At the Continental Club in Austin, Texas, a curtain-lined wall behind the stage separates the main room from the back room, where a red-felt pool table gets far more use displaying the band’s merch than pocketing balls. A few feet away, beyond the back room’s makeshift bar and a tub of iced-down Lone Star beer, you’ll find a framed photo of drummer Lisa Pankratz. Over the years, this snug little venue built its worldwide reputation by consistently delivering the best in American roots music. The same can be said for Pankratz. She’s earned her spot on that wall.
It’s been more than a decade since Lisa Pankratz began working with Dave Alvin, the Grammy-winning roots rock shape-shifter who founded the Blasters with his brother Phil, did a stint with punk rockers X and their country offshoot the Knitters, and continues to release solo albums ranging from twangy rock ’n’ roll to more intimate acoustic records rooted in country and blues. Alvin relies on Pankratz, whose perfectly suited style is somehow simultaneously raw and refined, for touring and recording his solo efforts, including his most recent release, Downey to Lubbock, a duo project with Texas crooner Jimmie Dale Gilmore. We sat down at her appropriately vintage 1950s-style kitchen table in the cozy South Austin home she shares with her husband and rhythm section mate, bassist Brad Fordham, to discuss her career before they headed west to start the Alvin/Gilmore tour.
Pankratz grew up on her grandfather’s ranch in Dripping Springs, Texas, a small community twenty-five miles southwest of Austin, watching her father play drums in his reggae band and raiding his record collection. “There’s a lot of music in the air in Texas, whether it’s hardcore country music, gospel music, Tejano music, Doug Sahm in whatever [project] he was doing at any given point…. The blues, obviously. I would rediscover some of these records that were in the house. There was this Johnny Bush record, and I was just like, Well, hell! This is everything! This is shuffles, ballads, waltzes. Amazing Caruso-like singing. It struck something that just felt internal. I had a great starter collection of American rock ’n’ roll/R&B 45s and a certain amount of country. I was playing along with all of those kinds of records.”
At some point, Lisa found a cassette tape that opened her ears and helped shape her taste. “One side was all Elvis Sun sessions and the Johnny Burnette Trio, and I never got past that side of the tape for quite a few years because it blew my mind. And the other side was a whole bunch of Health and Happiness shows with Hank Williams and Audrey Williams. And I loved that too!”
Pankratz also saw plenty of performances by the famously formative Texas multi-genre band Greezy Wheels, which included her uncle on guitar. “They played all kinds of stuff, and I liked a lot of it, but when they would do a country song I would perk up a little bit. That would draw me in more than some of the other stuff they were doing.
“My dad loved Bill Monroe,” Lisa goes on. “There was this one instrumental Bill Monroe record, Uncle Pen. I would just play brushes with that and try to fit in with the feel of what was going on, because there weren’t any drums on it.” Lisa learned that she could create her own parts without merely mimicking someone else. “That was a good way to put some drums in somewhere but hopefully not interrupt, so if you get in a context with that sort of a lineup you know how to be a part of it without ruining it.” Later she applied that strategy in dance halls and recording studios when usually drummer-less artists like Wayne Hancock or the Carper Family came calling. “I used to take it as a badge of honor that bands that generally play without a drummer would sometimes ask me to either play with them or record with them,” she says. “You have to learn to come to each other a little bit, because they’re not used to it.” Pankratz also started sitting in with High Noon, another drums-free outfit where she connected with bassist Kevin Smith.
“When Kevin and I started playing together, we were playing roots rock and rockabilly stuff. Hillbilly here, more blues there, it wasn’t exactly the same thing that some of the other rockabilly bands were doing, but that’s what made it so cool. Kevin and I have always instinctively just played stuff together that I’ve never done with anybody else. We naturally pushed in the same places and left spaces for each other. The same with Brad, in a different way. They’re probably the two bass players I’ve had the best musical bond with in my life. I’ve certainly had fun playing with other people, but Kevin and Brad have been real anchors for me. I think it helps bring out the best in me sometimes, too.
“If Brad plays a melodic thing,” says Lisa, “I know where he’s going and I can complement it. Brad and I sort of instinctively decide, alright, are we going to match completely on this? Maybe a dotted-quarter/8th country thing? Or is it more of a thing where you have the pattern and I’m going to enhance it, but I can put my accents
in if I want to? That just depends on the song.
“They both come with good knowledge of music where bass is a really strong part of it. I know how to flesh out what they’re doing—it’s not just staying out of the way. It’s almost like the bass could lead it instead of the kick drum. The kick drum is more of an enhancer. If they’re playing strong enough, then I can do some little punches here and there. I sometimes like it when the kick drum has its own part as opposed to just being the pulse, constantly. I’m comfortable weaving in and out of what they’re doing.”
Playing with High Noon also led to tours with Ronnie Dawson, which Pankratz did until the legendary rockabilly guitarist’s death in 2003. “When we got together, it was a pretty specific thing that Ronnie was doing, and I think I was on his wavelength.” Check out YouTube for her slamming backbeat and machine gun snare fills with Dawson on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and you’ll agree. “He said in an interview once that he thought there was some extra intuition, so to speak, and he didn’t mean it in a patronizing ‘women’s intuition’ kind of way. There was a feel; there was an empathy that wasn’t always there before. Whether that’s because I’m a chick or whether it’s because he and I had a connection, it was there. He was a damn good bandleader. He could turn any band into a better one.”
A few years of freelancing followed Lisa’s time with Dawson. She played on a record that Dave Alvin produced for the Derailers, and he called her for a 2007 tour of his own, which led to their enduring musical relationship. “These are two very big pillars in my musical world, Dave and Ronnie.”
Like Dawson, Alvin leads his band with authority and awareness. “Dave’s really generous on stage. We practically set up in a straight line across the front. Everybody gets their moment. For the most part I’m parallel with his amp, unless the stage just won’t accommodate it or it’s a festival where you have to be back on a riser. Not a lot of people do that. There are things that we’ve all come up with on the road that become part of the song. And Dave likes it because, when something works, he keeps it in the show and that part will grow throughout a tour. We’re contributing, and at the same time, Dave can almost play his band like he plays his instrument. We’re with him in the moment.”
Pankratz follows her instincts with confidence and intention, and constantly interacts with her bandmates. She keeps her attention on the music and her eyes laser-focused on the bandleader with an almost intimidating intensity. “If he signals something or goes somewhere musically, the band is gonna go there. It’s as if the band is a part of his instrument.
“Another thing I love about it is doing a show with an arc and supporting that, knowing that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think of the entire show, and I think of the arcs within the songs. He tells all these amazing stories in the songs. It finally hit me one day. I was like, Oh! This whole show is an arc. The entire show is a story of a bunch of little stories.”
Lisa’s wider view of the show’s construction helps her choose broad variations for songs with similar grooves. “For instance,” she explains. “‘Harlan County’ and ‘Ash Grove’ are both blues shuffles. I keep ‘Harlan’ atmospheric. With that one, it’s just about making the groove really fat and following the dynamics in the appropriate places, and any kind of accent is really going to be a punch in the face. But on ‘Ash Grove,’ the way it’s developed, Brad and I open up a lot more. I’ll start out a little more conservative, but by the middle of the song I’m not feeling bad about any of the fills I’m doing! [laughs] It fits the song, but at the same time, you’re not hearing the same groove you heard at the beginning of the show on ‘Harlan County.’”
Pankratz often navigates two or three train beat songs within a show, taking what the song offers to help her differentiate them. “ Is it consistent throughout the whole song? Is there a steady ‘ba-dap’?” she says, singing a pickup into a backbeat. Using her own shorthand for accenting both 8ths of both train backbeats, “Maybe it’s a double surf.”
Lisa applies that same care and attention to crafting parts within each song. She introduces new elements as the arrangements develop, changing a snare or kick pattern to move things forward. Her natural wrist movement on the ride cymbal is a side-to-side sweeping motion similar to Ringo’s, and she uses it or abandons it with purpose. “It’s less staccato to my ear, especially on a country or blues swingy kind of shuffle. I like that open feel; it’s rounder. My wrist just does that sweeping motion naturally. It’s a more intentional distinction if I think to myself, ‘Okay, on this section I’m going to play straight up and down and that’s going to be the feel.’ And if it’s appropriate, that’s fine. But that, to me, is more of a decision than sweeping along.”
Sometimes the carving and construction of parts is more subtle, but each choice carries greater weight. “Maybe in a later part of the chorus you add a ching ring on the 2 or something like that,” Lisa suggests. “It’s not in your face the whole time, and you might not add that in until the second verse or chorus, or even wait until the solo, but it brings something different and adds lift. Every little changeup on a brush beat or every little extra hi-hat hit colors the song. You’re not just getting through the song, you’re playing the story. I always listen to the lyrics. How could you not? It’s imperative. To me it is, anyway.”
On the new record, Pankratz deftly drives an Alvin original, “Billy the Kid and Geronimo,” with a flowing pulse that blooms with the narrative. “He wanted an intimation of a military thing, but not a hard-core street beat. It’s definitely brushes, and it’s not a set pattern, although some stuff does recur. I’m just following the story, making something that hopefully feels right under it.”
Pankratz brings a similar sensitivity and fresh feel to the lilting cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” “It’s been recorded many times,” she says of the song that recounts a 1940s plane crash. “It’s a heartbreaking song! I think the Byrds might have even done it at one point [it appears on that group’s 1969 album The Ballad of Easy Rider], but wow! Jimmie singing it is heart-ripping.”
The realities of geography, scheduling, and modern recording budgets sometimes affect work opportunities. Alvin generally produces his records in L.A., while Pankratz and Fordham live in Austin. “He thought they had to have it done by a certain time, so he had already used some of his guys from out there,” she says. (Pankratz shares drumming duties on Downey to Lubbock with veteran Los Angeles drummer Don Heffington, who worked with both Alvin and Gilmore on previous projects.) As circumstances evolved, it worked out that Pankratz and Fordham found themselves in a position to contribute. “We were only recording for like four days. Dave started getting inspired and we turned some of these tracks into something that they didn’t necessarily start out as. Some of it would turn into like a big, power R&B type of a thing. I love that part. It’s not always that way—time is money in the studio and all that—but when you’re able to go in there and let little things inspire you, it’s fun.”
Taking cues from the drummers in her early record collection, Lisa had an epiphany. She was inspired not so much by the drumming itself but by the results of their musical choices. “I eventually came to realize that I like the way the drumming fit in,” she says. “I really like the approach that a lot of these guys had and, to the degree that I’ve forced myself to analyze any of it, these guys were like first-generation rock ’n’ roll. They were coming from being inspired by the first wave of American drumming—big bands and jazz bands and marching bands—slowly distilling into rock ’n’ roll. James Van Eaton at Sun Records. Jerry Allison with Buddy Holly and the Crickets. There wasn’t ‘standard’ anything—blues, rock, country, or whatever. They were creating.
“Buddy Harman was a big thing for me,” Lisa goes on. “Most of those guys would usually cite Gene Krupa, right? And so I’d learn about him and found out he liked Baby Dodds and Chick Webb, so I figured I need to know about them, too. I like a lot of that stuff, so I’d listen to them. Where they were coming from jazz and swing that distilled down into rock ’n’ roll, I’m coming from rock ’n’ roll and trying to broaden back out. I realized that I like this and I like that, and somehow it feels like me. If you want to call it rockabilly, fine. I like rock ’n’ roll, and I live in the country. Somehow it seems like it makes sense.”
Tools of the Trade
Pankratz tours with her 1968 silver sparkle Ludwig kit. “I found it in a used drum shop. It’s far from pristine, and it’s just the three drums—22/13/16. It sounds great.”
Lisa stores the drums in L.A. when she’s not touring. “Whenever I get back out there and set them up and hit them, I’m just like, Oh, yeah. I’m so happy! They’re faded. Somebody had them in a car or a smoky house…I don’t know what they did to them. But I don’t mind it. They have their own character, and I like it.
“I’ve also got a ’58 WFL kit that I bought from a friend that’s become my work-around-town kit. And I have a ’58 matching snare. It didn’t originally come with that kit, but it’s the same year and finish.”
For a long time, Pankratz used a ’68 Ludwig Supraphonic as her main snare. Veering from her vintage preferences, she tried something different. “A few years ago a friend put this snare together. It’s a hammered steel Gretsch with those Yamaha wood hoops on it. I just liked it. It’s kind of become my other workhorse snare. I’ve used it on all kinds of stuff. The wood hoops temper that hammered steel, and it’s got a beautiful cross-stick sound. I’m always looking for a different sound, but I seem to go back to those two snares. I wish I could just sound like a Little Richard record all the time!”
Regarding cymbals, Pankratz says, “I generally like Zildjians. I love vintage cymbals, and if I had time I’d love to be a detective and track down that perfect ’50s or ’60s ride cymbal. One day I’ll find it, but I don’t have the time right now. Years ago after a bunch of my stuff was stolen, I can’t remember where or why but I bought a 20″ Paiste 2002. I liked it, so I just kept playing it.”
Lisa is an official endorser of Promark drumsticks, and adds that her preferred heads are Remos, and that she’ll occasionally use a full front head on her bass drum.