Tara Nevins, multi-instrumentalist co-founder of Donna the Buffalo, took time out of her busy schedule to talk to our own Rex Thomson about her 25 year plus career with DtB, their upcoming participation in one of the legendary “Rambles” held in the late Levon Helm’s (The Band) famous barn, joining forces with Ben & Jerry’s founder Ben Cohen to help stamp out corporate influence in politics, and what it’s like being followed by “The Herd”.
L4LM: So…Donna The Buffalo has been playing for more than a quarter century? Did you ever imagine it would happen like this when you started?
TN: No I don’t think we ever thought about it like that, no, not at all! (Chuckles)
L4LM: What was your initial goal with the band? Were you just looking to play music, or did you want to get out on the road and hit the big time?
TN: When we started the band it was all very new and exciting for us! We’d all met before, we all new each other because we played old timey fiddle music…we were all playing acoustic instruments, acoustic banjos, fiddles, bass and all that for years and years in the same circles. I started writing songs, y’know, for acoustic instruments.
When Donna The Buffalo first started out 25 years ago it was a real humble journey for us because we started out playing this acoustic music, this fiddle songs and yeah, when we started playing these new venues it was a whole new challenge, playing this electric music on the electric instruments. We weren’t thinking about anything other than “Wow! This is new and challenging writing new songs and playing them on electric instruments.” This was just all new to us, and we all thought it was really cool.
We started playing out locally, and at first it was just all about that new experience. We started to get gigs around town, then more gigs around town and one thing lead to another. It’s like one thing led to another and here we are.
L4LM: At this point, have you and Jeb Puryear [Donna the Buffalo co-founder] moved to the telepathic level? Do you feel it when he gets an itch?
TN: Are we telepathic? No. (Chuckles) I think we know each other pretty well I will say that! (Laughs)
L4LM: Your sound is a hard to define mix of traditional mountain fiddle songs, zydeco and Americana. What makes a good Donna song?
TN: What makes any song a good song? A good melody, good lyrics and a groove. A good song is a good song, the world around.
L4LM: What is your writing process? Do you and Jeb write most of the songs?
TN: He and I write extensively. We write the songs and give them to the band, then we play them and try and work the songs out together.
L4LM: You’ve built one of the most loyal fan bases in the music scene. Tell me about “The Herd,” and what they mean to you?
TN: Well, The Herd is self created, which is awesome. They’re self organized, self named…all of that! We’re so fortunate to have them! We’re just incredibly fortunate…the herd means so much to us. To see them care so much, to be committed to join the so called “Migration” and join us on this journey…it’s humbling. I know that not a lot of bands have that. I’m not saying bands don’t have lots of fans, don’t get me wrong…they all have wonderful fans, but to have an organized group of folks, like The Herd…we’ve made such wonderful friends and we’ve been greatly affected by them and their friendship over the years.
We hope our appreciation has been obvious…we feel very very fortunate. They’ve made our music a part of their life’s journey, and it reminds us the effect our music has on them. When we see them together, traveling to shows, filling thje corwds..for them it’s become a cultural thing, a way of life. Lots of bands have fans that buy their records and go see their shows…but this is different. I don’t know if I am saying this right. Did you understand that?
L4LM: I do. This interview is part of a series, and as part of it I’ve spoken to a few bands with your kind of die hard fan base, and how that affects the artist is something I’m very interested in. this level of commitment and love that builds up between a group of fans and the band they love. How they become a family over the decades, as the Herd seems to have done for you guys.
TN: It’s special, to realize you’ve affected someone, that you’ve shaped their life in a way, their path. Sometimes it doesn’t register, y’know? I’m just a person…I’m walking this planet like everyone else, I need to find food to eat and rest at night. If I can have an effect, if the group as a whole can have an effect when we project our music It’s cool. We live in an insane world, and we’re all just looking for something to hang onto, to make us happy and to help us into the next day.
L4LM: How many instruments do you play?
TN: Well, for me it all starts with the fiddle. I guess my second would be the accordion, then my acoustic guitar. I play very basic chords on that, I don’t do anything fancy. I love rhythm and I lean toward rhythm instruments, oh and I play the scrub board and the tambourine on some songs. When I’m singing and writing it’s usually I’m usually on the guitar. I do like to hop around a bit.
L4LM: You’ve become involved with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s in a political movement called “The Stampede.” Can you tell me a little about that?
TN: Sure! It’s called the “Stamp Stampede” and it’s a movement of legally stamping messages on dollar bills. Tens of thousands of people are doing it, using the dollars like a political billboard to get the message across, which is an effort to take money out of politics. Ben Cohen had the idea and now there are these stamps that you can buy and use. One of them says “Not to be used for bribing politicians” and you just stamp that on your dollar bill. At this point there’s been like fifty thousand stamps sold…the whole thing is a way to challenge big business…the rulings saying corporations should count as people with the way the donate money to campaigns. Corporations are not people and money is not speech.
Donna The Buffalo To Team With Peter Rowan, Ben & Jerry’s Founder For ‘Stampede’ Tour
These corporations and super wealthy people using loopholes to give money to politicians diminishes the voice of the regular person. It’s not fair, it’s not right and it’s not democratic. It used to be that individuals were only allowed to give a certain, small amount, and the corporations were not even allowed to donate, and now that’s completely different. These people can do whatever they want. They cut these big campaign checks and the regular folks get left behind. This money buys them access and influence over politicians. This stamping is totally legal, and it’s a great way to advertise the cause and this is our way of stepping up and saying something about it. We met Ben Cohen and he told us about his movement and we thought “How perfect! We should become part of this!” So as we travel around and tour, we spread the word. And how fitting is it? I mean Donna the Buffalo and The Stampede? You can read a whole bunch more about it, but that’s the basics of it.
L4LM: So it’s not just a ploy to get free ice cream?
TN: (Laughs) Funny! I don’t even EAT ice cream. No…this is to support an amendment that states that corporations are not people, and that money is NOT speech. So these upcoming shows will be our first time out with this, and we decided to be sure to bring some really good musicians out with us. So for our first flurry of gigs we are bringing Peter Rowan.
L4LM: You’re going to be out on the road with Peter Rowan, a man who has the distinction of having played with both Bill Monroe AND Jerry Garcia. You’ve played with him many times in the past, how much are you looking forward to this?
TN: Yes of course! We love Peter, we’ve played with him many times, and we thought he would be a perfect guest to help kick this off. He’s certainly on-board, with the whole stamp stampede.
L4LM: Let’s talk about one of the greatest music venues on earth, the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. You’ve played there so many times…do you consider that home?
TN: We’re definitely part of the family. Magnoliafest is one of our favorites, we love the venue…it’s beautiful…you almost can’t say anything more. It’s one of our homes, it’s family and we love our family and our time there. I do love the amphitheater stage…such a beautiful spot.
There’s just something about that stage, about playing there looking out at the live oaks, the Spanish moss, the sand on the ground…just the vibe on that stage.
L4LM: I believe next year is the 20th anniversary of the Magnolia Festival, as well as Springfest. What’s it mean to you, being part of such a tradition?
TN: I think we’ve played every one! It’s like I said…we’re part of the family. Time just flies…That means in two years we will have played there 40 times? I just can’t imagine it. It’s like when I look back I’m like “Which year did this person play with us? Which year did that person play with us?” It’s just a blur, all one big collage of goodness.
L4LM: You’ve got a show coming up at Levon Helm’s famous Barn. I believe you recorded some of your solo album there. Are you looking forward to playing such a hallowed place?
TN: Yeah that’s gonna be fabulous. What I did when I recorded my solo record, Larry Campbell, leader of Levon’s band, he produced my record, and Levon even played on the record on a couple of cuts and the recorded them there at the barn. It was just the most amazing experience…getting to play with him, there at the barn, getting to know Levon just a little bit.
He was the most soulful musician I ever met. I just watched him play. To watch him play drums…amazing. After the record I got asked to go there, to play one of his “Rambles” (Levon Helm’s famous “In the round” barn shows) The way it worked was you were invited to play the Ramble as the opening band, and then on the last song they would call up the guest, which was me, to sit in. The song was, as you could guess, “The Weight.” So I got to sing that song, standing next to Levon as I sang the very first verse and I had to pinch myself. I mean…it was just amazingly wonderful. And now, we, Donna the Buffalo are getting to play the Barn this Friday…September 4th, and play a Ramble. It’s a hallowed hall, without a doubt. Donna the Buffalo is very excited to go there, to be part of the history of the place.
L4LM: It sounds like you are blessed. Well, thanks for taking the time to talk with us, good luck this weekend and beyond!
TN: Thank you!