While it’s true that any band successfully touring since 1989 would be thankful for a passionate fanbase, Donna the Buffalo vocalist Tara Nevins is more convincing than most in expressing her gratitude. As with many bands making their bones on the road while flying under the mainstream radar, passionate fans are literally the key to touring bands’ livelihood, and Donna the Buffalo’s fanbase is especially passionate.
“It’s been a long time, and it happened gradually,” says Nevins in a telephone interview with City Paper. Along with co-founder Jeb Puryear, Nevins has shepherded the band through its various iterations and line-ups, watching the band’s audience grow and change over time.
“It’s always felt great,” she says. “I remember when they first started gathering and they named themselves the Herd. I feel like, in general, that we’re very fortunate, because not many bands have this collective fanbase.”
The sense of togetherness that the band and the audience share is critical to the Donna the Buffalo experience. The band takes its inspiration from the old-time-music festivals of the South, which, in their heyday drew whole towns and even counties together. In this way, community supersedes typically divisive factors, such as notions of politics and class, and allows the audience to play an equal role in making the live experience an authentic happening, instead of a mere concert. In itself, this is unremarkable, but in times as divisive as these, it becomes something special. By Nevins’ reckoning, this ethos is what has allowed Donna the Buffalo to take up a place in myriad scenes over the years.
“When we first started playing, Jerry Garcia had passed away a while before. I think a lot of people that followed Grateful Dead took a liking to us,” she says. “They likened our vibe or what we were doing to them, not that we sounded like them, really.”
Donna the Buffalo’s sound is informed by rock music, but is equally rooted in a bygone era, drawing on such elements as Cajun and zydeco music. Above all, Donna the Buffalo’s songs are brimming with optimism.
“I guess we’re a rock band, but we’re more like a pretty cool folk-rock band,” Nevins says. “I play the one-row accordion and play the fiddle and play the scrub board. So we have all these traditional elements in our music.”
Though it will always be hard to pinpoint the key to an act’s staying power, distinctiveness and consistency surely can’t hurt. Donna the Buffalo has carved out a niche; it has weathered trends, and even made some of its own by being unapologetically itself.
“We were Americana before Americana was Americana. Jeb and I are the two original members of the band, and we met playing old-time fiddle, old-time Appalachian music. Sure, we grew up listening to some mainstream music and all that,” Nevins says. “But, really, [the] kind of music that sent this whole thing off in the direction that defines us the most is … old-time fiddle music.”