Interview with Tara Nevins – Donna the Buffalo
By Ryan Neeley exclusively for Appalachian Jamwich
Photos by John D Kurc
Donna the Buffalo has been touring for over 20 years, and their fan base, called The Herd, like the band, is stronger than ever, with a grassroots following, a website by the fans, for the fans called Donnafans.com , a feverish desire to see Donna the Buffalo do what they do best – Play groove heavy, danceable music that defys genre – Members of the Herd will drive for hours to see this zydeco/Cajun, folk , reggae rock country act perform, and DtB never disappoints. Along the way, they’ve done things THEIR way, not the way it’s supposed to be done in the industry, and certainly not the quickest route to the top. But they’ve never compromised integrity for album sales and fans, a happening that occurs quite often with the push of record labels to sell more music or draw more people. Enter multi-instrumentalist front woman of DtB, Tara Nevins, who has also released a new album called Wood and Stone that is getting a lot of positive buzz from fans and music critics alike. Tara is doing a few solo shows along the way to introduce fans to songs on Wood and Stone, her first album since 1999, in a live setting – Wood and Stone is a very emotional release that shows off Tara’s dexterity on multiple instruments, songwriting, vocal ability, and pure passion for music. Appalachian Jamwich was able to talk to Tara about Donna The Buffalo’s success, how she got into music, her new album and playing with Levon Helm and drummer Bill Kreutzmann of Grateful Dead fame.
Donna the Buffalo will be in the region on the following dates:
SATURDAY, November 24 at the REX THEATER in Pittsburgh, PA
THURSDAY November 29th at the RECHER THEATER in Towson, MD
THURSDAY December 13th at the KENT STAGE in Kent, OH
FRIDAY December 14th at the WOODLAND TAVERN in Columbus, OH
See full listing of tour dates HERE
Appalachian Jamwich: I understand that your parents were really into music when you were a child, and moved to Greenwich Village to the sticks of Orangeburg early on in your life, and your parents friends from the city would come up to visit and listed on music. How do you feel your parents influenced your passion for music.
Tara Nevins: Growing up in that environment made me appreciate music. I come from a musical family – they didn’t play a lot of instruments, but music was always around. My parents friends would come up and we’d push the couches and rugs to to the side of this big living room, and they’d play music and dance all night. Coming from the city, I guess there was a certain freedom their friends experienced being out in the country. My dad raised and raced horses, and my mother was a stay at home mom raising five kids. I guess it also made me comfortable with the lifestyle of a musician, as my parents have always been very supportive – they’ve never said ‘Don’t do this.’
AJ: You played violin when you were in fifth grade – was that by choice?
TN: Yeah, it was. I talked to my dad about the violin, and he encouraged me to play it because you could play so many instruments if you knew how to play the violin. I’m really glad that I did take it up back then.
AJ: What was the first instrument that you ever bought yourself?
TN: Wow, I guess the first and only instrument that I ever bought was my acoustic violin that I still play to this day. I’ve had a lot of stuff given to me for some reason.
AJ: Maybe because you can play everything you pick up so well!
TN: Aww, thanks.
AJ: Is there anything you CAN’T play? If so, what instrument would you like to learn to play next?
TN: I really like rhythm, so if I took up another instrument it would probably be the drums. I can mess around on them a little, but I’d really like to take the time to learn them.
AJ: After doing some roots music or Appalachian music type festivals, you went to Mardi Gras and fell in love with Zydeco, then bought an accordion. Did you buy it right there in Louisiana or did you think about it for a while, having it made when you were home?
TN: I knew about the accordion from people at fiddle fests that we (Jeb Puryear, her partner in DtB) were going to, and I enjoyed Zydeco, Cajun and Creole music, but never played it much. Then we went to Mardi Gras celebration in SW Louisiana and I fell in love with it here, and decided to have an accordion made. There are a LOT of great accordion makers down there, so it worked out well.
AJ: Your new album Wood and Stone has you singing on it a lot rather than the first, Mule to Ride, which featured your fiddle playing more than anything.
TN: I definitely sang in more songs on this album – A Van Morrison cover of Beauty of Days Gone By (which closes out the album and is wonderfully organic), I do my own version of a jazz song (the 30’s jazz standard Stars Fell on Alabama, which along with Beauty of Days Gone By is one of two songs Tara didn’t write) and a few others.
TN: Larry Campbell produced my release in Levon Helms studio – Larry is an amazing person with amazing soulful talents – it just fit with my style- very down to earth, natural approach an instinctual insightfulness that I really appreciate – He knew what I was after and he just GOT it..
AJ: And how was it working with Levon Helm?
TN: It was great. It was kind of mind-blowing that our paths crossed like that and he passes just a year or so later. He’s an excellent musician with a great attitude, and he actually played on a few tracks on my new album.
NOTE – Other guest performers on the album included bluegrass legend Jim Lauderdale (American Beauty Project), Allison Moorer, (country singer and wife of Steve Earle) and Teresa Williams (Wife of Larry Campbell and backup vocalist for Phil Lesh and friends)
AJ: I really like the song You’re Still Driving my Truck on the new album – It has a Loretta Lynn like feel. Can you tell me a little more about it?
TN: I was actually seeing someone that was having a bit of trouble with alcoholism – he had some demons and other negative situations that he had to deal with, and the song is basically about that. It’s like, “You’re still wearing the same shirt, still driving that truck.” and “You’re still struggling for a joy, of the natural kind.”
AJ: This is more of a statement than a question, but you’re an amazing songwriter, and I know that a lot of people have been looking forward to a solo album from you since 1999 – And you’re going to do a few shows in the middle of the tour?
TN: With this new album I decided that I wanted to try a couple of solo shows, and we made it happen. I’m excited to try a few things that we’ve been working on.
AJ: And you also toured in 2009 with Bill Kreutzmann, formerly of the Grateful Dead, and his band BK3 – You’ve said that you found a new appreciation for the Grateful Dead’s work. Tell me a little more about that.
TN: Yes, I was asked to learn a few GD songs (Peggy-O, Alabama Getaway, He’s Gone, among others), and we ended up doing a few songs that I wrote and perform with DtB (If Only I Could, Locket & Key) – After seeing the family atmosphere within the community, I understood why people associate DtB and the Dead – There was that comraderie, where you see the same folks at each show and you end up caring about them because you’ve shared some very special moments together. Music makes you feel, and that is special when you’re with so many people.
AJ: How can you explain DtB’s success in the live music market when other bands that get so much more exposure with the press/publicity behind them, radio airplay and music videos don’t draw nearly as big of a crowd?
TN: We’ve never been darlings of the press, we have our own bus, we’re more of a grassroots operation – It makes people feel good to be a part of it, and we try to make everyone feel welcome. With all of the bad news and negativity out there, people are looking to be a part of something, and the music we perform is groove-heavy, danceable music that people gravitate towards. We might not get the most press or publicity, but when people come to see our show, they usually have a good time, whether they are Donna the Buffalo fans or not. I can’t really explain it, they just like it and like being part of the extended family.