American dance music, folk act, jam band -- however you label them, Donna the Buffalo have been defying traditional classification while coming from a traditional background. Formed by vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear in 1989, the New York-based band has amassed a cult following, culled from their rigorous touring of roots and folk-leaning festival circuits, leading the formation of their own grassroots festival in their hometown. We spoke to Nevins ahead of the band's set this Sunday at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival.
With Donna The Buffalo in its 25th year together, what are the biggest lessons you've taken away from that tenure?
If you're not doing it because you love it, don't even bother. It's really tough, it's hard work and it's a tough business. You have to be true to yourself, and you can't worry about or care about what other people think about you and your music. Stay true to your own expression and your art and put it out there. That's the only success really, that's true success, because you can't please everybody all the time. What other people think about you is none of your business, and if you're going to put it out there just have confidence in yourself.
Your fan base, who have named themselves The Herd, are as devout as it gets and are likened to modern-day Deadheads at times. What do you think it is it about the band or your music that seems to resonate with your listeners?
I think we've always been very accessible to our audience and I guess it has to do with our vibe and our message, the songs that we write and the way we present ourselves. [We're] very community-oriented and accessible to people, and I think more and more bands are becoming accessible to people. Something that wasn't around when we started was the whole social networking and all that, and that's huge right now. It used to be that if you liked a band, you waited until their album came out and your only exposure to them was like an article in Rolling Stone or some magazine, and when they came to your town you'd be excited and go see them play. Now, it's like you can be in touch with your favorite bands all year round, no matter if they have a new record or not. You can communicate with them, music is more accessible, so I think there's a very healthy and very positive relationship between audience and musicians. It brings the audience and musicians together more. When we were just starting out, people likened us to The Grateful Dead and I don't know exactly what it is about our music [that does that]. It's hard for me to tell you what people hear.
Could it be just all the threads you guys have in your music? There's so much there to sort through, pull from.
Jeb and I met each other playing old time traditional fiddle, so really we came together in the world of traditional music and cajun music and zydeco music, and for years we were listening to traditional African music, and there's country, reggae, we grew up on pop music -- it all kind of comes out in us as sort of a hybrid.
What's one artist you love that fans might be surprised by?
That's a hard question, but I really like Sheryl Crow. She's sort of inspired me a bit. Maybe some people would be so surprised by that because she's so pop, but I don't know. I have to be really honest -- as of late, and she just put out a country record, I'm like "Sheryl, why did you do that?" I like country music, but the songs on her record are not really country songs -- I was really surprised. The words and stuff are so different than all of her other records, which are pop, and I know she moved to Nashville, and now she's doing the country thing. I love her dearly, I love her voice, I think she's great, but I think she could get some better songs on the next record [laughs].
Have there been any songs that you've written for either yourself or Donna The Buffalo that may have sat on the backburner for years before coming to fruition?
For me, I had the line; I have a song called "No Place Like The Right Time," and I had that title in my head for a long time before the actual song came out. There's another one where I wrote a really cool melody, but I couldn't decide what kind of story, what kind of subject matter would go with that, and then, as life would have it, my father passed away and I wrote words about that, so that melody was just waiting, that was what it was for.
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Donna The Buffalo are scheduled to perform Sunday, March 30 at McDowell Mountain Music Festival.