An Interview With Tara Nevins of Zydeco Folk Rock Favorites Donna The Buffalo

There are only a handful of bands that draw such a loyal, niche following like Upstate New York Americana folk rockers, Donna The Buffalo.

Fronted by Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, Donna The Buffalo has been building their devoted audience, or The Herd as their known, via their entrancing live shows for three decades now. You can’t talk festivals or live music around New York State without mentioning this bunch that brings the non-stop dancing and radiation of positive, feel good energy in the form of fiddles, accordions, washboards, guitars, keys, and loads of other instrumentation/vocal arrangements.

The band hosts the yearly summer Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York, as well was additional Grassroots festivals in Shakori Hills, North Carolina. What started as a one-night AIDS benefit show, has since evolved into a four-night party of thousands of people indulging in all day music, dance, art, crafts, food, and a much desired escape from the outside world going on thirty years now.

Tara Nevins (no she isn’t Donna) along with Jeb, have been the driving force of the band throughout the years, and is responsible for creating not only incredible old time traditional American music, but for creating years of good times and golden memories among thousands of people that have attended these festivals over the years.

Tara was kind enough to have a chat with us about all of this and much more, so without further adieu…

Music Mecca: So where did you grow up and what got you into playing roots/Americana music?

Tara Nevins: I grew up in New York State, in Orangeburg to be exact. I went to school for classical music, classical violin. But I was always attracted to traditional music. I left college and basically abandoned my classical studies, and dove into playing old time traditional fiddle music. In the process of doing that, I got into and discovered Creole music from southwest Louisiana, Zydeco music, and Cajun music. I was always into that. I was also into African music, Irish music, country music, and all the traditional music. I was just always drawn to those worldly styles. I started going to festivals in the south, and soon became part of this old time music community, which just kind of blossomed, and through that, Donna The Buffalo came out. It was an evolution of sorts, I guess.

MM: Can you talk about when you first met Jeb and how Donna the Buffalo came together?

TN: I was in a string band called The St. Regis River – are you recording this?

MM: I am, but I can always edit out whatever you’d like me to.

TN: No no no I’m glad you’re recording it because I don’t like doing interviews when they’re not recording, because it never comes out right. Anyway, I was in a string band called The St. Regis River Valley String Band, and we were playing some gigs around my senior year in college, and we got a gig in Ithaca, New York on a radio show called Bound For Glory. And Jeb and his brothers had a string band at the same time, and that band was called Bubba George String Band. I had my string band, and he had his. We didn’t know each other. We, St. Regis, came to Ithaca to play this radio show, and Jeb and his brothers were driving around in the evening looking for something to do, and they turned on the radio and heard the show, and heard us playing, and they were like “oh cool there’s another string band in town playing for Bound For Glory.” Because it was a live in studio radio show, you could listen to it on the radio, or come to the studio at Cornell to watch it. So he and his brothers in the Bubba George String Band checked it out and saw us play, and when the show was over, they came backstage to introduce themselves, and that’s how we met. Back in the day, and still, you meet other people who play old time fiddle music and you have an immediate connection. So we ended up going to a neighborhood bar, jammed together, and became fast friends. I was living in Saratoga Springs, and Jeb was in The Finger Lakes, around Ithaca, and so I ended up spending a lot of time over there. We started playing old time music together and started writing songs, songs that were a little different, not quite old time songs. Then at that point I had met my husband Jim Miller, who used to be in the band. Me, Jeb, and Jim were playing the songs I was writing on acoustic instruments. And then Jeb got to writing songs, and that’s pretty much how Donna The Buffalo got going.

MM: It seems that shortly after y’all got together, you put on the first Grassroots Festival. How did that come to be, and did you ever expect it become as popular as it is?

TN: So we were always going to festivals. Fiddle festivals in the south, festivals up here in the north, Pete Seeger’s festival, and a bunch of different ones. A lot of these festivals were becoming more diverse. They started having a wide variety of different kinds of music. You’d find all of it at one festival, and they started broadening. We decided to put on a concert, which was a one night benefit concert for AIDS. It was around the time when there was an outpour of support, and there was sort of a community here in town. It ended up selling out and a being great success. So afterwards, Jeb thought, “well why don’t next year we do a three-day festival?” And we were all like, “yeah let’s do it!” So that’s how it started, then a few years later it turned into a four-day festival. For several years it was an AIDS benefit, but now it is a non-profit organization to benefit arts and education in this county here. We kind of knew what we liked and didn’t like in a festival, so it was easy for us to put the structure together. And it’s grown! This next year is the 30th year, and there’s two now in North Carolina, in Shakori, as well as Trumansburg.

MM: Of all the Grassroots Festival shows you’ve played, is there any one or two that immediately come to mind as some of your fondest memories?

TN: Lots of memorable moments over the years for sure. There was a crazy moment one Sunday night when we do our big finale and have guests come up. This one year we had Moontee Sinquah come up and sing. He’s a Native American from out in Arizona. He had sung on a solo record of mine, and we had him up to sing on the song he did with me called “Trouble,” and right in the middle, during the instrumental, he starts chanting. It was a beautiful night, and so he came up, started singing, and when it got to his chant, all of a sudden the clouds moved in, covered the moon, covered the sky, the wind picked up, and all of these mini tornadoes picked up. I forget what they’re called. But people started running for cover, I mean it was crazy. It was like his chanting was doing it, and it was just so spiritual. And then, when he stopped, the clouds parted, the sky was clear, and the wind completely settled down, and it was a beautiful night again. There were many occasions over the years that were memorable, many fabulous musicians, the all night dances. It’s hard to imagine them all, but that always pops into my head.

MM: What year was that?

TN: That must’ve been about…seven years ago.

MM: Now I may be mistaken, but doesn’t some of the band have a residence here in Nashville?

TN: Well, not really. Our drummer just moved to Nashville. And Jeb has a family home in Nashville, and so he spends some time there. Our keyboard player lives in Greensboro, North Carolina and he’ll go there. And actually our bass player, well he just quit a few months ago, but he lives down there as well. We’ve always been spread out.

MM: And it looks like you filmed your latest video “Dance in the Street” for the album of the same name here correct?

TN: Mmhm yes.

MM: Can you talk about the new album, maybe the writing and recording process and what may be different about this one from previous albums?

TN: Well we recorded this record, Dance in the Street, last February. We were at a studio outside of El Paso called Sonic Ranch Studios, and the studio was on a 3,500 acre pecan plantation. It was an amazing experience. Our producer was Rob Fraboni. He had been working at the place and suggested it. So we all went out to El Paso and stayed out there for a month, and it was very inspirational and a very different environment completely. Rob has worked with basically everyone under the sun. Anyone that you can name, from Bob Dylan to Bonnie Raitt and on and on. He really got what we were going for, and captured us really well. It’s kinda hard to capture us on a record because we play live so much and are known as a live band, but he was able to capture the essence a little bit. Records are never perfect, but he did a good job. The thing that’s different about the record, is that from start to finish, it is completely analog.   

MM: Do you have a specific atmosphere or pastime you seek out that aides in your songwriting process or is it more sporadic?

TN: No it’s very sporadic. Sometimes I’m writing just because I feel like writing. Sometimes I write under pressure, and I need or want another song or two. It comes in different ways. Sometimes it comes late at night, sometimes it’s in the middle of the day, it just varies.

MM: So I saw that you at some point toured with Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann in what was called BK3. How did that come about, and what did the tour entail? 

TN: Well he was about to go on tour again with his trio BK3, and they had always taken a female singer out on the road with them. I didn’t know them, and I didn’t know they knew me, but Bill lives in Hawaii with his partner, and his partner was a fan of Donna The Buffalo. And when they were thinking about hitting the road, she suggested me to them. And I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened. So they called my manager and asked, and my manager asked me if I wanted to do it. It was a good time for me too, as Donna The Buffalo was going strong, but I just had gotten out of a serious personal relationship, so it was a really nice transition for me to put my head into something new and different. It came along at a really great time for me. It was almost meant to be, to kind of turn my head.

MM: When was this? The 90s? 2000s?

TN: No, no. Let’s see. This was around 2010 or something like that.

MM: Were you a big Dead fan before that?

TN: I wasn’t a Dead Head. I didn’t have all their records. I knew their most popular songs and I certainly knew who they were. I didn’t follow them around or anything. It was an eye-opening experience because I learned all about them. I had to pick three of their songs to sing, so I had to research and go through their whole repertoire, and choose three songs I felt I could relate to and sing, you know? So in doing that I really learned a lot bout them, and became so impressed with their history, evolution, fan base, and what they’d accomplished. I also got to play fiddle with them on a lot of their other songs. And they actually learned one of my Donna The Buffalo songs, and I was extremely grateful for the experience. It was a blast.

MM: It seems like quite a challenge to keep a band together for years and years. Do you have any tips or secrets on how to maintain musical longevity?

TN: I think you do it because you like doing it. If you’re fortunate enough to where people connect with what you do, and you can end up making somewhat of a living from it, then you’re very fortunate. And that helps you to keep doing it. But if you’re only doing it to get famous or something then it’s going to end up being a painful experience. Jeb and I have been doing this for so long, we never questioned it. One thing leads to another, a year leads to another year, and before you know it the years have gone by, and you’re still doing it. We have a really wonderful and loyal fan base called The Herd and we’re very fortunate for that. And The Herd is right there with us on this journey you know? We just kind of keep going. Time goes on and it’s like a snowball going down that big hill, and you wake up one day and you’re like, “oh we’re still doing this and 25 years has gone by.” But you have to have support. You have to have a fan base that loves what you’re doing, and an organization behind you. But basically, you do it because you simply love to do it.  

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