He’s Just A Pumper In A Rock ‘N’ Roll Band

For longtime Maryland pumper James Dillard, keepin’ time in a band is the only way to rock.
He’s Just A Pumper In A Rock ‘N’ Roll Band
James Dillard, owner of Dillard’s Septic Service, has been beating the drums for longer than he’s pumped tanks. Here he’s shown with one of several drum sets he plays and his vacuum truck in the background.

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When James Dillard isn’t out pumping septic tanks in and around Annapolis, Md., odds are he’s marching to the beat of a different drummer: himself.

The 51-year-old owner of Dillard’s Septic Service, a business he established in 1989, has been pounding the skins since he was just 7 years old. The inspiration for his longtime hobby? A drum solo on “Live Album,” a gold record put out by classic rock mainstay Grand Funk Railroad in 1970.

“That drum solo ­­– and the audience’s interaction with it – totally blew me away,” Dillard recalls. “I never really had much of an interest in playing guitar, so I probably would have played drums anyway. But a [solo] on that album pretty well sealed the deal.”

Dillard comes from a musical family, steeped in country and bluegrass music. His mother, Joy, enjoyed singing and was a member of a church choir, and his father, Jack, sang and played guitar at small clubs and honky-tonks around the region in his younger days. And his older brother, Jack, was a big influence, too.

“My father taught Jack to play guitar at an early age,” Dillard says. “He went on to play electric bass guitar and lead guitar. Growing up with him and listening to bands he listened to and the garage bands he played in … it was just natural for me to play an instrument. And I chose to play drums.”


At first, Dillard banged around for about a year on a snare drum purchased from Sears. When he was 8 years old, his parents bought him his first real drum set: a custom kit made by Pearl that he still owns. “My grandsons play it in their bedroom,” he says.

A self-taught drummer, Dillard learned by watching bands on TV and listening to his brother’s bands. “I just picked it up,” he says. As strong influences, he cites Don Brewer from Grand Funk (who wrote and sang lead on the band’s first hit single, “We’re An American Band”) and the legendary John Bonham of Led Zeppelin.

When he was 19 or 20, Dillard staked out new drumming territory by learning to play two bass drums, like Tommy Aldridge (who played with Black Oak Arkansas, Whitesnake, Pat Travers and Ozzy Osbourne) and Scott Travis (drummer for the hard-rock group Judas Priest).

When he first started drumming, Dillard was a big fan of 1970s hard rock. Early bands he played with reflected his country and bluegrass roots, with oldies thrown in. But he’s played in a dozen bands with varied sounds since, stints that kept him busy when he wasn’t pumping out septic tanks with his 1988 Chevrolet C70. The vintage rig carries a 2,300-gallon steel tank from Lely Manufacturing and a pump from Masport Inc.

“It still has the original engine and tank,” he says. “Many other companies have probably owned a half dozen trucks in the time I’ve had my one truck … because I own, drive and maintain it, I probably take better care of it than any employee would.”


With more than four decades of drumming under his belt, Dillard’s music career has the same staying power as his truck. Over the years, he’s played with Steel Force, a classic-rock band he formed with his brother, and Turner’s Outlaw Band, featuring frontman and lead singer Frank Turner.

“Frank Turner was stone country … drums were an afterthought to him,” Dillard says. “He thought they should be seen and not heard. When he first saw my drums, he was a bit taken aback [with the two-bass drum setup].

“But after we played together for several years, if I showed up with a smaller drum kit, he’d always ask where my double-bass pedal was,” Dillard adds. “After being together for so long, he got so used to it that he was lost without it!”

Even though he’s played in bands that ranged from country-western to thrash rock, Dillard’s first musical love remains classic rock, a la Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent and Van Halen.

“Van Halen is probably my favorite,” he says. “I went for the more aggressive stuff. I never was interested in bubble gum rock. I was much more interested in bands where drummers were doing something that made you want to listen to the music.

“I don’t try to copy,” he continues. “Sure, there are certain signature parts you have to do in a song, but I also try to make the song my own – put in my own drum fills. So I pretty much do what I want to do, as long it doesn’t take away from or overpower the songs.”


Dillard says he owns several drum kits, including a Ludwig Jelly Bean kit his parents bought for him in 1974, when he was 11 years old, and four vintage Tama Superstar kits. He keeps one Tama set in his house and the rest are stored in a 12- by 16-foot shed.

“I fell in love with the sound of the Tama Superstars,” he says of the collector’s-item kits. “They’re made out of birch wood, which provides a warm sound. These drums are more versatile … they give you a really good acoustic drum sound, like old jazz drummers like Buddy Rich used to do. They don’t rely on electronics to get the sound across, it’s the drum itself.”

Currently, Dillard isn’t playing in a band, so he doesn’t play as much as he used to – maybe just two or three hours a week, compared to around 15 hours a week when he’s in a band. But he’s still looking for new bandmates, so that could change at any time. Meanwhile, he plans to keep hittin’ the skins.

“At age 51, I’m not trying to make a living being a drummer,” he says. “I just love doing it. I plan to keep on drumming as long as I’m alive – or at least able. It’s something I could never stop doing. I believe any true musician, once it’s in your blood, it’s there forever.”


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