Donna the Buffalo gathers the herd
When Donna the Buffalo performs this Saturday, the Wheeler Opera House crowd will most likely be up and dancing to the sextet’s music, a rhythmic sound propelled by the beats of reggae, country and Cajun styles. Pushing the energy, no doubt, will be members of the Herd, the fans who follow in the band’s hoofsteps to watch the shows and perform charitable deeds along the way. And at the center of the high-energy gig will be Tara Nevins, Donna the Buffalo’s co-founder, lead singer, fiddler, accordionist and one of two principal songwriters.But that electrified sound and scene are not quite Nevins’ first, or even main love. As a teenager in Orangeburg, N.Y., just north of New York City, Nevins fell for the more rustic sounds of Appalachian fiddle music. From the first time she heard the Highwoods String Band and the St. Regis String Band – two contemporary groups that played the music that came out of North Carolina and Virginia in the early 20th century – Nevins set stepped away from her background as a classical violinist and embraced the old-timey sound.When Nevins first met Jeb Puryear, a singer and guitarist from Ithaca, farther upstate in New York, the two played that unplugged, old-style music. After Nevins and Puryear expanded the duo to a full band in 1990, giving it the name Donna the Buffalo, the sound remained rooted in the traditional Appalachian fiddle style. But as the group began playing bigger venues, the sound grew with it. Nevins switched from acoustic fiddle to an electric, five-string version of the instrument, the better to have the crowds hear her, and the better to hear herself over the drums and bass that were now part of the mix. Donna the Buffalo’s transition from acoustic fiddle combo to electric rock band was cemented by Nevins’ trip to Mardi Gras in southwest Louisiana in the early ’90s.”I discovered zydeco, and bought an accordion,” said Nevins from her home in Piermont, N.Y. “And I just started using accordion in Donna the Buffalo – not to be a zydeco band, but just to use it in the band. So you had fiddle and accordion, which makes you think zydeco and Louisiana music. Gradually, it transformed from acoustic to electric instruments.”
Donna the Buffalo – which includes guitarist and banjoist Jim Miller, keyboardist Kathy Ziegler, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Tom Gilbert, in addition to Puryear and Nevins – has achieved a good level of success. Their upcoming schedule includes stops at such massive gatherings as the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee, MerleFest in North Carolina, and Milwaukee’s Summerfest. For over a decade, Donna the Buffalo has hosted the Finger Lakes Grass Roots Festival of Music and Dance, an upstate New York extravaganza that draws some 12,000 people over four day. They have also released a series of albums on Sugar Hill, the prestigious acoustic-oriented label, and collaborated with much-admired Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale for the 2003 album “Wait ‘Til Spring.” Their next album, due out next month, is “Life’s a Ride,” on the Reincarnate label.But Nevins hasn’t, and likely never will lay down her acoustic fiddle. When she’s on break from Donna the Buffalo, she plays old-timey music as often as she can. She dreams of recording a follow-up to “Mule to Ride,” her 1999 acoustic album of mostly traditional songs that featured guest appearances by Appalachian icon Ralph Stanley.”It’s apples and oranges,” said Nevins of the difference between Donna the Buffalo and her acoustic interests. “But the fiddle music will always be my passion. It’s in my soul in a deep way. And Donna the Buffalo, I adore.”Having the two styles allows Nevins two very different kinds of musical experiences. “Certainly playing electric and acoustic fiddle, you play with a different feel, a different touch,” she said. “You start playing electric music, it’s fun. It evokes a different kind of power. But you go back to the acoustic, and you go, yes, yes. You have freedom; you don’t have to be plugged in. And it has a beauty all its own.”
Despite the difference in sound, those two corners of Nevins’ musical existence are not so far apart, however. Donna the Buffalo has watched a most devoted following grow among its fans. The Herd, which developed independently of the band, is known not only to trail the band from town to town, but to do good deeds along the trail. Nevins says that relationship between band and audience stems from Donna the Buffalo’s acoustic roots.”I think it comes from the old-time music thing,” she said. “The way we played it was, sit in a circle, put your heads together and it’s very mantralike, all trying to ride a wave together. That’s how we’ve always approached Donna the Buffalo. Not consciously, but everybody just finds their place on the magic carpet. And hopefully it flies.”So the band is very much a family, very tribal feeling. The vibe of us being close – that’s what we put out, and it welcomes the audience in. It becomes very community-oriented, with a lot of exchange between us and them.”Fortunately, no one makes a musician choose between their aspirations to rock and their inner old-time picker. Nevins sees no end to her dual roles, as a rocker on the festival circuit and a down-home fiddle player.
“It’s kind of like having a city apartment and a country apartment, and you can go back and forth,” she said. “You appreciate them both.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com