Article and interview by Matt Wickstrom
While I was at Suwannee Springfest I had the opportunity to sit down for a chat with Donna the Buffalo’s Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear, moments before their set that would close out an amazing festival weekend at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. During our conversation we discussed a wide range of topics, including the group’s own grassroots festival, money in politics, and much more. Read the full interview below.
Matt Wickstrom: How did each of you first get started playing music?
Tara Nevins: “For me it was in school, when I was about 11 years old. At a certain point you get to choose an instrument to play, and I chose the violin. My uncle gave me a guitar too, so I took violin lessons in school and self-taught myself how to play the guitar.”
Jeb Puryear: “When I was a kid we would go see old-time string bands. I started playing fiddle when I was six or seven. That’s how Tara and I both met, being fiddlers.”
TN: “We didn’t meet when we were six though!”
MW: Donna the Buffalo formed in 1989. Looking back are you surprised by the longevity of the band and how you continue to attract new fans?
JP: “We never really put much thought into it. I still remember the first time we played. You never know how people will react to your work as a musician. People were dancing during our slow songs and our fast ones. I remember that night being so incredible, so energizing. It made us realize that being musicians is what we wanted to do with our lives.”
MW: Do you remember where that first show was at?
JP: “It was at a little pub in Ithaca (NY) called the Cabbagetown Cafe.”
MW: Being seasoned travelling musicians, do you have any advice or tips to pass on to those just starting to get their feet wet as musicians on the road?
TN: “Get a bus if you can… seriously. We don’t have our bus this weekend, so we’re travelling in SUVs and uHauls. Having a home on the road has made a huge difference. You kind of just learn as you go along in many ways.”
JP: “We always have done what we’ve done with a family mindset. We’ve become very close. You’ve got to do it with people you care about. It’s too intense not to. The music is a very personal expression, so you have to have a lot of trust with the people you do it with.”
MW: You guys recently teamed up with Peter Rowan and Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen on a campaign tour to get money out of politics. How did the idea come about, and what’s the music community’s response been like?
JP: “It started when he (Cohen) came to one of our grassroots festivals. We saw him speak and do a presentation on money in politics, which I thought was really cool. He was calling it ‘Stampede Money out of Politics’, and since we’re Donna the Buffalo that gave me the idea to hit the road together with him. I’ve always liked the idea of blending music and political action together. The campaign was very successful, but you could tell there are a lot of people warned down from speaking politically. One of the beautiful things about music is that it comes in above all this stuff and can unite people who otherwise wouldn’t be united after they talk politics, but they can be united by Tara singing a song. People are frustrated with the issue politically and are very relieved to see others getting behind the movement and talking about it, although people’s opinions are all over the board…”
TN: “There were a few angry people.”
JP: “We went to Connecticut, and there were some people who took it personally.”
TN: “One lady got angry because she didn’t realize politics would be involved, even though it said so right on the ticket…”
JP: “She said, ‘Don’t you know, we are the one percent!’ Then she accused our merch guy Jordy of being unemployed and asked if he was on welfare. She went crazy… It was cool to partner with Ben on this. He was courageous enough to go out and spend his time trying to do something good for the world. He’s made plenty of money, and could kick back doing whatever he wants to do, but he’s committed to the idea that the world can be a better place, even though it’s already pretty damn good.”
MW: How has upstate New York influenced Donna the Buffalo?
TN: “In a way I think we actually have influenced the scene ourselves in upstate New York. I met Jeb playing fiddle tunes and going to fiddle conventions in the south and travelling through Louisiana playing old-time music. I think that’s what influences us. We’ve been very involved in the traditional music scene for years up around Ithaca. Then we started playing zydeco music and brought that to town.”
JP: “When I was growing up, there was this scene of old-time appalachian fiddle music, but the rest of the music around was jazzy, improv and folk-driven. There wasn’t a whole lot of our style of music present.”
MW: How long has Donna the Buffalo been coming down to Springfest and Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park?
TN: “We’ve been here all 20 years Springfest has gone on, and we’ve been here for Magfest and others too. We play a lot of festivals. It’s great when you become not only a part of a festival, but a part of the festival family and community, which we feel we’re a part of at several festivals, including here. That’s a big reason why we love coming back to Suwannee so much.”
MW: You mentioned earlier you have your own grassroots festival. How did that get started?
JP: “It started in Trumansburg, New York, in 1991. Part of it was because we’re involved in the old-time music scene and going to festivals. Back then you’d have a bluegrass festival or a cajun festival and so on; it was more segmented and genres didn’t generally mix. We wanted to play at a festival we liked even though we were sort of playing rock music.”
TN: “We used to go to festivals all the time. There was Pete Seeger’s festival up on the Hudson River, which was one of the earlier diverse festivals. The Cajun & Bluegrass festival in Escoheag, Rhode Island, was a huge influence because they had cajun, blues, old-time, bluegrass, folk and more. It inspired us to do it ourselves with all the ingredients that we like.”
MW: Thank you for your time.
Check out video of both setlists from Donna the Buffalo below, courtesy of dababe44 on Youtube.