Donna the Buffalo: Tending the Herd
It was a cold night in Connecticut’s north woods, but frigid temperatures didn’t stop Donna the Buffalo’s fans – collectively known as the Herd – from gathering for a one-nighter with the band at Infinity Hall in Norfolk. Donna isn’t a jam band, but they have the following of one – devoted fans that collect their concert tapes and follow their never-ending tour.
Their shows are often epic affairs, driven by a strong book of road-hardened songs from guitarist Jeb Puryear and fiddler/accordion player Tara Nevins. The band plays electric roots music, new tunes out of an old tradition, with influences ranging from rock, reggae, and old-time country to zydeco and beyond. The Grateful Dead – to whom they’ve certainly been compared – did that too, but Donna approaches it the way the band Joy of Cooking did: close to the ground, with the roots clearly showing. Sure, they jam, but don’t expect self-indulgent, look-at-me solos. Everything that happens onstage at a Donna show is in service to the song. It may not always be readily apparent, but Nevins and Puryear are carrying on the tradition of pre-bluegrass old-time music, where collective improvisation is the rule: everybody’s listening and bouncing off each other, without egos getting in the way.
Dead bassist Phil Lesh understands the distinction. When Rolling Stone asked him about modern jam bands, he said, “I get the feeling that the jamming isn’t jamming. The rhythm sections just repeat under the soloists. That is not collective improvisation – it’s soloing and accompaniment. I thought of the Grateful Dead as electric chamber music – the music of friends, give and take, back and forth. That model has been lost in the jam band scene.”
Considering how long they’ve been playing together, it’s easy to place Donna the Buffalo under the category of “the music of friends, give and take, back and forth.” And, to hear its founding members talk, that’s exactly their aim.
In a cozy green room tucked away from the evening’s chill, Nevins and Puryear get through another day on the road, finishing the dinner brought down from the kitchen. They seem receptive to the idea of talking about the old-time roots of a joyfully electric band, but we have to get the jam band stereotype out of the way first.
Puryear points out that “the definition of what a jam band is has shifted, because the definitions of words shift. These days it’s digital and trancey, sometimes with three keyboards — hippie electronica.”
Nevins adds, “I’ve always thought that ‘jam band’ meant groups that spend most of their time improvising. Our main point is the songs.” She’s right, of course, and it shows. Donna’s audience waits with gleeful anticipation for superbly crafted gems like “Conscious Evolution,” “Sailing,” “Positive Friction,” “Family Picture,” “Seems to Want to Hurt This Time,” and Nevins’ tribute to the Herd — as fond as George Harrison’s “Apple Scruffs” — “I Love My Tribe.”
The Roots of Their Roots
Growing up in Orangeburg, New York, Tara Nevins started on the classical violin at age five, got a guitar at 14, and learned to play radio hits by Carole King, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. She played violin in the high school orchestra. But the girl who wore go-go boots had her real epiphany on hearing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken – a magic door into roots music almost as important as the Anthology of American Folk Music for an earlier generation. Her roommate at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam in the 1970s was in the St. Regis River Valley String Band, and soon Nevins was, too. For her and old-time music, it was love at first sight.
As Nevins tells it, sometime in the early ’80s, St. Regis had a gig in Ithaca that included playing on the “Bound for Glory” show on Cornell’s WVBR. “Jeb and his brothers and Richie Stearns [banjoist for The Horseflies] had the Bubba George String Band, and they were driving around doing nothing,” she says. “They put the radio on and heard us playing old-time, songs like ‘Old Joe Clark’ and ‘John Brown’s Dream.’”
Puryear, who still plays hot fiddle when Bubba George gets back together, picks up the story. “Old-timey musicians like to play together – it’s not like rock, where you need all this gear. It’s awesome. You just start playing. Richie dragged us down to the bar where St. Regis was playing and I met Tara that night. We played some tunes.”
To hear these guys tell it, old-time music was in the air in the ’70s. “The back-to-the-land movement was happening,” Nevins remembers. “People were attracted to rural places, moving out to the country, heating with wood, and listening to archaic music. The music was fizzling out in the South, so we were the revivalists.”
The big name at the time was the Highwoods String Band, known, Puryear says, “for their incredibly energetic shows, a kind of hippie-hop. My playing fiddle was in part in the hopes of becoming famous like those guys.” He goes on to say how much he learned from his fiddling heroes – men like Tommy Jarrell and Benton Flippen. Jarrell was one of many influences he and Nevins shared.
Nevins was doing the same thing, digging old-time guys like Dock Boggs, Fred Cockerham, and Kenny Baker, attending events like the Mount Airy and Galax fiddlers conventions. “We were after the nuances,” she says. One time at a festival, she was complimented by Jarrell’s banjo player for playing “Sally Anne” just like Tommy. She remembers that fondly, before adding, matter-of-factly, “Well, I learned the tune from a Tommy Jarrell recording.” Puryear calls that “playing the scratches on the record,” but the two of them – occasionally playing together by then – were not fated to become folk Nazis or grim-faced guardians of the tradition.
Instead, Nevins helped found the Heartbeats Rhythm Quartet, an all-girl band with old-time roots and original songs with a distinct modern pop music gloss. Nevins isn’t ashamed to admit, “I’ve always listened to pop music. It’s been a huge influence.”
The Heartbeats made only one record – Spinning World, in 1993 – but it’s a darned good one, combining old-time classics like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Blue Diamond Mines” with contemporary finger-snappers like “Hollywood Dream” and “Living in Babylon.” The group was together for a decade, overlapping with the founding of Donna the Buffalo. One of The Heartbeats, Beverly Smith, later joined old-time demigod Bruce Molsky in Big Hoedown. Molsky, no purist himself, says he’s a huge fan of The Heartbeats, holding them up to his students, he says, “as an example of a band that used old-time music, among other things, to develop a unique and great voice of their own way back when.”.
Early Donna showed its roots far more than the group does today – another old-time giant, Dirk Powell, played with the band for a time. But it was placing old-time music in a modern context that helped pique Puryear’s interest in Nevins’ talents. He explains that she was “the first person I met who wrote songs I could imagine hearing on the radio.” Before long, he started doing exactly the same thing – with a kind of “Get Together” populism being a major theme. St. Regis and Bubba were simpatico by this point. “We played music together a ton,” Nevins remembers.
It was inevitable the two songwriters would join together; the genesis was a one-night-only gig at the Cabbagetown Café in Ithaca, New York, in 1987. “When we started writing songs for the new band on acoustic, it just didn’t sound loud enough, so we morphed into playing electric instruments,” Nevins said. “And we bought an organ for 50 bucks.”
Puryear’s group, meanwhile, had gotten a big reaction at a fiddle contest when they pulled out a Police song, “Every Breath You Take,” and he was fascinated by the possibilities of blending old-time spirit with contemporary sensibilities. “Old-time music has a lot of energy and excitement to offer, but a narrow emotional bandwidth,” he says. “Contemporary songs have a wider communicative form, and when we started playing originals the audience completely understood what was happening.” Nevins adds that what gave old-time fiddlers depth is the fact they had “a limited number of tools in their toolbox, and used whatever they had to maximum effect.”
When they were looking for something to name the band, a friend came up with a name that sounds like it was secured from a newsreel, "Dawn of the Buffalo." The group misheard it as "Donna the Buffalo," and everyone loved that. The new mishmash was nameless no more. The group officially formed in 1989, which means they’ve been on the road for more than 25 years. It’s fair to say that just picking up electric instruments doesn’t mean an immediate proficiency on them. “People thought we were a crappy band for a long time,” Nevins admits. It’s fair to say the band didn’t remain crappy for long; Nevins and Puryear successfully adapted their playing styles to electric instruments, and they added members who came out of rock and jazz bands.
Only Nevins and Puryear remain from the first lineup, the earliest manifestation of which is documented in a homemade Dirk Powell-produced cassette-only release called The White Tape (1989, followed by The Red Tape, 1991, with Mitch Easter producing). Nevins’ ex-husband, Jim Miller, was in that version of the band, playing guitar and singing, as were both Richie and Jennie Stearns – the former on keyboards, the latter on guitar and vocals – and Jeb’s brother Jordan, on bass. Their self-titled official debut CD was released in 1993, evenly split between Nevins and Puryear originals. By that point, Nevins had become infatuated with Cajun and zydeco music, and her newly acquired accordion skills became the driving force in the band’s earliest shows.
The traditional influence is strongest in early Donna lineups that featured old-time fiddle players Joe Thrift and Jimmy Triplett. One could fill pages listing all the members to cycle through during the band’s numerous personnel changes, but these days it’s a quintet with former Buddy Guy and CJ Chenier keyboardist David McCracken, Berklee grad and jazz bassist Kyle Spark, and drummer Mark Raudabaugh – another jazz guy. The band’s on the road at least a third of the year, averaging 110 gigs a year. Indeed, the constant touring is why the Herd keeps getting bigger.
But, with each lineup, the band has picked up more influences and stronger chops. It’s fair to say that Donna today isn’t likely to break into an acoustic version of “Hot Corn, Cold Corn,” though they’re debating how a “double-fiddle thing” might go over. Their evolution has made them into a dance band that relies on high energy to keep audiences out of their seats. “Old-time music is important to us,” Puryear says, “for its sense of excitement and joy. But what we do now doesn’t sound like that. There are lots of variations of the tradition.”
Nonetheless, Donna’s roots still show in all kinds of ways. For one thing, influenced by Rhode Island’s Rhythm and Roots blowout, they’ve run the Grassroots Festival – now in multiple locations – since 1990. The original location is in Trumansburg, New York, in the Finger Lakes. But the festival now encompasses a second venue, as the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in North Carolina, and a third as The Virginia Key Grassroots Festival in Miami.
These are not rock festivals; the lineup is determinedly eclectic and international, embracing such acts as mainstreamers Lake Street Dive and Jim Lauderdale (with whom Donna the Buffalo has made an album), plus discoveries such as the Flying Clouds of South Carolina, Honey Spine, Galumpha, Afrobeta, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, Big Mean Sound Machine, Samite, Jimkata, Lanzallamas, and the Blind Spots. The breadth of styles covered in the lineups is apropos to Donna’s mission as a band. “We wanted to focus on real roots,” Puryear says. “We weren’t looking to book all that many heavy metal acts.”
Donna has also taken its extended family on the road with the Roots Tour, featuring one-man band John Specker, the Overtakers reggae band, Preston Frank and his Zydeco Family Band, and others. It’s all grist for the mill.
Puryear says that when his band hears, say, an African band, it’s likely you’ll hear some influences from that at Donna’s next show. “But it doesn’t matter what we do,” he says. “It always sounds just like Donna the Buffalo. I haven’t heard anything that isn’t an influence on us, from the Beatles to Bob Marley.”
There’s no arguing with that. Donna’s sound is indelibly their own, and quite different from the Dead’s truckin’ boogie and the tennis match improvisation of so many jam bands. But one thing Donna shares with the Dead is outlook: they’re both democratic, people’s bands. At the Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut last year, after a high-energy set, Puryear wandered out into the Woodstock-like encampments in front of the main stage. Far from playing the conquering rock star, he was just another member of the tribe, trying to find some shade.
“We have a spirit that lives between us all,” he said. “At a good show, everyone is equal and a part of it.” Nevins completes the thought. “Donna the Buffalo has always been about the groove. We create a wave and everybody rides it.”
Back at the Infinity
Soon it’s showtime, and Donna rocks the Infinity. Despite this being a sit-down theater, no one sits still long. It’s an older crowd, but some members of the Herd have brought their teenage kids. Two hours later, the groove was still rock solid, but I was fading. The great thing about Donna is there’s always a next time.
Join the Herd and follow Donna’s road schedule – they’re on the road through March. The band’s discography is 10 records deep, but maybe Live from the American Ballroom (2002) is a good place to start. The fan site is here, and a voluminous archive of free Donna shows is here. Tara Nevins has two solo albums, the first of which, Mule to Ride, is focused on fiddle tunes, and the second, Wood and Stone, has a more Donna-like sound featuring, among others, Levon Helm. The group’s most recent album is Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday (2014).
Jim Motavalli, a proud member of the Herd, has been writing about music since the 1970s for such publications as Paste, Country Music, Living Blues, the Advocate Newspapers and his own blog. He hosts a bimonthly radio show with plenty of live music on WPKN-FM in Bridgeport, CT.