I was married for a little while in the ‘90s. Future ex-wife was in the art business, but her previous boyfriend was MC 900-FT Jesus so she knew a little about electronica, jazz and hip hop lite. Didn’t know- or seem to care- anything about the roots and country music I covered for the Dallas Morning News. I kept taking her to shows I was reviewing and she sat there, bored, making lists about stuff to do the next day. Uncle Tupelo made No Impression. Billy Joe Shaver, John Anderson, Patty Loveless and many more of my favorites played great shows and the wife’s mind was at the furniture store.
One night we went to a rockabilly revival concert at the Hard Rock Café. I remember that it was February or March of 1993 because we were getting along. The headliner was regional ‘50s fave Johnny Carroll, and the backing band was a group from Austin called High Noon, who usually played as a drummerless trio like Elvis and Scotty and Bill. But this night, they had a pretty woman with that great silent movie hair.
“Who is THAT?!” the wife asked. She became obsessed with the elegant drummer, who bit her red lip while pounding out the boss beat.
You don’t forget the first time you see Lisa Pankratz on stage. She’s not showy, doesn’t do any look-at-me tricks, and yet you can’t take your eyes off her. Other drummers will tell you she’s always in the pocket. She looks so natural behind the drums, whether playing a country shuffle or a 4/4 rock beat. But at the same time she looks like she stepped out of a 1950’s glamour magazine. You watch her crack out the beat and after awhile you forget she’s a woman and wonder what planet she’s from.
Unless you’d had a few and worked up the courage to approach her after a show. “You play as good as a man,” the drunks tell her. She’s heard it so much after two and a half decades of dancehalls and rock clubs, it’s not really even an insult anymore.
When Pankratz first became known on the Austin scene in the early ’90s, almost all female drummers were in punk bands. Watching her at the Broken Spoke or the Continental with the Derailers or Chaparral or Cornell Hurd was an anomaly because she was keeping authentic honky tonk beats, not trying to play up her uniqueness. “Yes, you will get extra attention sometimes,” she says of being the opposite sex when it comes to drummers. “But the novelty won’t get you a second call for a job. If I’m there, it’s because I earned it.”
Near the end of the Hard Rock show, an unannounced guest named Ronnie Dawson came bounding onstage. “The Blonde Bomber” of “Action Packed” and “Rockin’ Bones” fame strapped on a guitar and just took it for a ride. In three songs he and High Noon destroyed the place. It was rockabilly reborn, not rehashed. A complete revelation.
A package of rockin’ positivity, Dawson was an important mentor who taught a sometimes studious Pankratz to “put some stank on it.” The drummer complied by rocking Carnegie Hall and the Conan O’Brien show with Dawson in 1995. She would be the rockabilly icon’s favorite drummer until he succumbed to cancer at age 64 in 2003.
Pankratz’ main gig these days is with Dave Alvin, the Los Angeles roots rock king. “Listen man, when it comes to musicians you have to play with night after night, looks don’t mean a thing,” says Alvin, whose new project with brother and fellow Blaster Phil Alvin is an album of Big Bill Broonzy covers. “You gotta be able to really play, and Lisa’s got the ability, no question. But even more importantly, she’s got the attitude. That’s ‘let’s go out there are have some fun’ thing she brings to every gig.”
Pankratz came into Alvin’s band at a sad time. His best friend and guitarist Chris Gaffney died of cancer in 2008 and Alvin knew he had to change up his Guilty Men backup. For a fast-approaching gig at the Strictly Hardly Bluegrass Festival, Alvin decided to fly in an all-female band, the Guilty Women. He had only one choice for drummer.
“We did that show without a rehearsal,” Alvin says of the gig in front of 20,000 people. “Lisa’s always watching what everyone else is doing, so I told her to follow my left hand on the top of the guitar.” That cued her onto the turns. Alvin says the show went perfectly.
After making an album with “Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women” and touring behind it, the band, now co-ed, is just called the Guilty Ones.
“I knew Lisa as a great country shuffle drummer when she played with the Derailers,” says Alvin, who produced the Derailers’ Jackpot in 1996. “Then when I saw her with Ronnie Dawson, she was this great rock n’ roll drummer. Since she’s been in the band, I’ve found out she can play reggae, funk, everything. When she’s onstage I feel like I can go anywhere and she’ll be right there with me.”
Pankratz’s background in Jamaican music comes from her father Mike, who played drums for I-Tex and other reggae bands for years. Still does. A teenaged Lisa often sat in at gigs at Liberty Lunch and other clubs. While she was at Rice University, earning a degree in English literature in 1990, Pankratz had a reggae show on the student radio station. “Reggae really isn’t a big part of my musical life right now, but playing percussion with my dad gave me a chance to really hear how parts fit together and where fills and accents could go within a groove,” she says.
Pankratz also got her love of Buddy Holly from her father, who used to play covers of “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On” with Roky Erickson in high school.
“My parents were pretty young when they had me and so they were still growing and exploring life and music,” Pankratz says. “They took me to a lot of shows at the Armadillo when I was a kid.”
The Dripping Springs native received a toy drum kit when she was four, but didn’t start taking drums seriously until she was about 12 and started messing around with her father’s kit. “I almost accidentally figured out how to play a fill between one drum and the next and something clicked,” she says. “It’s what I wanted to do, what I couldn’t wait to get home from school and do. It was always on my mind.”
Pankratz is an intense drummer. She takes her craft seriously. The Lisa I met that night in Dallas and got to know the next few years seemed intent on just taking it all in. That’s the way she is onstage, in tune with the other players. She was all business.
But she found love while on tour with singer Roger Wallace in Europe in 2000. Lisa and the band’s bass player Brad Fordham, who’d been her platonic friend for about 10 years, started hanging out romantically, begin living together in 2001 and got married a couple years later.
Although they often work independently, with Pankratz in a couple all-female bands with bassist Sarah Brown and steel/dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, and Fordham sometimes gigging with Jerry Jeff Walker and others, they often come together as a package. They’ve backed Hayes Carll on the road and will tour the U.S. and Europe with the Alvin Brothers this summer. “It’s great when it works out and we play in the same band,” she says, then laughs. “At least I know I’ll like my roommate.”
She will also love getting back with her 1968 Ludwig drum set with the silver sparkle finish, which sits in L.A. between Alvin tours. After one particularly long separation, Pankratz bent over and hugged her favorite kit when they were reunited. “They’re warm and full and I can tune them in various ways to suit the gig,” she says of her beloved Ludwigs. She also has a 1958 kit in Austin that she uses for the pick-up gigs- about three a week- that pay the bills.
Pankratz reminds us that the richness of the Austin music scene is not just in the bands or headliners, but it’s also in the backing musicians. Ask a singer-songwriter why they’re glad they moved to Austin and they’ll say it’s the caliber of musicians for hire.
The same goes for fans. Who of us lucky enough to attend Antone’s at 2915 Guadalupe Street in the ‘80s didn’t swell a bit when Sarah Brown played bass for all the greats from Buddy Guy and Junior Wells to Albert Collins and Albert King?
I saw so many blues legends in the years between ’84 and ’88, but probably my favorite moment at the world’s greatest blues club was the night Lone Justice, very hot at the time, stopped in to see Marcia Ball, who had the same manager, Carlyne Majer. They were all leaned up against the bar, these L.A. hotshots, and Marcia’s guitarist David Murray pulled out an epic, serpentine, blues/jazz solo that had one of the guys in LJ smack himself on the forehead. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me proud to live in Austin.
I’ve seen Carolyn Wonderland have the same effect on out-of-towners. Barton Springs is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the beauty of Texas Guitar Women with Wonderland, Cindy Cashdollar, Shelley King, Sarah Brown and Lisa Pankratz.
Pankratz used to put all thoughts of being in an all-female band way to the back of her mind. That seemed to just multiply the novelty factor. But these days she’s down with Girl Power.
For every dummy who asks to see her muscles there are ten women who come up to Pankratz and call her an inspiration. “They tell me that they want their daughters to come see me play. Just to show them that they can do it, too.”
“I used to call it ‘the elephant in the room,’ being a female drummer,” Pankratz says after a recent pick-up gig at the Broken Spoke. “But sometimes it’s pretty cool.”
Sometimes it’s pretty cool for everyone in the room.