Adam Miller has always been a practical guy.
Even as a college student playing in a touring Christian band, he never put all of his eggs in the rock ‘n’ roll basket. Throughout the various projects with which he’s been involved since graduating from William Blount High School in 1998, the singer and guitarist has accepted each one at face value: as an opportunity to strap on a six-string, stomp and holler alongside some other fun-loving dudes and make the kind of racket that inspired him as a child, sitting in front of his father’s hi-fi console and listening to Alabama on an 8-track.
“I remember listening to ‘Play Me Some Mountain Music,’ and always being pumped when it got fast,” Miller told The Daily Times this week. That little breakdown, where the fiddle has that little fast jig at the end? On an 8-track player, you couldn’t rewind it, so you had to back it up, and I remember doing that, trying to find where it gets fast again, over and over and over.”
These days, the bulk of Miller’s material is delivered at a somewhat slower pace. Although he’s not averse to plugging in and rocking out at home, he’s found a successful side gig as an acoustic solo musician, playing around the area as Adam T. Friday night, he’ll be at Tri-Hop Brewery in downtown Maryville; Saturday, he performs at Cheers at Choto Marina in Knoxville, and his summer schedule is almost too full for a guy with a steady job, a wife and a home in Blount County’s Louisville community.
He’s not complaining, however. Because while he never planned on being a rock star, he’s also can’t imagine a life without playing music, even if, these days, it serves as a backdrop to cold drinks, good times and a dozen different conversations going on at once. He’s always glad to be wherever he sets up to play, and as an unabashed fan of both rock ’n’ roll and the tools used to make it, he relishes every opportunity to perform, he said.
“I’ve always been a good storyteller, so I try to weave my experiences in with the cover tunes I play,” he said. “For instance, I play a lot of boat docks, so naturally, ‘Margaritaville’ is going to be in the set. Now, I’m not a huge fan of Jimmy Buffett personally, but I play it, because I know it’s going to get requested, and I like to tell a story about how my wife and I visited a Margaritaville (restaurant) one time and bought some very expensive daiquiris. Or when I do ‘The Gambler’ (by Kenny Rogers), I tell a story about the first time I gambled for money in Tunica, Mississippi, with a guy dressed head-to-toe in Korean fashion — complete with a Korean flag! — who announced that he was gambling that night to buy his daughter some braces.
“Stuff like that, man, gets a chuckle before I break into the song. It’s stuff I can use to endear myself to the crowd that’s relatable and humorous, so it’s not just me up there playing for three hours. It’s entertaining.”
Music comes naturally to the Miller family. The son of Mike and Cathy Miller of Maryville, Adam inherited his grandfather’s Gibson SG Junior and a 1974 Fender Deluxe amp when he was 9 years old. As a sophomore at William Blount High School, he joined his first band, Nisus. (“All we did was play Weezer and Nirvana covers,” he said.) They landed some gigs at Alnwick Community Center and at The Lighthouse, a former downtown Maryville teen club where Two Doors Down is now located. (“We didn’t get paid anything, but we would get gigs there once or twice a month,” he added.)
Around the turn of the century, the local Christian punk outfit Joey’s Loss was looking for a second guitar player and tapped Miller to join. The band
had recently completed tours with
Annberlin and Cool Hand Luke,
two groups popular in the Christian alternative scene, and throughout his time at the University of Tennessee, he dedicated himself to the band whenever he wasn’t in class.
“We practiced twice a week and played gigs on the weekends at local churches and clubs, including Old City Java quite a bit,” he said. “But I’ve always been incredibly calculating about my life, and I was never under the false pretense that the music thing would be a career. After all, we were in a Christian band, and even the most successful Christian bands where driving Hyundai Elantras.
“Of course, being in a Christian band wasn’t what that was about, and we did have some success. We were recorded by a couple of small, independent labels, and we were lucky enough to get signed to one, Future Destination, which helped us with distribution. But the (Lamborghini) never came from the Future Destination contract.”
By the time he graduated from UT in 2004, Joey’s Loss had run its course. Some of the members of that band transitioned into The Hotshot Freight Train, but Miller decided it was time to hang it up and do other things.
“There was probably about a 9-year period where I didn’t really do anything,” he said. “Nick (his younger brother) and I knocked around a few ideas and traded files via the internet. Nick and I played one show, I think, as Goodnight Opus over at the Time Warp Tea Room (in Knoxville), but I kind of got soured on the whole music thing.
“After about nine years, I got the itch to play again and answered a Craigslist ad, and that became Gunnin’ 4 Betsy, which I did for a few years. That’s when I got a taste for the cover music and the ease with which you can get a gig being a cover band.”
Like a lot of musicians devoted to original songs, Miller tended to regard cover projects with a bit of disdain. As Gunnin’ 4 Betsy took a turn toward country and he looked to strike out on his own, however, his opinion began to change. After all, there’s something noble about playing songs others wrote because they mean so much to those in an audience, he pointed out. Combined with his own musical shortcomings, starting a covers project just made sense.
“I’ve never been able to write songs. It’s just not a skill that I possess,” he said. “I wrote a few for Joey’s Loss, but I think it’s fair to say that the ones I wrote were the weakest ones on the records. But I’ve always been a good singer and a great harmonizer, and even though I don’t really have the desire to write songs, I have great respect for someone who can put together stories and make music.”
At first, he and fellow musician Jeff Groover played as The Groove Mill, an acoustic duo, but life got busy for his partner, and Miller found himself as a solo act. Taking his stage moniker from a college nickname — Adam “Sweet T” Miller, middle name Tyler — he began playing around Blount County, and things began to snowball quickly.
“The solo acoustic thing was born out of convenience and necessity,” he said. “Now, I have only one schedule to deal with, and I don’t have to take anything else into a situation. Everything I use fits in a Honda Fit, and at the end of the night, it’s just me. The biggest challenge with doing that is that a lot of great songs, like ‘Hotel California,’ it’s impossible for me to rip off a really hot lick, because the bottom completely drops out of the song.
“What’s cool for me is that I like to find stuff that’s popular by guys like Post Malone or Lil Nas X and set those things to solo acoustic tunes and play them in my set. I do a little rap medley with rap from my day — Snoop Dogg, ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ — stuff that’s off the beaten path and isn’t just ‘Mustang Sally.’ Those always perk the ears up, and there are very few negative reactions. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the genres I play. I try to hit everything.”
When it comes to shows at places like Rick’s Dockside or The Anchor at Louisville Landing or Round 6 Brewery or any number of other venues around town at which he’s played, he’s got to be versatile. Most of his gigs are family-friendly, and it’s not unusual to field requests for everything from “Old Town Road” to Taylor Swift to Disney songs.
“You’ve got to be ready to play them, and to tell someone you don’t know how to play them but offer something in consolation instead,” he said. “If somebody asks me to play something and I’m not entirely sure, but I kind of know it, I’ll try it. I like to say that I know 5 percent of 90 percent of all songs, and even if it’s half a verse or half a chorus, people appreciate that you’re trying. Of course, I tell them that if it’s not good, we may have to ‘Old Yeller’ this baby in the middle of it.”
In that sense, it’s always an adventure, which is part of why he started playing in the first place. Working in commercial print marketing pays the bills, and he occasionally helps his wife, Ashley, with showing their English bulldogs at competitions around the country. (Ollie was ranked among the top owner-handled bulldogs in the United States in 2017, he noted.) But that’s her thing. Playing music is his, and with 40-something shows booked through September, he’s got plenty to keep him busy.
“There are times where I wish I could get my 100-watt amp out and blast their ears off their heads by playing some punk through a distortion pedal,” he said with a laugh. “But I can get every bit of my gear into the venue right now in three trips as a solo acoustic guy and be up and ready to go in 20 minutes.
“The gear’s heavier, and the money’s not as good with a full band. Playing solo, it adds up when I don’t have to split a check at the end of the night. So that’s a benefit. But mostly, this is my niche. I think I’ve found it, and I’ve gained some pretty decent traction with local people. And more than anything else, I’m having a good time.”