Donna The Buffalo
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Donna The Buffalo Biography
LIFE'S A RIDE
100,000 records sold.
100 gigs a year.
15,000 attendees at the 2004 Grassroots Festival.
No, this is not a MasterCard commercial. It's just that numbers don't hold a lot of value for Donna the Buffalo. For this eclectic upstate New York band, success isn't quantitative. It isn't being in constant rotation on Top 40 radio stations or video networks. It isn't how much money's rolling in or even how many people are in the band.
We just do what we do. And it's a very natural thing. It's a thing we find joy in and it's a lifestyle that we've pursued for... ever, says guitarist/vocalist Jeb Puryear, one of the band's two primary songwriters. We don't manipulate any of our circumstances for the market.
That includes the band's sound, which piles reggae, rock, country, zydeco, Cajun, and folk on top of old-time fiddle music to create a combination best described as original American dance music.
The thing about our music is that as eclectic as it is, it is also very accessible, fellow songwriter Tara Nevins (fiddle, accordion, scrubboard, guitar and vocals) says. It's simple, straight-forward, melody-oriented and easy to take in.
Success, then, is something more abstract for Donna the Buffalo. It's a moment – many moments actually – in which the music gels just so, in which fans, self-dubbed The Herd, share in something that feels so good, words almost won't suffice.
It really becomes one thing and there's very little distinction between people in the room, either in the band or in the audience, says Puryear. There actually is something that does take place, and pretty much everybody knows it.
It's hard to say if we make such and such amount of money then we'll be successful, Nevins says. I think you have different successes along the way. You feel you've done something meaningful and that's a success right there – you've played a great show or you've made a record that you really like, the band Is communicating great and is in a beautiful place together.
Or as she writes in Love and Gasoline, Each and every day a bit of destiny.
The song appears on Donna the Buffalo's album LIFE'S A RIDE, which was released by Reincarnate Records on April 26, 2005. For a band that has gone through its fair share of line-up changes, sound explorations and other career experiences, LIFE'S A RIDE still manages to mark many firsts for this group.
Engineered by Alex Perialas and mixed by Tom Fleichmann, Alex Perialas, and Jeb Puryear, the album was recorded in the band's new home studio and they produced it themselves. And for Puryear, that was a welcome change from the way the recording process had gone before. I didn't care for having the old football coach in there, he says. Though the process took a little longer than he cared for between first having to build the studio (out of a chicken coop, no less), then going in to record, hitting the road, then returning to record some more.
Beyond the process, the very personnel were different for this record. Though founding member Jim Miller did contribute guitar and vocals for LIFE'S A RIDE, he left the group shortly after the recording. Otherwise, this is the band's first album with the current line-up, which includes keyboardist Kathy Zeigler, bassist Bill Reynolds and drummer Tom Gilbert.
Our new line-up has been a very altering thing, Nevins says. Not knowing how that was going to be, we've found that that has actually it's brought us together in a very unified way. It's been another great growth spurt.
The use of guest musicians on two Nevins-penned tunes was also new for the group. Keith Secola added some Native American Flute on Love and Gasoline and kora player Mamadou Diabate appeared on Blue Sky.
And then there's the message.
Music has an infinite ability to reflect a mood so whatever's going on tends to come out, Puryear says. Deeds of a Few, for example, finds him in a particularly political frame of mind. I think we're coming to the end of an era where one sector of society can dominate through force another sector of society and reap rewards and benefits, he says, illuminating the song's meaning. The current administration has an antiquated opinion about that, and that would be the few.
Heavy stuff. Nevins' Blue Sky, on the other hand, is a more upbeat tune with it's My, my, my, everybody gets high on Love, Love, Love.
Like its name implies LIFE'S A RIDE goes all over the place. But it does so fairly and squarely, offering equal representation from Nevins and Puryear, each of whom contribute 6 songs to the 12 track album to make one decidedly Donna the Buffalo-sounding whole. Again, not that numbers matter. And even if they did, this album's lucky number would more likely be 5.
After all, that is the number of studio albums LIFE'S A RIDE marks for this group. It's the number of years since their last studio release and, most importantly, it's the number of band members Donna the Buffalo now has. For those keeping track, the group started and existed for more than a decade, as a sextet.
It all began in 1987 with six friends who played old-time music – fiddle, banjo, guitar. Then Puryear and Nevins started writing original tunes. Jim Miller and Jeb and I would sit around and play these songs together on acoustic guitars, Nevins recalls.
Nevins' father bought her an electric five string fiddle not long after Miller and Puryear decided to pick up electric guitars. A mandolin-playing friend started playing drums. We were just old-time Appalachian pickers and because Jeb and I started writing songs that were more suited for the electric thing, we all sorta transferred over, Nevins says.
After months of jamming privately, the musicians were offered a public gig at the now defunct Cabbage Town Coffee House in Ithaca, not far from their hometown of Trumansburg. Promoting the show proved troublesome, though. They'd been playing without a band name and suddenly the pressure was on to come up with one. Palmakartney was nixed because of potential legal repercussions. Dawn of the Buffalo was suggested and misheard. Donna the Buffalo was born.
That was a real special moment because we never had played any of this kind of music in front of anybody and we had no idea how anyone would react, Puryear says of that first outing. People danced and it was a joyous thing.
The joy continued as the group kept playing out, finally putting out a recording in the form of the 1989 cassette-only release The White Tape, followed in 1991 by the cassette-only release The Red Tape.
In 1990, the group made a huge leap in its live presence. In response to finding out a friend had been diagnosed with AIDS, Donna the Buffalo concocted the Grassroots Festival as a benefit for AIDS research. In the years since, the festival has turned into a four-day event featuring such acts as the 10,000 Maniacs, John Anderson, Patty Loveless, Los Lobos, and Ralph Stanley and has raised more than $300,000 for local arts and charities. Though Donna the Buffalo still headlines and has some say in the line-up each year, Grassroots has taken on a life of its own, requiring separate staff to coordinate it.
With a strong following to satisfy, the band went into the studio in 1993 and made its CD debut with an eponymous release, commonly known to fans as The Purple One. The following year, they started venturing further for live shows, going out on tours, taking a week at a time and traveling the East Coast as far as North Carolina.
As the geography and demographic grew, so did the demand for new tunes. In 1996, the band self-released The Ones You Love. For their next album, they worked with Sugar Hill Records. Rockin' In the Weary Land came out in 1998 and won the AIM award for Best Rock Album.
Through all these accomplishments, the band had actually stuck to a fairly conservative touring and recording schedule. That all changed in 1999 when Jim Miller quit his full-time job as a curator at the Natural History Museum in New York City to dedicate himself full-time to DTB. The group more than doubled the shows they played in a year. They traveled as far as Italy, ventured to Colorado and Texas and became regulars at annual events like The Leaf Fest and Merle Fest in North Carolina, Harvest Fest in Georgia, Magnolia Fest in Florida, Great Blue Heron in New York, and Rhythm Roots Fest in Rhode Island.
Continuing their relationship with Sugar Hill, they released Positive Friction in 2000 and started to make a showing on national radio charts. In 2001, the group turned back to their own Wildlife Music to release the double-disc Live from the American Ballroom, which showcased some of their best performances from sold-out theater shows across the country.
In 2002 and the group opened for the Dead in Alpine Valley. The following year, they acted as the backing band for alt-country musician Jim Lauderdale on Wait Til Spring, released on Skycrunch Records.
For their latest effort, DTB struck a progressive deal with Reincarnate Music that allows them to remain in control of their recording masters and decision making, all the while securing a major distribution deal that will allow fans and fans-to-be the chance to buy Donna the Buffalo records around the globe.
And the journey continues. LIFE'S A RIDE, indeed.
Jeb Puryear - vocals, guitar
Tara Nevins - vocals, fiddle, accordian
Kathy Zeigler - keyboards
Bill Renyolds - bass
Tom Gilbert - drums