Note, August 2015: This is the birth of a new theme — first conceived nearly three years ago. I was consumed with creating playlists for all occasions. I envisioned my blog would be about music and nothing else. Each post would feature a favorite song, and I would present it ‘in all its glory.’ And now, here it is … Everything in its own good time, right? I hope you’ll share your thoughts, including those about your favorite songs — particularly ones that speak to your hearts and souls.
In April, nearly 25 years after they began roaming the country, I became one with The Herd at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. As I say in my intro, “everything in its own good time.” My girlfriend said, “I’m really interested to know what you think of Donna the Buffalo.” (The editor in me still wants to call them Donna AND the Buffalo because it’s one woman on stage with a group of males, but her name’s not Donna, and their band name’s a joke on the original.** Hmmm.) They were the featured band that afternoon in the dance tent. Not even halfway into one of their rhythmic blends of bluegrass, folk, country rock, and Zydeco (just a few ingredients; think of Appalachian stew combined with Louisiana gumbo, and a side of warm bread for good measure), I’m entranced, swaying, two-stepping, and rubbing shoulders with their Herd — akin to Grateful Dead’s Deadheads and Jimmy Buffet’s Parrotheads.
“Tides of Time,” Tara Nevins
Donna’s music has been compared to the Grateful Dead’s unique and eclectic style. In 2009, Tara Nevins — Donna co-founder — toured with former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann‘s band BK3. Donna the Buffalo has performed with and/or recorded with a variety of noteworthy folk/roots and Zydeco musicians, such as Jim Lauderdale and Preston and Keith Frank. (Click on the Frank link for a YouTube video of Nevins on washboard with the Frank Family Zydeco Band at a New York grassroots festival; you’ll get a taste of my dance tent experience.)
Nevins and fellow Donna founder Jeb Puryear first connected in the ’80s through their mutual devotion to “old-timey” music. Nevins — who began playing classical violin at age five, then acoustic guitar as a teenager — has said her “real epiphany” was upon hearing the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (1972) and described it as “a magic door into roots music.” Puryear was playing fiddle in the Bubba George String Band in the Ithaca, New York area, when he heard Nevins’ on the radio, playing with the St. Regis River Valley String Band. (The video of Bubba George is recent, and Puryear is playing fiddle; the St. Regis link is before Nevins’ time with them.)
One of Puryear’s bandmates (banjoist Richie Stearns) convinced the others to go to the bar where Nevins’ band was playing. Puryear — explaining his and Nevins’ roots in a February music magazine interview, says, “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.”
Eventually, Nevins and Puryear began writing and playing together regularly and added electric instruments to their repertoire. In the ’90s, Nevins became a fan of Cajun and Zydeco music and added the accordion to the mix. They write and perform their own songs; Puryear plays electric and steel guitars, and Nevins plays fiddle, accordion, washboard, and guitar. Other members of the band — and there has been a revolving door of them since the beginning — have roots in rock and jazz. Donna’s style has evolved into “contemporary traditional,” also known as Americana.
The Herd’s growing numbers/devotion can be partly explained by the band’s seemingly nonstop touring schedule. Additionally, Donna is one of the founding and host bands of the annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance (near Ithaca) along with the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival (near Chapel Hill, North Carolina) and headliners at The Great Blue Heron Music Festival (Sherman, New York) as well as MerleFest (Wilkesboro, North Carolina), where I joined with The Herd. Besides Nevins and Puryear, the band is nowadays made up of David McCracken on keys, bassist Kyle Spark, and drummer Mark Raudabaugh.
A music critic’s review of Donna’s latest (tenth) album, “Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday,” (2013) reports, “(It) highlights everything this consistent band does, and it has a warm, live-sounding production sound that stems from live analog recording sessions in a rustic church in Enfield, New York. The end result is one of Donna the Buffalo’s best outings, with several solid tracks.”
Following is a sampler: The video production, “Forty Days and Forty Nights” (written by Puryear), is on the album “Silverlined” (2008); “Riddle of the Universe” is (along with “Tides of Time”) on the two-disc set “Live from the American Ballroom” (2002); and, “I Love My Tribe” is on their latest album.
Donna’s themes can be socially conscious, personally reflective, and/or just plain fun. I’ve been hooked first by the rhythm, then become aware of the larger messages. For instance, Nevins’ accordion in “Tides of Time” hypnotically pulls you in, pulls you out: Looking out over the multitude, looking in to the heart of it, reaching out into the middle of it, seeing how we’re a part of it. I’m feeling the tides of time, moving in on my senses now, I’m feeling the tides of time, pull me in, pull me out.
Puryear’s wailing guitar is equally — and cosmically — mesmerizing as he questions life’s mysteries: It was once thought that the world was flat, it is now thought that the world is round, everyone sees that sprinkling poison kills this flower, but what of the magic that causes this flower to be blues, greens, shades of demise, circle of surprise. We are born, then die, thinking, thinking, feeling, smelling. Forever swimming in the middle, it’s a question then a riddle …
“Tribe” is simply a bouncy paean to the comfort and beauty of friendship, especially after heartache.
Enjoy them up close and personal first (“Forty Days”), then follow with “Riddle” and “Tribe.” I dare you to sit still!
“Riddle of the Universe,” Jeb Puryear
“I Love My Tribe,” Tara Nevins
**Note: Donna’s original name, suggested by a friend, was to be “Dawn of the Buffalo,” but Puryear and/or Nevins heard “Donna the Buffalo.” Also, they thought the first sounded too pretentious, so “Donna” was born.