar in other people’s bands but finally decided, well into his career, that he wanted to sing his own songs.
“I got married and had a kid,” Abernathy says. “I got tired of Nashville. It’s saturated with musicians. I felt like an ant in an anthill. I wanted to go somewhere and sit and write songs. It was something I’d never done before. I was always a sidekick.”
The first couple of years he was back in town, he sat on his porch in South Knoxville and taught himself how to write songs. “I put as much into learning how to be a songwriter as I did into learning guitar when I was a teenager,” he says. “I’d sit in my room for six hours a night when I was a kid. My mom would have to pry the guitar out of my hands to get me to go to bed.”
Abernathy started performing occasional solo acoustic sets of his developing material and hooked up with his drummer, Jeffery Warren. Then he had a happenstance meeting with Jeff “Geezer” Simms, an old keyboard player he knew from years ago.
“I ran into him at the Preservation Pub one night,” Abernathy says. “He had a guitar on his back. I hadn’t seen him for 12 years. He was looking for something to do, and I told him I needed a bass player. He’d been a keyboard player all those years, but he’d started out on bass. So then I had a badass rhythm section, and they had a lot of ideas for my songs. And they both sing, which helps.”
The trio recorded Better Days in 2006 and followed that up with last year’s Rock-n-Roll Fiasco. The second disc, an alternately blistering and bittersweet slab of amped-up roots rock, kicks off with “Brawl on Scottish Pike,” a breakneck, booze-addled bar jam (“It’s a dead-end street, you better turn around”) and the ragged, wistful ballad “South Knoxville Blues” (“Some things don’t wash off/They’re like these old tattoos/They’re just a part of you/Like the South Knoxville blues”). Rock-n-Roll Fiasco, as a whole, is split between hard and gentle, but Abernathy’s impassioned playing—on a Les Paul he bought when he was 12 at Pick-N-Grin—lends the album its most distinctive voice.
“I grew up playing guitar like a freak,” he says. “I was always into writing songs, but I was mostly just into playing guitar. That fit in pretty well in the late ’80s. I’m still using riffs I came up with when I was 18 years old that I never had anything to do with. I’m still learning how to mingle a good story song with rock guitar. Somebody described it as ‘arena-cana’ back in the late ’90s. I guess I’m still carrying on that tradition.... I still love tapping and Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen riffs. If I can put that in a good song, that’s my goal.”
Abernathy’s songs—the local details in his lyrics, the intuitive connection between rock and country—fit into a 30-year tradition of Knoxville bands. But he’s struggled to get attention in the local scene. “It’s been a lot harder than I expected,” he says. “There are a lot of bands here. I thought it’d be easier when this started. I figured I’d move to Knoxville and play all the time. Nashville was so unbearably saturated. But there are a lot of good bands there, and a lot of good bands here.”
Abernathy and his band just finished recording a handful of tracks at Ryan Carden’s Toneadrome in Nashville for a record they hope to release this fall. He says working in a real studio may put some polish on the rough sound of Rock-n-Roll Fiasco, but not much. “We got what we wanted,” he says. “There’s not a lot of compression; it’s open and raw. We didn’t use headphones much. We just sat down and played, with a few overdubs. A couple of the songs on it are actually sing-along pop-rock songs. But only a couple.”