When I teach, I try to reference some local Austin greats, and always mention Ernie Durawa, Brannen Temple, JJ Johnson, Frosty, and in more recent years, a younger great drummer, Wayne Saltzman.
Recently I’ve had the good fortune to speak with some very powerful drum set voices from our city, recruiting the ones willing to share their experiences and insights for our publication, AUSTIN DRUMMER MAGAZINE (ADM). I'm attempting to de-mystify Austin's drum voice further by speaking with a broad range of players, many of whom are still active on the scene. As the Publisher of ADM, I feel an obligation to dig out, discover, and explain the diverse rhythmic culture that has grown here in Central Texas. There is more "at the door” as they say.
This month, I was lucky enough to hear Johnny Vidacovich play in Austin. He gave us all a master class in New Orleans drum-speak. When I listen to Johnny play, it's the voice of New Orleans speaking to me. New Orleans has a perpetual music voice; there is music in the morning, noon, and night. Even when you die there’s a parade with special music! As Johnny speaks the NOLA musical language, he communicates the city’s rhythm so eloquently that mouths are left agape.
Throughout those moments when the music takes on a visual quality, like a painting, even the musical brush strokes Johnny uses seem on par with Van Gogh. It's very sophisticated art. I suppose that if people who didn't have much musical variety in their lives, and weren’t exposed to a lot of art, walked into a room while Johnny was playing drums and singing in his sometimes cacophonous intonation, they might not understand what was happening. It is, however, lovely and breathtaking to hear; in truth, Johnny is singing in harmony with his drums. Though it might be an acquired taste, these wonderful new flavors and spices enrich one’s musical palette.
I'm always explaining to students that putting together a great shuffle is job #1 if you live in Austin, Texas. When any young drummer goes to play for the first time with other young Austin Musicians, chances are they can get on the same page using Stevie Ray Vaughn’s music: if a young drummer can deliver the goods, great things can happen. I recently sat down with Brian Ferguson who told me that his shuffle hasn't only kept him working but has opened the door to making a decent living playing the drums with some Austin notables and staying busy enough to support his family. I've been preaching this for years, and he made the verification.
When I listen to Chris Layton, I hear the voice of Austin,Texas. Chris plays a shuffle in what I think is a similar place culturally speaking as Johnny but instead of the NOLA music language, when Chris plays it's Austin drum-speak. Chris became the heartbeat of Austin music in the late 80s with a good variety of deep shuffles and solid funk beats. He wrote the book on it. If I were to try and pick out a drum style that most closely defines the Austin style of drumming during, this time, it would be his work. As the drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughn, Chris reached a national audience and joined the pantheon of Austin music gods in the late 80s. (I literally tried to help him write the book on it. I transcribed about a dozen of Chris's performances for a drum book that never got off my shelf.) Drumset musicians everywhere need only to listen to "Cold Shot" for a second or two to understand the depth of rhythmic culture being propagated when Chris plays. In Joe Nick Patoski's book about Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble, he talks about Stevie showing the Texas Rub Shuffle to Chris and explaining that this beat was non-negotiable if Chris wanted the gig. The rest is history, Chris takes the groove puts it in this special place and I can say from personal experience "there just ain't no way to really transcribe that “mo-fo.”
There are many other working drummers who make a good living playing music in Austin, and I hope in the issues to come, we get to visit with every single one of these rhythm kings and get first-hand information on what it takes to be a notable drummer in today's Austin music scene, and get a better understanding of what our culture is made up of.