Since 1989, Donna the Buffalo has been entertaining audiences with their eclectic take on roots music. Relentless road warriors, Donna the Buffalo has played just about every major festival going and has organized one of their own, the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance. They have also collaborated with numerous other artists, including Americana heavyweights like Jim Lauderdale and Bela Fleck. Now they're bringing their talents, and their loyal following of dedicated fans self-named The Herd, to Centennial Park's Musician's Corner as part of the Americana Music Festival. We caught up with founding members Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear at the festival to talk about their performance.
Tell me a little bit about the Americana Music Festival and what you guys will be doing here.
Tara: We're here at the Americana Festival to do a showcase performance on Saturday. This is our first time performing at the Americana Festival as Donna the Buffalo, so it's a new experience for the band. We're performing at Centennial Park at 3:10
For those coming out, what can they expect at the show?
Jeb: We don't really plan that much. Usually we'll do some of the old stuff and then maybe some stuff off the new record.
Tara: We never make a setlist. We'll be doing some stuff off our new record and a lot of our favorites and standards. People come here from all over so hopefully we'll be turning some new people on to our music.
Jeb: Another reason we really wanted to do this is that we've been around a long time and maybe people saw us years ago. As time goes by, people make a decision about a band or don't think about them as a present sense. It's always good to get out in front of industry people again.
Tara: We probably have our strongest band that we've ever had.
Your new album is “Tonight, Tomorrow, and Yesterday.” You worked with Robert Hunter on the album. What did he bring to the project?
Jeb: -laugh- Microphones! He's just a great guy. He brought a steady hand.
Tara: He mixed it. He and Jeb mixed the album together.
You guys are a band who has been very collaborative over the years, including working with artists like Jim Lauderdale. What has led you guys to collaborate with so many acts?
Jeb: We produce a festival, Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival, and we invited Jim to play there, but he didn't have a band, so we served as his band for the day and we really hit it off. So we've played together anytime we meet up at a festival and we made a record together.
Tara: We play a lot of festivals and a lot of times they have us play the closing set on Sunday. We'll play for about 20 minutes alone and then we'll invite the other bands up to play with us on Sunday evenings. And that's led to a lot of friendships that has carried on to other festivals over the years.
Jeb: The tradition we come from, we're also old time fiddle players, which makes it really easy to just get together and jam. You can just say “meet over by that bar and we'll just play old time music or bluegrass.” But with this thing it's more complicated with bass, guitar, and drums. So to be able to do that kind of thing at these festivals where you're already set up and people can come on and play and sing a song with you, it harkens back to that tradition that we have but in a new way.
You guys are a band that is known for hitting the festival circuit really hard. Is that what draws you to festivals?
Tara: We've spent many years going to festivals and then we started a festival. For any band, the festival is an optimal place to play. People are there to have a good time, it's a great community, playing outside is awesome.
Jeb: Festivals have so many music lovers. People come to see one band and they go away loving 4 others. If it weren't for the festivals it would be quite dire out there. We're so grateful that, you know 20-30 years ago were so segmented with a jazz festival or a bluegrass festival, and that's why we wanted to start the festival because of the music we play was different. And now we're really lucky to have festivals like Telluride, MerleFest, Magnolia Festival, Live Oak, so many others.
Tara: It get to the point you can only play so many clubs. Festivals breathe new life into the whole thing.
You have built a very close connection with your fanbase. You have a group who call themselves The Herd that follows you closely. Can you tell me how you connect with those fans?
Tara: The Herd, and they are self-named as The Herd... We're so fortunate to have them. It just started with two people who went to a show and they were going to the next show so they said “let's meet at the soundboard.” You can be a very active member or just sort of loosely associated, or you don't even have to be associated with The Herd to be a fan.
Jeb: There are no dues! You don't have to pass a test or anything to join The Herd.
Tara: We appreciate our fans. Many members of The Herd have become friends of ours. They're very self-driven. They organize charity things in cities we play in and conduct auctions and then donate that to a women's shelter or a library or a school. They do all of this on their own. They don't look to us for props or anything.
It's almost like a modern day version of the Deadheads.
Jeb: Yes. But not as large! -laugh- Very dedicated. Just like it's sort of a movement when musicians write songs you're expressing your world view and your way of life, it's just fun to establish a community and a way of life. And it's fun to travel. People in different states see you're going to Chicago and they've never been to Chicago so they get to check out a new town and have fun with the band.
If you'd like to see Donna the Buffalo, they will be playing Musician's Corner on Sept. 21 at 3:10 p.m. Also on the bill at Musician's Corner will be Shelby Lynne, Promised Land Sound, Emily Barker, Lilly Hiatt, and Suzi Ragsdale.