Passion, Love, & Insanity: After 20 Years Donna The Buffalo Still Finds The Silver Lining

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courtesy: myspace.com/donnathebuffalo

After twenty years as a band, Donna The Buffalo still manages to find the silver lining in whatever comes their way.  The roots-rock outfit from upstate New York has undergone a long list of lineup changes, including the departure of founding member Jim Miller in 2005 and the recent departure of bassist Bill Reynolds, who joined Band of Horses.

But for founding members Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, the sheer love of music and their legions of dedicated fans keep the band motivated and moving forward.

Their new album, Silverlined, out now on Sugar Hill Records, reveals the band’s stewpot of influences, an amalgam of traditional dance music forms including old time fiddle music, Zydeco, reggae and country. Since their inception, they’ve been roadhorses—constantly touring, playing festivals (and even hosting their own) and doing special destination events for their fanatical followers, who call themselves “The Herd.”

Dawn Of The Donna

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Tara Nevins / photo: Josh Mintz

Donna The Buffalo began when Puryear and Nevins, both aficionados of old-time Appalachian fiddle music, got together and began writing songs of their own. Both veterans of the fertile Ithaca, New York music scene, they found a kinship and soon a band was born. Their moniker comes from a brainstorm session when someone mis-heard the proposed name “Dawn Of The Buffalo”—there’s actually not a “Donna” in the group.

  “I started writing songs and Jeb and I would work on those songs on acoustic instruments,” says Nevins. “It sort of evolved into transferring that over to electric instruments. Then Jeb starting writing songs. Then we got some friends over and started playing these songs we wrote on electric instruments and it was a whole new world for us because we’d been playing fiddles and banjos. It was just an evolution into this electric form. But we brought with us our traditional sensibilities about playing the music. It wasn’t really planned out. It was just something fun we were doing. We became a band and decided to do a gig and people liked it so we decided to keep doing gigs. And here were are, twenty years later.”

Of course it didn’t happen in the blink of an eye. Extensive touring and recording marked those twenty years. They released a couple of home-made tapes in the early 1990s. Each of them were named only for the color of the cover—first the “white tape” and then the “red tape”—and sold at shows. The crowds grew, and by they time they got to the “purple” tape in 1993, it was released as a self-titled CD. Their 1998 collection, Rockin’ In The Weary Land, was their debut for Sugar Hill records and represented a highwater mark that helped the band gain national attention. After a second album on Sugar Hill, they set out on their own to release the excellent double-disc live collection, Live At The American Ballroom, as fine a primer as there is for the band’s music, and subsequent studio record, Life’s A Ride. Silverlined finds the band back with Sugar Hill.

Through all that time, the band toured extensively and became a festival favorite from coast to coast. Early on, they helped to form for their own festival and donated the proceeds to charity.  Donna The Buffalo served as the host band for The Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, New York for its debut in 1991 and it has been going strong ever since. A southern counterpart, the Shakori Hills Grass Roots Festival in Silk Hope, NC followed in 2003.

While Donna the Buffalo is well-known for hosting these events, they’ve also became mainstays at other festivals—places like the Magnolia Fest, Wakarusa, All Good, Telluride, Bonnaroo, Georgia’s Harvest Fest, Lafayette Louisiana’s Festival Internationale and many other gatherings have played host to Donna the Buffalo over the years. Along the way, they’ve coordinated additional destination concerts for The Herd, including their own cruise trips. In twenty years, Donna The Buffalo hasn’t slowed down much if at all.

SilverLined

With such a tenacious tour schedule, they can’t help but try out freshly minted songs on the stage before committing them to recording, as is the case with Silverlined. Most of the songs have been played live, some having been in the rotation for many years.

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photo: Bess Greenberg

“You write a song and just want to play it,” says Nevins. “It’s a lot of fun to play them. We’re on the road a lot and we play a bunch of new songs on the road and it comes time to make a record, we know those songs really well and just want to capture them in the studio.”

One advantage the studio has is the ability to add embellishments to the existing arrangements and Silverlined is rife with such enhancements, including backing vocals, horns and a banjo appearance by Bela Fleck.

“You’re always caught between capturing the live thing—that live energy—as well as you can but with the sound and technical quality of being able to be in the studio,” says Nevins. “That’s always a challenge. And then you want to take the music and maybe do something fresh with it. This time we did that. We decided to have some guests on this record. The whole thing was very serendipitous. We decided to have a few guest harmony singers on the record. That’s how it started. We started doing that and the whole thing was just like a domino or snowball effect and it just ran away with itself. We ended up getting guests instrumentalists as well.

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Bela Fleck sits in with Donna The Buffalo, Wakarusa 2006  / photo: J. Mintz

"[The fans] will know these songs and will be glad that they’re recorded. But there’s something new and fresh to each song. There will be some surprise whether it’s a trumpet on one song, or a tabla player or Bela Fleck on banjo or David Hidalgo singing or Claire Lynch doing harmonies or a slightly different approach to a song.

“We realized that 2008 is our twentieth year anniversary,” says Nevins. “We decided that in addition to the guests [the record] may be silver-lined also because of the year. It just all fell together … very serendipitous.”

The Sound of Echo

A different approach to this record was the way in which it was recorded. Though the band has their own studio in upstate New York, much of the tracking was done in Asheville, North Carolina at Echo Sound, due to an opportunity too good to pass up.

  “They were just opening that studio,” says Nevins. “We were so fortunate that they offered us this wonderful deal. They offered us a big period of time, like ten days or something, if we would play an open house concert for the opening of the studio. We went and saw the studio and it was absolutely beautiful and they’re great people. Very talented.”

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photo: B. Greenberg

Additional tracking was done in Nashville, and Nevins added vocal tracks at home in Huntsville, Alabama while Puryear added some of his own overdubs and vocals at their New York studio.

That change of scenery provided some unique opportunities too. “I was singing my vocals down here in Huntsville,” recalls Nevins. “When I was singing this song ‘Temporary Misery,’ I said to the engineer, ‘You know, I hear like a Dolly Parton-esque vocal on this.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, Claire Lynch, she’d be perfect.’ I said ‘Yeah, but where is she?’ He said, ‘She lives right here outside of town.’ He knew her and had a relationship. So he called her up and she came over the next day. That was my first meeting with her and it’s been great getting to know her. She’s awesome.”{mospagebreak}

Sugar Hill

After years on the Sugar Hill record label, Donna The Buffalo set out on their own to release the double live album, Live From The American Ballroom and their last studio effort, Life’s A Ride. But with Silverlined, they’ve re-joined their old label, happy to focus on the music. “We had done two records on our own and that was an interesting experience,” says Nevins.

  “I’m sort of a do it yourself-er,” counters Puryear. “If I want to go golfing I think I ought to build a golf course. I lean in that direction. We’ve had varying degrees of success with both models. Some stuff we do on our own really works out and sometimes it doesn’t work out so well. But, in a way, if you keep doing everything on your own you just wind up doing more and more stuff. Music is a little more exciting to us.”

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Jeb Puryear / photo: J. Mintz

“We’re incredibly busy and only have so much manpower in our organization,” says Nevins. “We’re very well-organized and well-oiled machine at this point. But to put out our own records and commandeer the distribution and radio and advertisment and publicity and all this… We just wanted to try plugging ourselves back into a machine. Things just came together and it seemed like the right thing to do. We’re very happy about it and they are too. They maintain a very high standard of quality and dignity. It’s a very classy wholesome boutique kind of label.”

Grass-Rooted

A key component of the Donna universe is the festivals they host, and the community of artists, musicians and fans it has fostered. The interaction with other musicians has helped forge the band’s sound too. The Zydeco influence via Nevin’s accordion was spawned by a spontaneous trip to Louisiana seventeen years ago for a rural Mardi Gras celebration.

“It was myself and Jim Miller and some other friends,” recalls Nevins. “We took a very spontaneous trip down to Cajun Mardi Gras. This was out in Mamou, not New Orleans. We’d never done it before. We went to this Mardi Gras and a whole new world opened up to us. That’s when we met the Frank family. I didn’t have many friends playing Zydeco music, but I certainly knew who Clifton Chenier was and listened to some Zydeco. But when we made that virgin trip down to Louisiana we came back in a completely different headspace.

 "I bought some accordions and I started learning how to play. We started our Grassroots Festival that very year. We called up the Franks and said ‘I don’t know if you remember us, but we saw you in this roadhouse out there in the middle of nowhere. And we’re having this festival in upstate New York and I don’t know if y’all would like to come up.’ They said yes! We really didn’t know each other at that point. They said yes and that was the very first year and they’ve been coming every year since and we go down to Mardi Gras every year. So we have this twice a year exchange.”

“You couldn’t possibly overstate [The festival scene]’s importance,” adds Puryear. “It’s basically the only real thing there is. There’s the club scene. You can go build a club up but it can take a while. There are a lot of music lovers that don’t go to bars. At the festival wit h the vibe of the festival and all of the other musicians and just the energy there, you’ve got the kids and everybody is running around, it almost gets you back to a vision of the way life should be. You have a lot of community feeling and everybody is getting off on the music. The festival scene is totally where it’s at.”

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photo: B. Greenberg

“The thing about a festival is that everyone comes together with the same thing in mind,” adds Nevins. “Whether you’re coming to party or just hear music, it ends up being a celebration. It brings together all different kinds of people, all different age groups—everyone coming together for the same reason. It’s incredibly positive ground for positive things to happen. It furthers your optimistic feeling of how the world could be, how society as a whole could be. It’s a very inspirational, uplifting, enriching experience.”

 Part of the process, and what keeps the intentions pure, according to Puryear, is the charitable aspect of the band’s festivals. “There was a fair amount of camaraderie among the [local] bands, but not a ton” he says. “So we were trying to get bands to do common shows. [Grassroots] was the attempt at that and it was extremely successful. But we wanted to make it a benefit so it wasn’t a thing like who-has-the-money-at-the-end vibe. I think it definitely [lends itself to more community]. So the festival stemmed out of that. We’ve raised a lot of money and given it away. We’ve done various arts things and education, especially, arts, education and the fight against AIDS. And we supported getting Shakori Hills off the ground.”

 This sense of responsibility falls in line with Donna’s longstanding record of speaking to social issues in their songs. “I always looked at is as totally a natural thing to do,” says Puryear. “Of course growing up listening to Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, they all did that so I just figured that’s what you did. And it comes naturally because I have a couple of views on things. Essentially music is spiritual. I think our worldviews and actions need to come out more from that spiritual place. It’s only natural for music to reflect that desire.

"There is a preparation in your psyche or your consciousness that needs to be made to open up the various truths about life in general. I think music helps do that," he states.  "I think essentially the thing with Grassroots and the band has been mainly towards creating or softening the ground for the right idea to come to people. I feel like [the festivals create] a connectedness. Our modern life leads to disconnectedness. And we need a few more things to keep us in the ballgame.”

Passion, Love & Insanity

After twenty years, what keeps the band going? Passion and dedication says Nevins. “We were always extremely passionate about it. We just started doing it and never thought to stop. We always thought: ‘how can we do this better? What are we not doing that we should be doing? How can we do it better?’”

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Nevins / photo: J. Mintz

“Jeb and I are the founding members,” she adds, “and we maintain through all the changes. We’ve been really successful at maintaining our same approach or vibe throughout all the changes.”

Part of those changes have been a rotating lineup. But it was the 2005 departure of founding member Jim Miller left Puryear and Nevins the sole founding members.

“Certainly Jim leaving changed things quite a bit because he played big chords on the electric guitar,” says Puryear. “He was making a lot of sound. We all had to start playing a little more. By the end of the first week, we had kind of developed a new sound. And we’ve grown with that and I think it’s great. There’s just more room and everybody had to fill out a little. Before it was quite crowded musically. A lot of the game was doing something meaningful but using up a small amount of space.

"But having changeover is always a bit of a drag because you get [accustomed] to people and then they want to do something else, which is cool because  you don’t want to force anybody to be in a band."

The Herd

“We’re very fortunate to have The Herd,” says Nevins of their dedicated fanbase “They are just amazing. They’re incredibly organized, loyal, they’re wonderful people and they’re right there in it with us. They have Herd charities. They’ll show up in places that we just don’t expect and they’re helpful. They’re a great group of people. We couldn’t do it without them really. You feel it when you’re on stage. With the Herd, there are people who are actively involved.”

“They all show up looking for the same thing,” says Puryear. “Musicians can go out and play as hard and as fast as they can but it wont necessarily be IT. But when it is IT everybody knows its IT and it’s great. Musicians in general are showing up to get with IT. And the crowd is showing up to get with IT.

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