By Melissa Guion for Tom Tom Magazine
Country artists everywhere will tell you that Lisa Pankratz is one of the best in the
business. She has worked with Ronnie Dawson, Billy Joe Shaver, Dave Alvin, Marshall
Crenshaw, Cornell Hurd, Deke Dickerson, Wayne Hancock, Kathy Valentine, Texas
Guitar Women, The Derailers, Rosie Flores, Robbie Fulkes, Jimmy Vaughn, Marti Brom,
Roger Wallace, Bill Kirchen, and Hayes Carll – and the list goes on. What makes her so
Tom Tom Magazine: Let’s talk about how you got started…
Lisa Pankratz: My dad was basically a professional drummer in high school, playing in blues and R&B bands. I grew up hanging around at parties and shows at Armadillo World Headquarters, which was the center of Austin’s hippie country/rock scene.
TT: You were playing drums from a very young age.
LP: There were always drums for me to bang around on. I remember I was twelve when I first worked out a beat. I went from the snare up to the rack tom and thought, “THAT’S how they do that!” My parents had an amazing record collection, everything from Bill Monroe to Bob Marley, and I was lucky to inherit a starter kit of 45s: Ricky Nelson, Thurston Harris, and so on. That’s where my interest began. I practiced brushes along to Bill Monroe’s instrumentals. My dad and I learned to play reggae. I remember asking, “Why aren’t they playing the kick drum on the beat?” and my dad saying, “Why don’t you listen to what they ARE doing.”
TT: Favorite drummer?
LP: I like and have probably stolen from many drummers, but Earl Palmer and Buddy Harman top my list of influences.
TT: Tell me about playing country music.
I like the traditional dance hall-oriented styles that include a lot of shuffles. The dance hall scene never totally died in Texas, and a wave of young people rediscovered the style. Over the years I’ve played a ton of that with folks like the original Derailers, Dale Watson, Amber Digby, Cornell Hurd, and even the great Johnny Bush. I’ve played with roots rock and hillbilly boogie artists. I’m featured on an upcoming cd by The Carper Family, a vocal trio with acoustic bass, guitar and fiddle. I’m flattered when a normally drummerless act trusts me to add to their feel without ruining it.
TT: What was your first touring experience?
LP: My first real tour was with Ronnie Dawson and High Noon. Ronnie had been around since the first wave of rockabilly in the 50’s and never stopped playing and recording. So when he had his comeback he was an artist – not an oldies act – and an incredible performer. My first show with Ronnie in Austin was jam-packed. My car trunk was full of old drumsticks and I distributed them to the audience, and when we played “Rockin Bones” everyone was banging on whatever they could find. A cd called Live at the Continental Club features Ronnie, me, Kevin Smith on bass and Tjarko Jeen on guitar. And Bear Family recently issued a compilation cd called Ronnie Dawson with High Noon and Lisa Pankratz, the Carnegie Hall Tour.
TT: Now you tour regularly with Dave Alvin, as one of the Guilty Ones.
LP: I really stretch out with Dave and push myself to be stronger and more open on the drums. I first played with him at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, when he invited me to do a more acoustic set with some female musician friends. I flew to San Francisco and we rehearsed for an hour and then played to thousands of people. We did an album for Yep Roc as Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women and toured it for a few summers. Later Dave combined me with members of the Guilty Men to create the Guilty Ones.
TT: How is it being married to a fellow Guilty One (bassist Brad Fordham)?
LP: It’s good, at least so far. It helps that he’s one of my favorite bass players as well as favorite people. I always joke, “One of us made a mistake, because we were both supposed to marry someone with a day job!”
TT: Tell me about your main kit.
It’s a 1968 Ludwig kit: 22” kick, 13” rack tom, 16” floor tom. I have a ’68 Supraphonic snare, and lately I’ve been playing a hammered steel Gretsch snare with Yamaha wood hoops. My kit has a good warm sound that I can tweak for different contexts. I’ve had to store it out in California between tours, and when I went out there
recently for a tour with Dave Alvin and Marshall Crenshaw, I realized how much I’d missed it. I actually gave my drums a hug.
TT: Any reflections on being a female drummer?
LP: Over the years, many women came up to me and said, “I always wanted to play drums but my father/family/school told me I couldn’t.” This shocked me. Lately I get parents saying, “I want my daughter to see you,” (and occasionally daughters saying, “my boyfriend is a drummer but you kick his ass, ha ha!”). If I am any kind of inspiration to anyone, that makes me really happy.
Lisa is featured on an upcoming duets album by Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay called “Before the World Was Made,” produced by Gurf Morlix. She hits the road with Dave Alvin again in June. Melissa Guion is a Brooklyn-based author/illustrator.