Married To A ‘Maniac’
Balancing Fame And Family As Spouses To Iconic Local Rock Band
Pamela Gustafson, Kerry Drew and Jennifer Erickson are not women who fill a traditional role.
They are originals.
They all have professional careers. Each woman is well educated, successful, incredibly witty, strong, beautiful and out of necessity, much more practical than many of us.
They have managed to balance international fame in the family, with their own careers while rearing their children and admitting that at times, “it was stressful.” Yet looking back on the nearly four decades of their spouses’ musical fame and the challenges which that sometimes brought to them, none regrets it for a minute.
They hold a unique place in American musical history, whether they acknowledge it or not. Each is after all, “Married to a Maniac.”
I asked only four questions to begin our conversation and over the course of an afternoon I listened and laughed. For over four hours they reminisced, told out-of-school stories and stood face on with the challenges of being married to musical artists. They reflected on family, friends, home and their husbands’ fame, both way back when and now, with the band’s incredible resurgence over the past decade.
Pamela is married to 10,000 Maniacs co-founder, bassist and singer Steve Gustafson. The first time she saw him, she remembers, “he ignored me.” She saw him that first time, at the now-gone Rusty Nail. It was after she was hired as a bar tender at the Grog Shop that he began to take notice.
They first began dating in 1985 when Pamela traveled to Houston with friends. She had gone to school there for a brief time and this trip was to see the band perform. She described Steve as a “starving artist” in those early days of their relationship. “Everything he owned” she said, “fit in the back of my Ford Escort.”
Within the span of two years, she and Steve were married. She jokingly describes herself as the “Yoko Ono” of the 10,000 Maniacs. She was the first woman to marry into the intimacy of a very creative group of artists whose reputation was growing worldwide.
The success of the band didn’t come as a surprise to her though. In an almost matter of fact shrug of the shoulders moment, she described just knowing somehow that the band was destined for major success. She added, “They were very serious about their art and music and completely dedicated to it.”
She and Steve built a gorgeous home on eighty four acres in the hills outside of Frewsburg. They have two children, Riley and Greta. Both artists in their own right, they have performed with their respective bands across the region.
She doesn’t often travel to the “gigs” anymore. Reluctance to fly and her career have limited her willingness to take that on. Yet, she is no less impressed with the band’s music.
“I love to hear them when I can. They sound better than ever,” she said.
Pamela is now a fourth grade teacher at Fletcher School. She served as Academic Coordinator with Striders for nearly a decade and credits returning Executive Director Deb Kathman with setting a high standard for the organization.
Educated with both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Education from the State University at Fredonia, Pamela doesn’t hesitate when speaking lovingly about the children she has worked with in the past and currently teaches.
“They are just wonderful” she says. “I couldn’t think of a better career.”
When talking about her own children, she says, “I think the kids view their dad’s fame and success with a different perspective now that they are grown,” and while she says Steve is absolutely a dedicated artist, “it is all about family for him. He’s a dad first.”
That is a theme that each woman echoed. The balance between their husband’s fame and family is one that they each have managed well and it was obvious during our conversation that they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Kerry’s husband is Dennis Drew. He is co-founder of the Maniacs and pianist, organist, keyboard player, singer and songwriter.
Pamela described Kerry and Dennis’ wedding as a “Princess Di” moment. Married in 1990, they met on May 1, 1988, at Hobart College when the band was performing there. She knew the exact date, wryly adding, “Ya know, I’m 10 years younger than him.”
When she began her excursion with the Maniacs, they had already been internationally acclaimed. Her travels to concerts across the planet from South America to London and all across the United States have left a lasting impression on her. The artists she’s met evoked her smile every time she mentioned a name.
Jackson Browne, Katie Couric, Jerry Garcia, Paula Abdul, and Paul McCartney are just a few on the list of greats with whom that she’s spent time.
Kerry is a licensed clinical social worker, receiving her education at Jamestown Community College, SUNY Fredonia and the University of Buffalo. Her career is important to her.
“I worked hard to complete my education while raising my children, and love the work I do,” she says.
She called Dennis the “Biggest Non-Rock Star Rock Star” she’s ever seen. “Being a husband and father has always come first for him” she added, and from the way she speaks about her children, family and community, it is obvious that she is incredibly grounded. The fame in her life hasn’t changed her values or commitment to family and career. Her children, Emily and Dennis, are artists in their own right. That is another commonality among all of these women.
Jennifer Erickson is the newest member of the triad. She is married to 10,000 Maniac’s lead guitarist Jeff Erickson. Their daughter Audrey is a student and singer, whose amazing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at a JCC concert last year is still the “talk” in local music circles.
Jen and Jeff met in 1998 when he was not only a performing and traveling musician with his own band “The Crumbles,” but the guitar tech for the Maniacs as well. They’ve been together since. She describes her wedding in 2003 as “marrying into the band.”
Jen’s father was the late blues guitarist Bruce Peterson. As a performing musician, he was a long time friend of the Maniacs. She said of when she was still a girl, “dad knew the band in those early days and I grew up listening to their music.” There was no way of knowing then that her future husband would become the lead guitarist.
In the mid 2000s and after the death of Maniacs third founding member and lead guitarist Rob Buck, Jeff who had been working and traveling with the band was tapped to fill the role. That’s when Jen’s experience as a Maniac spouse began in earnest.
Jen was educated at Jamestown Business College and has worked as a legal assistant with Bly, Sheffield, Bargar and Pillittieri for 17 years. She also serves as business manager for her family’s business (Fresh Press) which was founded just five years ago.
Since that time, she has traveled the world, met super stars and maintained a professional career. She is managing the accounting for the family business as well as working full time and “holding down the fort,” when the band is on tour.
“It’s been good for Aud,” she says. “She sees her dad practice, misses him when he’s away but understands the value that art and music holds for people.”
Having grown up in a family of musicians, with her late father Bruce and uncle Bumpy Peterson who still performs, she has a historical sense of what it takes for a family to support a performing artist. It seems to come as second nature to her. The house filled with rehearing musicians is not an intrusion by any means. It is “much more fun than work” she says.
What is striking about these women is how strong they are. It is undoubtedly not easy for them when their spouses are “on the road.” But in spite of the occasional challenges, there was not a moment during our afternoon together when the laughter didn’t far outweigh any other emotion.
When you see them pridefully discuss the band’s musical place in history, its current success on the international music scene, and hear them talk about their husbands, children, and careers, it is clear that being Married to a Maniac is anything but a burden. Rather, it is the badge of honor they wear and one that each of them has deservedly earned.