Broadcasting a feeling of musical unity

Everyone has heard the expression "busy as a bee." But how about "busy as a buffalo?"

Donna the Buffalo, that is.

For more than 20 years, Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins have been among the hardest working musicians in the industry, touring relentlessly with their jammy blend of rock, bluegrass, Cajun, old-time, reggae and roots, releasing nine albums under the Donna the Buffalo namesake, starting their own roots music festival – which is preparing to celebrate its 20th year—and releasing a solo album each. Nevins even spent the past summer touring with former Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann's BK3 and has another solo record in the works. 

Doing what they love: The members of Donna the Buffalo connect with fans. Photo by John Darwin Kurc.

How do they stay sane?

"Well, one, you assume that we've achieved that," says Puryear with a hearty laugh. "We're not sane at all. But we've gotten pretty good at balancing it, keeping it together, as far as our home life and stuff. It's really a good group and nice musical chemistry, so it's still exciting, you know. It's really the excitement that keeps it happening."

But Nevins admits to having difficulty maintaining a normal home life and "sacrificing domesticity" on occasion. Her loft, she says, is "completely insane" with "suitcases and everything thrown in a heap" on the floor.

"You go out and find some food to eat, catch up with a few people around your home that you've been missing, try to get sleep, pay bills to keep your electricity on, and also work on the new record, all in time to go out on the road 48 hours later," she says. "It is really hard to find time. Vacuuming, organizing, dusting, all that sort of stuff falls to the wayside.

Though it can be overwhelming, Nevins is quick to point out that connecting with fans and seeing them respond to the music is the big reward. "You wouldn't be able to sustain this lifestyle if it wasn't for that," she says. "Playing onstage and playing for our fans and having a great show is a very small portion of the time that we're actually on tour. But it makes it all worth it, so that says a lot."

And there is no mistaking the enthusiasm of Donna the Buffalo's fans, affectionately referred to as "The Herd." A traveling social network in the vein of Deadheads, the Herd has grown into an entity of its own, following the band across the country, joining them on a week-long cruise to the Caribbean and even forming their own nonprofit, Side to Side Charities, which uses Donna the Buffalo shows to raise money for food banks, women's shelters and a variety of other social assistance programs.

Asheville has plenty of Herd members, perhaps in part because of the band's longtime local connections. Bassist Jay Sanders (formerly of Snake Oil Medicine Show, also of Acoustic Syndicate) calls Asheville home. Dave McCracken, the keyboard player, has family ties to the area. And drummer Vic Stafford is an Asheville native who's collaborated on projects with stephaniesid, the Goodies and Kat Williams; works frequently with Collapseable Studios and Echo Mountain Studios, and calls local producer Steven Heller (Upstream Productions) a mentor and co-collaborators.

If you prefer to enjoy Donna the Buffalo from the comfort of your own home though, that's fine too, says Puryear.
"You don't have to do anything to be in the Herd," he points out. "Except just say that you are. You might not even have to do that. It's not like a club you have to join or be in or out. You just have to enjoy the music.

Then, once again releasing his booming chuckle, "I don't even know if you have to enjoy the music."

But it's easy for Puryear to be self-deprecating with such a devoted following. As the music industry has struggled to adapt to the changing landscape of the digital age, Donna the Buffalo has managed not only to stay afloat, but to become a veritable musical institution.

In July, the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, which the band founded in their hometown of Trumansburg, N.Y., will celebrate two decades of "really high energy, positive, human experiences." They've even expanded the idea to include the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival, a twice-yearly event staged in Silk Hope, N.C.. It's an opportunity for the band to "broadcast this feeling of musical unity that we always have felt," says Puryear, who describes Donna the Buffalo as "a band of festival goers."

"It's very, very cool to have these social scenes," he says. "It's part of the better potential of what we can be up to. If you had to look at the whole band experience and the music experience that we really are in love with, that's pretty much it. It's this really cool feeling to be exciting the better nature of what could be."

It might seem that two decades playing with the same band could get stale, but both Puryear and Nevins are quick to debunk that theory. Partly because of their ever-changing lineup and involvement with projects like the Finger Lakes Festival, but mainly, says Nevins, because they love what they do.

"Wow, 21 years. That is a long time," she begins, as though it were just sinking in. "The bottom line is that we've never second guessed that this is what we wanna do. We just love doing it so much. I've been playing music for so long, sometimes I wonder what I would do if I didn't travel around and do this."

Puryear shares a similar sentiment, when asked whether he would have expected to be playing so long.

"Yeah," he says without hesitation. "I was never thinking I was going to get a job with IBM or anything. This is what I was meant to do, really. Fortunately, I discovered that fact early on in my life. I love it. So to keep doing it is totally natural."

Dane Smith can be reached at rocknrolldane@gmail.com.

who: Donna the Buffalo
what: Original American dance music
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, Jan. 28 (9 p.m. $18/$20. www.theorangepeel.net)

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One thought on “Broadcasting a feeling of musical unity

  1. Mike

    We love DtB! We live in the PA/NY region and have seen them about 15 times over the years. The shows are always fresh and fun. Lots of dancing! Their songs are great and their musicianship is terrific. You can buy their CDs at FunkySide.com.

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