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Published: 2001/06/20
by Bob Makin

Donna the Buffalo: A Righteous Herd

Donna the Buffalo was conceived in 1987 in order to play a single gig at
the now defunct Cabbagetown Cafn Ithaca, N.Y. The original lineup
consisted of childhood friends and longtime musical partners in bands like
the Bubba George String Band, The HorseFlies and The Heartbeats Rhythm
Quartet. They had been jamming old-time Appalachian music in their living
rooms for months and decided to go public.

Needing a name to put on the poster, they contemplated monikers over a
bottle of whiskey. The first name, "Palmakartney," was scratched fearing
lawsuits. By the time someone suggested the more serious "Dawn of the
Buffalo," the whiskey had interpreted it as "Donna the Buffalo," which stuck.
Over the years there have been several lineup changes, but a dedication
to music and family has remained a constant. The band now consists of
original vocalists-guitarists Jeb Puryear and Jim Miller; original
vocalist-fiddler-guitarist-accordionist Tara Nevins; original keyboardist
Richie Stearns, who left the band for a while to tour with Natalie Merchant;
bassist-fiddler Jed Greenberg; and drummer Tom Gilbert. In 1993, Donna set up
in Mitch Easter's Drive-in Studio and recorded a self-titled CD known as "The
Purple CD." The following "The Ones You Love" brought the attention of record
labels and a growing regional fan base. Donna the Buffalo joined Sugar Hill
Records and recorded the acclaimed "Rockin' In The Weary Land," which won the
1999 Association for Independent Music Award for Best Rock Album. The
treasured "Positive Friction" came out the following year.

Every year since 1991, the members of Donna the Buffalo have been the
driving force behind the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance,
a festival that has raised more than $200,000 for AIDS organizations and arts
education programs throughout the upstate New York area. The four-day
festival draws 10,000-plus music lovers to the band's hometown of
Trumansburg, N.Y. Participants have included such international talents as
King Sunny Ade, Solas, Burning Spear and Hank Roberts.

Over the years, Donna the Buffalo has grown from a fun side project
amongst friends to a successful touring band whose most recent roadwork
included opening for and backing bluegrass legend Peter Rowan. The shows were
met with much glee from the group's nomadic fanbase, affectionately known as
The Herd, a very helpful group of friendly folks. The band will be traveling
in its classic 1961 tour bus to present its jammin' jambalaya and groovin'
gumbo of funk, folk, bluegrass, Cajun and reggae on June 15 at the Phat
Groove River Festival, Whitney Point, N.Y.; June 16 and 17, Clearwater Hudson
River Revival, Croton, N.Y.; June 20, Boulder Theatre, Colorado; June 21,
Statebridge Lodge, Bond, Col.; June 22, Fly Me to the Moon, Telluride, Col.;
June 23, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Colorado; July 6-8, The Great Blue
Heron Festival, Sherman, NY; July 13, Field Crest Stadium, Kannapolis, NC,
with David Grisman Quintet, The Peter Rowan Band, and Old and In the Way
featuring Grisman, Rowan, and fiddler Vassar Clements; July 14, Grayson
Stadium, Savannah, Ga. with Grisman, Rowan and Clements; July 19-22,
GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance, Trumansburg, N.Y.; July 26, Manhattan
Square Park, Rochester, N.Y. (free show); Aug. 5, Winter Hawk Bluegrass
Festival, Hillsdale, N.Y.; Aug. 30, Lafayette Square, Buffalo, N.Y. (free
show); Sept. 1, Rhythm & Roots Fest, Charlestown, RI; and Sept. 2, moe.down,
Snow Ridge Ski Area, Turin, N.Y. Besides the Donna the Buffalo, the 12th
annual GrassRoots Festival will include Del McCoury, Solas, Eileen Ivers
Band, Campbell Brothers, Jim Lauderdale, Ballake Sissoko, Keith Secola & the
Wild Band of Indians, Nickel Creek, Indigenous, Balfa Toujours, Colorblind
James Experience, Preston Frank & his Zydeco Family Band, Mamadou Diabate,
Walter Mouton & the Scott Playboys, Johnny Dowd Band, Fantcha, Keith Frank &
the Soileau Zydeco Band, Jones Benally Dance Troupe, Emeline, La Familia
Valera Miranda,Ritsu Katsumata, Bubba George String Band, original Donna the
Buffalo member Jennie Stearns, Fat City String Band, The Goners, Hank
Roberts, Old Crow Medicine Show, John Brown's Body, Lost Sailors, Clint Swank
Band, Bernie Milton & Soul Patrol, Little Egypt, Wicked Natural and Zydeco
Experiment. For more information about the band, visit
www.donnathebuffalo.com. For more info about its festival, check out
www.GrassRootsFest.org.

*Did you hook up with Peter Rowan through your mutual booking agent? How's
touring with him?*

Over the past few years, we had play some of the same festivals. He's
come up before onstage and sat in with us. Last March, he did a five-day tour
of the south. I went along on it and opened up with an old-time Appalachian
fiddle band in support of a solo record that a came out a year ago of mine,
"Mule To Ride," also on Sugar Hill. It's a fiddle record. We've just gotten
know him over the past few years.

We're very busy this spring and summer and a lot of it is in festivals
and clubs. We were thinking we want to do something out of the ordinary so we
had the idea to ask Peter if he wanted to tour with us. Since we have the
same booking agent, he asked Peter and Peter was into it.

*What's the best lesson he's taught you and what's the best lesson you've
taught him?*

It's hard to tell you what we taught him. In this tour, we do a set with
Peter. We back him up on his songs. Then we do a set of our material. Then we
come together again at the end and jam together. So what I think is what is
really great is learning someone else's music, especially his, because he has
such great songs.

*So many bands cross musical boundaries, but what I think sets Donna the
Buffalo apart is that you do it the most effortlessly and seamlessly.
Something like 'Man of Constant Sorrow' in a reggae style that still remains
true to its Appalachian roots. I play your records over and over and over
again to get a sense of how you're able to make these sounds sound like
second nature. I know how difficult it is to take things that don't normally
go together and make them sound like they do go together.*

It sounds like that because we don't do it on purpose. The core of the
band have been in the band since it started 12 years ago and we've known each
other 20 years. So we're all very close and we've been on this musical
journey together for years and years. This musical journey began with playing
old-time Appalachian Mountain fiddle music. So for years before we even
started Donna the Buffalo, started writing songs or playing electric
instruments, we played fiddles, banjos, guitars, upright bass and traveled to
festivals all over the place. We still do that whenever we get the chance.
That's our real love.

When we discovered that world of traditional music, it began a discovery
of other traditional kinds of music. We went to festivals where we heard
traditional music from Southwest Louisiana, zydeco and Cajun music. Or
African music. Certainly reggae. All kinds of roots music. That kind of music
is just a real driving force in our lives. About 12 years ago, when Jeb and I
started writing songs, we also started to play electric instruments. So we
went in this new direction, but what we took with us is the whole
sensibility, the approach of playing traditional music. What we do now is a
little more pop, but you hear all the genres. We didn't do it on purpose.
It's just who we are, what music came first in our lives. Of course, we all
grew up as kids listening to The Beatles, Joni Mitchell and David Byrne.
We've certainly had our share of pop music influence us.

Jeb brings a song to the band or I bring a song to the band, but we never
say, 'OK, here's a new song. Let's do it Cajun style.' It's imbedded in us.
Obviously what gives it its color, on any given song, I have to decide
between three or four different instruments. So whichever instrument I choose
kind of colors it a little bit. Like if Jeb brings a song and I think
accordion works well on it, then it gives it an accordion kind of flavor. The
listener might think, 'Oh, Louisiana.' Or if Jim sings a song and I play
fiddle on it, then, 'Oh, a fiddle tune.' So it's nothing we do on purpose.
It's just whatever works, we do. Whatever feels right, whatever makes a song
fly, whatever makes the magic come across.

*What's that like when you're playing with Rowan? Do you do reggae versions of
'Panama Red'?*

The thing is that Peter Rowan is not so far afield from us in his
approach. He was talking to me a few days ago. He was saying, 'You know how
you guys mix up music with a fiddle, Cajun, zydeco, country kind of thing.
With me I'm into mixing bluegrass with reggae.' He called it hillbilly reggae
or something like that. So we get up with him and do that. Our relationship
started with him when we invited him onstage at a festival somewhere during
'Man of Constant Sorrow' done reggae style. He loves that. He knows 'Man of
Constant Sorrow' from his days with Bill Monroe and all that. So when we play
with him on this tour, several of the songs of his we're doing are reggae
style. He mixes up traditional songs with a reggae beat so it's easy for us
to fall into his approach. The only difference is that during Peter's entire
set, I play fiddle the entire time because everything I do with him lends
itself to the fiddle.

On 'Positive Friction,' you credit Ralph Stanley for inspiring the reggae
version of 'Man of Constant Sorrow.' Why?

Doing the song at all was inspired by Ralph Stanley because he sings it
incredibly. We know it as being done by Ralph Stanley so that inspired us to
do it. I don't know how we did reggae style. It just happened naturally.

It's almost like a signpost for what people can do with folk music,
especially at all those festivals where folks can't get in because they're
'not traditional enough.'

The ridiculous thing about that is that don't these people realize that
throughout history all the music that they're calling traditional was
ever-growing and ever-changing just like music is now. If there's no room for
change and evolution in music, then it makes. How could think that music
would stay the same and never, ever, ever change.

*Like 'Little Sparrow' versus 'All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens' or 'Lost
Highway' versus 'Midnight on the Stormy Deep.'*

As far as I'm concerned, the thing that is a continuum through the music
through the generations whether it's Ralph Stanley sitting on his porch with
his banjo singing 'Man of Constant Sorrow' in the hills of Virginia, where he
lives, or it's Donna the Buffalo on the stage in some club in Chicago or
whether it's Bob Marley singing 'Man of Constant Sorrow' in Jamaica, the
thing that keeps it powerful and real is the soul and feeling that's in the
music. It's the same thing with all music, whether it's traditional music or
new, whether it's 'Man of Constant of Sorrow' bluegrass style or reggae
style. It's the same song as long as it's got the same message, feeling and
spirit.

That's what Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was trying to point out with 'Will the
Circle Be Unbroken.' We can't deny the influence of mankind in time and space.

*Tell me about the GrassRoots Festival, how the charity end of it and the
world roots music lineup makes it special.*

I told we had been playing fiddle music and going to festivals for years.
So we had become avid festival-goers. We'd go to festivals and say, 'This
festival is great because…' And then we'd go to another festival and say,'
This festival is really lacking because…' After so many years, we had been
to so many festivals and seen all the ingredients, the good and the band, we
thought it would be so much fun to put on our own festival, taking all this
knowledge. That was 11 years ago. And it was an AIDS benefit for organization
in New York. Now it's 11 years later. Being such a busy touring band, the
festival has grown so much that we're not as directly involved as we used to
be. In February, the office opens and they're busy until July when the
festival happens. We're certainly not a part of that at this time. Jeb, his
mother and brother run it now and we all take part whenever we can.
It's a benefit to support AIDS research and arts and education also. It's
a roots music/world music festival. Jamaica, Africa, country bands, old-time,
bluegrass. Lot of local. We give a lot of local musicians a chance.
Alternative bands. Music from Louisiana: zydeco, Cajun. It's very inclusive.

*You weave in and out of the jam band scene, which has gotten incredibly
clicky in recent years. Before everybody started paying attention to it, it
was much looser. There wasn't anybody to dictate what a jam band is like
there's lots of nowadays. You guys weave in and out of the scene kind of like
you weave in and out of music. You're a part of a lot of different grassroots
scenes, like the roots scene, the bluegrass scene.*

That's exactly right. We feel like we're a jam band in a way but not
really. We do jam but our music is so song-oriented. We cross over. And we
span a lot of generations. The people who come to see us, we have kids who
are five years old and know every word to every song and we have people in
their 40s and 50s who are there with the kids, dancing to the music. And we
have college students. There's a lot of different styles of people. It's not
just an alternative type. It's just people who really like music and get a
good feeling about life. It's a very positive crowd.

Well, that’s bluegrass and reggae. It’s pretty joyous music.

Yeah, it's pretty uplifting. A lot of our songs have messages that are
uplifting.

What other festivals do you like to play and why?

We like to play Merlefest. That's a great festival. We've been playing it
five years now and have seen it grow a lot. It's Doc Watson's memorial to his
son Merle Watson. It's actual called the Merle Watson Memorial Festival. It's
gotten to be huge, but for its size, it's highly manageable. There's
something like 15 stages. Some are small workshop stages, but there's that
many venues going on at any given time. It's so much incredible music. The
people who run it are always incredibly supportive of us. We do very well
there because the people just love all kinds of roots music. So it's a real
mix. There's a lot of families that come out. It's in North Carolina. It's a
four-day festival. We always have a great time. We always really feel like
we're spreading some good energy and getting back good energy, sharing a
great time with people.

It started as a bluegrass festival for Merle Watson, but years later
now, it's grown to include other kinds of music. There's bluegrass, there's
old-time music in the traditional tent. That hosts all kinds of traditional
mountain music that predates bluegrass, that bluegrass evolved out of.
There's always bands from Louisiana, Cajun or zydeco. Then there's bands like
Bela Fleck & the Flecktones who started out in bluegrass and are taking the
music in all kinds of different ways. Then you have country. This year, you
had Dolly Parton. Other years, they've had Emmylou Harris. They even had the
Dixie Chicks before the Dixie Chicks got big. Then they have Donna the
Buffalo. And Donna the Buffalo is kind of like the missing link combining all
of it. They have songwriters like Gillian Welch.

Said Cleaves?

Yeah. The fella who runs it is B. Townes. He's very interested in
education within the community. As a performer at the festival, one of the
mornings, you have to go out into the community and do a show in a school.
That's part of the deal. You arrive there Thursday night. Friday morning, you
go to a local high school or middle school and do a show in the school.
They call it their outreach program. Pretty much every act does that. Then
they all come to the festival too.

*How much does where you're from have to do with the kind of roots music you
play?*

I don't know how we all feel in love with this music. I was raised in the
greater metropolitan area, but even in high school, I knew about fiddle
music. Then when I went to college near Canada, there were people really
playing fiddle music up there. That's a hard question because some of us come
more from the country and some less, but we all ended up loving the same
music.

So it’s not a geographical thing. It’s more of a gravitational thing.

It's a personal thing. It's somewhat environmental because you have to
exposed to the music. You have to hear it somewhere. I didn't grow up in the
South playing Southern fiddle music, but I heard it. My paths crossed with
it, and it struck me so strongly that it changed the direction of my musical
life. So it was a very strong intersection. That could happen anywhere and
anytime. But then Jeb and Richie coming from Ithaca, N.Y., that's a place
where it's more rural and there's some string bands that came out of there.
So when they were growing up, there were people playing this fiddle music in
that town and it struck them. So for each person it's different.

*Your husband, Jim, is in the band so that must be kind of cool that you don't
have to spend a lot of time apart from him. But is there ever a time on the
road when you just get fed up being surrounded by all these guys?*

Absolutely. They're not at all macho in the obnoxious sense of the word.
They are sensitive, and I've always been one of the guys, probably because
I'm a musician always surrounded by men, so I've always gotten along well
with men, these men in particularly because we kind of meet in the middle
somewhere. So it works. But, of course, sometimes I'm a moody woman and
they're guys that you just want to hit over the head. But it's always laughed
at. It's like being in a family of brothers and sisters. That whole sex thing
of male and female is not as big an issue because you're brothers and
sisters, you're a family. This band is very much like that. They're like the
big brothers I never had. It's very much family dynamic, not man/woman on the
road together. We're family. I would think that's how any band would be.

Did you have a relationship with Jim before the band formed?

A little before right in the beginning. The thing that's easy about it is
when I go on tour, I don't have leave home because my home comes with me.
That's a real advantage. The only thing that's hard is to be doing the same
thing all the time with your partner. But we're a large crew. Jeb's
girlfriend travels with us. We have a soundman, a product person, a driver.
There are like 11 people on our bus so everybody knows each other incredibly
well. There's plenty of ways for Jim and I to get some space from each other.

*The independent, grassroots approach to music is easier musically, but not
businesswise. How do you keep going?*

It was really rough for a really long time. The desire and determination
kept us going. We've developed a pretty well-oiled machine. We have an office
at home. Our office manager is there working all the time. He keeps our Web
site going, he takes care of product, that it's all ordered. His name is Tim
Anderson. He runs our office. He's our archivist. He comes to our shows and
tapes them. All of our fans have named themselves The Herd. They tape our
shows and send them into Tim. So Tim has this whole library of all of our
shows. Plus, he's a photographer. He comes and takes pictures a lot. He keeps
our mailing list up. He does endless amount of work.

Then we have a road manager/manager in Ben Greenberg. He works with the
booking agent to make sure our touring is happening. He talks to people are
record companies for us, with us. He just finished working on a Donna the
Buffalo documentary that will be out really soon. He does all of our
accounting.

Word has spread about us through the grassroots machine. We play gigs
now, we make more money, we sell more product, which generates more money,
and we've become wiser about how we invest our money. And we have people
working for us who are very great and devoted.

Comment on The Herd, how they’re helpful and fun.

The Herd is great. Our fans are a great bunch of people. Every growing,
very devoted. They're a large number now. They gave themselves the name, like
a herd of buffalo. The Herd is a group of people that is highly organized
now. They have their own Web sites where they all get together and exchange
music and comments. They organize. We just went to Louisiana and they rented
endless hotel rooms. They chartered themselves a bus. They're just really
supportive. We're pretty fortunate to have such a fanbase. That doesn't hap pen very often.

But you can sustain yourself when it does and not really on radio.
We love it when radio supports us, and they do from time to time. Things
could always be better, things can always be worse.

*You're still working behind Positive Friction. Do you think that's your best
record yet?*

I think as far as capturing some of our live energy, that's our best
record. Some of our other records have great songs, but they're more
studioized. Right now we're working on a live record from recent gigs.
Hopefully it'll be out sometime this summer or early fall. First it was one,
now we're thinking about two discs. There'll be a couple of new things on it,
but it'll be songs people know that aren't trimmed down for radio, a live jam
thing. This one we're doing on our own. We've finished our deal with Sugar
Hill. Now we're moving on. We're going to put this one out on our own label,
and we've got some interest from some other record companies. I still have my
own solo contract with Sugar Hill. I've got a couple of ideas for that. I'll
do one or the other. ###

Bob Makin has covered music for 20 years and the jam band scene since 1988.
Jam bands can send him info at makinclan@aol.com and material to P.O. Box
6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.

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