Picture a buffalo. This hefty, hairy and horned animal is one of the largest extant land animals in North America. With a modern-day reputation for making mouths water, these creatures are noted for their spontaneity, inability to tame and strong, stable demeanors.
Formed more than twenty years ago, Donna the Buffalo is an old-time fiddle band turned eclectic with hints of Cajun, rock, country and folk. It’s founders are musical pioneers Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear.
The band’s name may sound peculiar at first. But after researching their start, jumping into their albums and talking to both Tara and Jeb, I wanted to join their dedicated fan-base, better know as “The Herd.” After my conversation with these two, I found my mouth watering for more of their explosive sound.
Well, obviously, your name isn’t Donna – so where did “Donna the Buffalo” come from?
Tara: Donna the Buffalo was a name that we were just kicking around. Someone actually said Dawn of the Buffalo, and whoever heard them, heard them wrong and said Donna the Buffalo, and they just kind of reacted. When we all heard that, I don’t know why, but it just stuck. It’s not a very interesting story, but we did want “buffalo” in the name.
Tara: Well, just because it’s a very strong American icon.
So do people get confused and call you Donna?
Tara: They did in the beginning, but not anymore.
Tell me about your current side project.
Tara: I have a brand new record out with Sugar Hill Records, “Wood and Stone.” Larry Campbell, who plays in Levon Helm’s band and toured with Bob Dylan for eight years, produced it. Anyway, he’s fabulous, and he produced my record.
(check it out at http://taranevins.com/)
So will you be doing some solo shows, too, or will you just be touring with the band?
Tara: Well, I’ve done a few already, but right now DB is super busy. We’re about to go in the studio and start a new record ourselves.
From what I understand, you and Jeb Puryear are the two main writers for Donna the Buffalo. Can you explain a little bit about your writing process?
Tara: Yes, we are the two main writers and the two original members.
We tend to write our songs separately and then we bring them to the band, and the band kind of chimes in. I write – you know, it kind of happens all different ways. An idea might come to you driving in the car, or you might purposely sit down to write a song, or, you know, sometimes the melody comes first, sometimes the words come first. It comes in all different ways, really. There’s really no formula, for me anyway.
What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming show in Birmingham?
Tara: Well, first of all, I have a sort of relationship with Alabama. I really enjoy it. I’ve spent a good time in Huntsville, Ala., so I’ve just had many great times there. And I – I just like Alabama.
When I was living in Huntsville, I was asked to rewrite “Stars fell on Alabama,” and I wrote it in a mountain sort of style. It’s on my new record, and we did a video for it and filmed in Huntsville. But we always have a great crowd at Workplay, so it’s always enjoyable to come back there. I love being in the south, especially this time of year.
After talking to Tara, I got in touch with Jeb who recalled their first meeting, told his version of their writing process and explained why he was excited to get all groovy in the “Magic City.”
So, I talked to Tara for a little while yesterday – she was great. I understand that y’all started the band 20 years ago or so. Tell me a little about how y’all met and what turned you on as an artist to working with her?
Jeb: Well, the way we met was quite some time ago. She had her old-time fiddle band, and me and my brothers had an old-time fiddle band, and we went to see their band play.
It’s really easy to play with other musicians with old-time or Appalachian string band music. All you’ve got to do is grab your fiddle or guitar or banjo or whatever, and you can have a music session very simply. So we played together, and we all hit it off very, very famously.
She was the first person, actually, that I met who was writing songs – like songs you hear on the radio, you know? So after that, we played a lot of old-time music together, and we started several bands, you know, and played around but nothing really kind of took hold.
I started writing a few songs, and around the holidays, we got together with some electric instruments. It was really quite fun. A friend of ours was booking the local music at this restaurant, so she said, “Why don’t you guys get a night there?” So we got a night there and had some intensive rehearsals, and we basically picked a name, and then the band started. So it was very exciting.
It’s really great that y’all have such a strong foundation.
You said that Tara was one of the first musicians you knew that was writing music at the time, or that you personally knew. I know that the two of y’all are the primary songwriters for Donna the Buffalo. How has she inspired you, and how are your writing styles different?
Jeb: Well, just knowing somebody that wrote songs like she did, that’s always inspiring. And then we have just known each other so long, like right now, at this point; we’re just almost like…
Just kind of in sync with your writing?
Jeb: Yeah. So anyway, that’s inspiring within itself. She constantly does stuff that’s inspirational. She writes great melodies, and also her musical voice – I’m not talking about the direct human voice, but any instrument she plays, you can tell it’s got this certain vibe that’s a voice in and of its own.
As far as the way the songs differ, I would say I kind of write a little more in general and she tends to write a little more personal from a certain personal angle. Also she is a woman, and I’m a man. That’s fairly big amount of difference.
Well, that’s true. But you say that you write pretty generally. Where do you get your inspiration for your songs – from all aspects of life? Or are there certain things you tend to lean towards more in your writing?
Jeb: Well it depends. Of course you’ve got the love songs and the lack of love songs, and then you’ve got the, sort of, “not feeling so good, got to get to a better place” songs. We seem to have written a fair number of those. And then, you know, rolling off all the great protest songs and the socially conscious music like Bob Marley and The Beatles and Bob Dylan – all of that stuff. So that, to me, is sort of like a tradition to write from that angle as a way of reflecting on what you feel about the world and how you feel it could be better and getting to a different place as a society.
Right on, right on. I know you are about to go back into the studio. Can you tell me a little bit about what you are expecting for the next album?
Jeb: I think this next album is going to be our best one yet. I usually don’t speak so optimistically about it, but I’m trying to get over my fear of optimism. I’m very optimistic, I just hate to verbalize it.
Jeb: Oh, I don’t know. Yeah, it could be a little of that, and also, you know, it can sometimes be a little nerve-racking going in to record. We play so much, and it’s so fun, and you remember these times when the band really clicks and you play a song just beautifully. The challenge in the studio is trying to get that thing all flowing without some of the things you’re used to like having a crowd.
I’m not a natural extrovert. It takes a bit to get it out of me. I think the whole band a little bit has that character where if we’re left up to our own devices, we’re a little more on the modest side and not as explosive as we would be in front of a crowd. Being in front of a crowd really bonds the group, you know? ‘Cause if you fail, you’re going to be f***ed. You know, you rise and you do you’re thing, and we can’t stop to talk about anything. In a way, it allows you to totally enter your musical self. And you just do that. In the studio, anyone can stop to talk and you kind of lose your superhero costume.
So I’m gathering that you prefer the tour, the road and shows versus studio time.
Jeb: Hah, no, not really. It’s just more difficult. It’s not what we do all the time. You want the best version of the song to get on the record. When you write a song, you’re supposed to see it play out, wherever that takes it. But this next album is really going to be great.
I can’t wait to hear it.
So, I’m actually from Birmingham, and I’ll be at the show at Workplay on the 24th. What are you most looking forward to about the show in Birmingham?
Jeb: We used to play at City Stages so I formed an association with Birmingham there, and the Workplay is really cool. I’m looking forward to coming to Birmingham for sure.
Join me at Workplay in Birmingham, Ala., on Jan. 24 at 8 p.m. and keep an eye out for my review of the show.
Stay tuned, folks!