For a brief period in the late 1990s, the Satellite Pumps were one of the best bands in Knoxville. The group played sultry, swinging rock 'n' roll and country, dance music for the head as much as the hips, establishing a sound that was both familiar and unprecedented. The band's bright, shining moment didn't last long; just a year after forming, despite interest from the esteemed Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records, the band broke up and its members went their separate ways.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Adam Hill moved to New York, then to Nashville, but could never quite regain the momentum he had enjoyed with the Satellite Pumps.
"When I moved to Nashville, I was really active," Hill says. "Me and a guy who used to be in the Satellite Pumps, Harlowe Starrbuck, were really active for the first couple of years here, but then so many things just fell through, thing after thing after thing fell through, and I finally took some time off."
Hill re-emerged in 2010 with a new solo album, Smoke Trees, recorded with members of Nashville's Th' Legendary Shack Shakers. It was a surprise for anyone who remembered Hill from the Satellite Pumps, featuring slow, ruminative songs instead of his former band's smoky and smoking retro rock. Smoke Trees was a creative success, but got almost no critical or commercial attention.
"The thing with clubs now—and I totally understand it—is that they're depending on you to take on all the responsibilities for people coming to their venue and spending money," Hill says. "So if you can't guarantee X amount of people are going to show up, they won't even talk to you. I've been playing for almost 20 years, but I can only get four or five people in different towns to come out and see me. In Nashville it's just so competitive, and Knoxville, it's a whole different world now. I've combated that over the last couple of years by going back and recording a bunch of songs."
On Missing Pictures and Discount Spirits, two albums that quickly followed Smoke Trees, Hill rediscovered his rocking roots by digging into the catalog of songs he'd written during his exile from recording and performing. He had adjusted his commercial expectations, but still wanted to give those songs a permanent form.
"I just took it as an opportunity," he says. "I never got on a label, I was never able to get any money behind me, I was never able to record these songs, but I wanted to record them as well as I could so if I play them live, if someone wants it they can go buy it or download it for free. At least I've got the material in a package that somebody can get outside of a four-track demo that I would have had before."
The proper follow-up to Smoke Trees, Banjo Moon, released in October, finds Hill continuing in the same direction, with heavy guitar reverb and smoldering solos atop rockabilly rhythms. Like the best of the Satellite Pumps, it's a thoroughly contemporary take on throwback music.
"We tried to make it sound country but not overtly country, twangy but not schmaltzy twangy, American but kind of approaching American music as folk music again," Hill says. "I'm not interested in being a retro act, but you could play all these songs in a bluegrass band or a rockabilly band and make them sound just like 1950-something. I know there's not a lot of earmarks in my music that make it sound really modern, but I try to do it the scratchy, dirty way that ends up making it stretch a little bit."
Banjo Moon may be the end of Hill's work in that direction, though, at least for a while. He says his most recent songwriting, influenced by a surprising source, has taken a turn back toward introspection.
"A lyricist I'm loving this last year or so is the guy from LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy," he says. "I think he writes about aging really well. The next thing I want to work on is one of those ‘I'm getting older, what's going on, how do you deal with this' things, and I'm taking some notes from him on how he's portrayed it as I'm preparing to really delve into working on something else."
Hill's history of close calls and frustrated ambition make him seem well-suited for an album about middle age.
"I remember when Suicaine Gratification, that Paul Westerberg album, came out in the late '90s," he says. "I thought that was the biggest bunch of crap I'd ever heard in my life. I was probably in my late 20s. Now I listen to it and I'm like, oh, I get that. He wasn't 26 years old when he wrote that. I don't know that the record got any better, but my appreciation of it changed. I get things about it now that I didn't then."
Tennessee Shines with Kelsey's Woods and Adam Hill
Knoxville Visitors Center
(301 S. Gay St.)
Monday, Nov. 26, at 7 p.m.