One More for the Road: The Satellite Pumps could’ve been contenders

Almost Famous

Editor’s note: “One More for the Road” is a new regular BLANK feature looking back at past Knoxville bands. Got a question about your favorite band of old? Curious about where the members are? Drop Steve Wildsmith a line at wildsmithsteve@gmail.com to let him know who you want to read about.

As harsh as it may sound, there’s just no other way to put it: Guitarist Adam Hill made the biggest mistake of his life about 20 years ago, and it’s continued to haunt him ever since.

That’s not criticism; if anything, Hill’s affable personality, genteel demeanor and easygoing friendliness – detectable even on a phone interview from his home in Nashville – all are tempered by the regret that tinges everything when he discusses his decision to walk away from his old band, The Satellite Pumps, when the Knoxville-based four-piece had a label deal from Bloodshot Records on the table and a rock ‘n’ roll future within reach.

“I freaked out at 24 and thought, ‘I can’t do this,’” Hill says with a heavy sigh. “We had the deal, the contract. We had the record written and even the second one ready to go. But for the person I was at the time and the headspace I was in, it seemed like too much to think about or deal with. And I don’t know why, at the time, we didn’t have the presence of mind to say, ‘Can we hold this and think about it for a couple of months?’

It was like we thought we had no other options – either sign this and do this or quit. We were so young and intense, and for whatever reason, it seemed like a very yes-or-no, binary decision. I wish I could make a time machine and go back and kick myself and hit myself and then hit myself again.”

And by “we,” Hill clarifies, he means himself. He takes full responsibility for what happened, and he seems to accept two decades of “what ifs?” as some sort of penance for turning that donkey wheel. Because when he did, whatever magic it was that bound the Pumps – Hill and Harlowe Starrbuck on guitars, vocalist/bassist Joy O’Shell and drummer Kelly Sprouse – slowly began to disintegrate. In some ways, Hill has been on a quest ever since to reacquaint himself with that same feeling of enchantment.

“I think about it probably more often than I should,” he says. “I think all the best bands were like a gang – not necessarily great players, but everybody’s got their part, and everybody understands what they do. If you put any of them in another band, it would be inconsequential.

“There was just this magic that Kelly and Joy and Harlowe had when you put them all together as individuals and with me, and we just kind of were doing this thing at the time and were into things that nobody else around us was into, and we had a lot of aggression about it. It worked out in a way that nothing ever really worked out for me again.”

“Downtown” Randall Brown, he of the blues-rock power trio Quartjar and a longtime chronicler of the Knoxville music scene, summed up the band’s approach in a January 1997 article for the now-defunct Metro Pulse: “The Satellite Pumps sound is vintage, hailing from that 1950s nether region where country and western had not yet fully given way to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a sound suitable for barroom, barn dance, or company Christmas party, which is exactly where the group had its inauspicious beginning.”

O’Shell’s mother needed a band for her company Christmas party, and they even had a little money to spend. (“Probably, in retrospect, they could have hired a much better band for the money,” Hill jokes.) Starrbuck and Hill knew some guitar, and O’Shell “had this dynamite ’50s crooner-girl voice,” and so the three friends learned some holiday songs, played the party and had enough of a good time that they wanted to keep it going.

“We started noodling around on our own stuff, and we knew we wanted to do something,” Hill says. “I got a job at Pier 1 with Rob ‘Sweet Bobby’ Matthews, who was in the State Champs, and they needed an opening act for a show they were doing at The Mercury Theatre, just a get-on, get-off type of thing that I think Benny [Smith, program director and general manager of WUTK-FM] was promoting. And it was just love at first sight.

“It was the easiest thing I had ever done. It was like, ‘You guys are great! Wanna play again?’ It was so much fun compared to the way music in Nashville is.”

They needed a drummer, and it just so happened that Sprouse – aka Freebird McQueen, the State Champs’ guitarist – had just bought a set. It was a natural fit, and The Satellite Pumps began a slow and steady rise to the upper echelon of a scene that at the time included Superdrag and The V-Roys.

“This is a goofy thing to say, but I will always refer to Knoxville in the ’90s as my Paris in the ’20s,” Hill says. “There were so many flipping talented people working at Metro Pulse; Disc Exchange had just opened; Mahasti [Vafaie] had just opened Tomato Head; and there were so many of these killer bands. It just seemed like everybody was this epically talented person that you knew, if the stars aligned in some way, something would happen for them.”

As cliché as it sounds, those bands were greater than the sum of their parts, and The Satellite Pumps were no different. Hill remembers the four of them catching a buzz once, riding a Greyhound bus to spend New Year’s Eve in New York City and returning home to discover their van had been towed. There was also the time he, Starrbuck and O’Shell braved a winter blizzard to check out an up-and-coming band out of Texas called the Old 97’s.

“Harlowe’s roommate before me was from Dallas, and he had a copy of ‘Hitchhike to Rhome,’ and they were the only dudes on the planet doing what we wanted to do,” Hill says. “At that show, it was mostly just us and them, and we became quick friends, and when they would come back, they would stay with us at our apartment.

“That time, we had our band going, and Benny asked if we wanted to open for them. We said, ‘Yes, but don’t tell them who we are!’ They hit up Harlowe and Joy to meet them for dinner before the show, and they asked us what we knew about this opening band, The Satellite Pumps. We just played coy.”

That may or may not have been the show that O’Shell got on stage with the 97’s and sang Exene Cervenka’s part in “Four Leaf Clover.” Either way, Hill remembers that scenesters of the day frequently lauded the Pumps as a breath of fresh air. There was, he adds, an electricity in the air of the Knoxville scene at the time that gave everyone involved the green light to do things and make sounds that were outside of the typical East Tennessee wheelhouse – but that still rang with the sort of authenticity that made perfect sense.

For The Satellite Pumps, that energy was best harnessed at the Springwater, a Fort Sanders club that had the infamous reputation of doubling as a smoke-friendly laundromat, one of the few places where a patron’s clothes actually smelled worse after a trip through the spin cycle.

“We loved playing Barley & Hops, but the Springwater was a lot more gritty,” Hill says. “You were in the living room with all the people, the stage was a couple of two-by-fours and if you asked for a beer from the stage, it would come through the crowd like it was being delivered. I could be dying of thirst and on fire and ask for water in Nashville and get nothing. Back then, I could ask for beer and a pitcher would come floating through the crowd.”

But then Bloodshot came calling, Hill had what amounts to an existential crisis and The Satellite Pumps just … disappeared. They did a couple of final shows, as Hill recalls – one at Barley & Hops on Aug. 31, 1997 (he remembers because it was the day Princess Diana died), and then one a couple of weeks later at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. They had been offered the label deal but had yet to turn it down, so no one really knew it was the final Satellite Pumps show.

Well, almost no one. The four friends gradually went their separate ways, meeting up in twos and threes on occasion. In early 1998, Sprouse and Hill went out drinking and wound up at one of their old stomping grounds, Barley & Hops. Sean Blair, former general manager of Patrick Sullivan’s and other notable local watering holes, was running the place, and while chowing down on chicken wings, Sprouse and Hill casually asked if anyone was booked for April Fools’ Day.

Nope, Blair replied. The band had canceled. What if, the two suggested, the Pumps played?

“So Kelly and I drove to Joy’s apartment, and Joy and Harlowe were there, and I said, ‘I got us a gig, and I think we should do it. Just for fun,’” Hill says. “I used that old Dewey-defeats-Truman photo and made up a bunch of flyers, and I feel like we had a really good show. I remember it being fun, and I remember somebody saying, ‘You guys should do that again.’ But I think at the time, everybody else in that band had already moved on.”

Today, O’Shell is an attorney with AC Entertainment. Sprouse moved to New England and started a band, Starhick. Although he hasn’t spoken with Sprouse in a decade, Hill and Starrbuck remain close: They moved to Nashville and gave another try at a band, but “everything that went right for The Satellite Pumps went wrong for The Old Flames,” Hill explains.

Today, the two continue to maintain regular contact. Starrbuck is a bartender at Nashville club The Five Spot and plays in a band called The Prayer Flags with David Burns, formerly of Knoxville outfit Thumbnail; Mark Robertson, a veteran of Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers; and Paul Niehaus, whose pedal-steel prowess has made him a sideman for everyone from Calexico to Justin Townes Earle to Yo La Tengo.

As for Hill, he spent 13 years working for HarperCollins Christian Publishing before making a recent move to Michael Hyatt and Co., a CEO leadership training firm. He’s made a handful of solo records over the years, but after his last one, 2016’s “Case of Emergency,” he made an odd prayer request.

“I think I’m a spiritual person, and I was kind of like, ‘God, please just take away from me the ability [to write songs],’” he says. “I was going through this thing where I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I guess it kind of worked because I haven’t completed a song since I finished that album.”

He has written a novel, though, which he’ll probably end up self-publishing, and he hasn’t ruled out music entirely. It’s just disheartening, he adds, to put a record up on Bandcamp and then check the stats only to see that some songs received only two listens during the entirety of 2017.

Hill concedes that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that everything he does and has done over the past two decades has been through the prism of “what if.” That Bloodshot deal looms like a shadow over his musical machinations, he acknowledges, probably more often than he’d like. And in a way, it’s a frayed edge to the tapestry of a vibrant music scene, evidence of a place where another story might have been written and another band called The Satellite Pumps may have ascended to a throne room reserved for the monarchs of that scene’s history.

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