Positive Friction: A Q&A with Jeb Puryear of Donna the Buffalo
By Geoff Gehman
This material first appeared on the web-site of the Sellersville Theater 1894 at www.st94.com.
DtB photo by Jim Gevenus
Donna the Buffalo is dedicated to groovy grooves. The band’s five members specialize in upbeat idioms—calypso, zydeco, old-time mountain fiddle—and upbeat lyrics about the state of unions and Unions. They promote virtues—loyalty, charity, curiosity—as founding hosts of two grass-roots cultural festivals—a summer extravaganza on their home turf of Trumansburg, N.Y., and a spring/fall lollapalooza in Silk Hope, N.C. They have a phenomenal following known as The Herd, whose supporters raise money for healthy causes while dancing until the bison roost.
DtB, which plays Sellersville on Oct. 28, is led by guitarist Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins (fiddle/accordion/scrubboard), who sing lead on songs they write independently. In a recent phone interview Puryear discussed the ups and downs of everything from not having a set list to a Caribbean cruise that was a little too free at sea.
Jeb Puryear. photo by Jim Gavenus
Q: I hear you don’t sleep much during the GrassRoots Festival up in
Trumansburg. What do you get–eight hours in four days?
A: That may be generous [laughs].
Q: Describe a day in the life of Jeb Puryear during last summer’s festival.
A: Well, I usually start the whole festival off by playing in Bubba George, an old-time string band I was in when I was a kid. And then I played in Donna and after that I went and saw Merle Haggard and then I did a set with Keith Frank and then the Believers wanted me to play bass on their set—and they had two sets. For some reason I stayed up all night every night this year. We’re much more invested than many festival organizers. But, then, it’s very exciting to be able to play all that music with so many different folks. With a job like that, you’d just want to be worked to
Q: Is there anything you miss from the festival’s bygone days?
A: I miss the stress [laughs]. Actually, that’s sort of a joke. A lot of people don’t realize that we had absolutely no money when we decided to start a festival. We borrowed $5,000 from a friend of ours and we basically talked the whole thing up. It was touch-and-go at the beginning. Most of the people who do that sort of thing have some kind of money [laughs]. It was really brave and bold and the right thing to do. In the early years I was involved in the day-to-day activities of the office. Today, the office staff absorbs whatever stress there is. They take care of the thing better than we ever did.
Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins. Photo by John D Kurc
Q: You and Tara met through the old-time fiddle circuit. What was the first clue that you and she could work well together.
A: She was about the first person we met who played songs that sounded like songs you might hear on the radio. Working with her, we learned how to play more song-based music than tune based. She was booked into this vegetarian restaurant and we wound up getting booked there. We were lucky enough that the whole thing worked. People danced to the fast stuff and the slow stuff right from the start. I don’t know why people like to move while we’re playing. It might be because we’re moving all the time.
Q: What are some essential differences between you and Tara as songwriters.
A: I tend to be a little more wordy. She tends to have a little more melody. Over our history I’ve probably been more pointedly political. Our songwriting is different the same way men and women are different: you have to respect the differences. It’s a pretty cool thing to get those male-female perspectives one after the other.
Q: Can you point to a recent band breakthrough, a significant point of departure when you really hit your stride?
A: Last year me and Tara started doing duet shows. Me and her have been playing music for a really long time and because we’ve been at it for so long we can change tempos and styles and it always stays together. The rest of the people in the band saw those shows and decided that the five of us should be as tight, as all together, as the two of us. Since then we’ve really been having a lot more fun.
Q: What kind of democracy is Donna the Buffalo? For example, who gets to choose the set lists?
A: We have a very distorted democracy [laughs]. As far as set lists go, we don’t ever write one. When my brother Jordon was in the group he used to write set lists and they were pretty good. When he left, we started writing set lists and they weren’t very good [laughs]. Now either one of us [Puryear or Nevins] will start playing a song and we try to keep it moving best we can. One good thing about not having a set list is that at least one person in the band feels like playing the song we’re playing. Because we don’t do a set list, sometimes we’ll forget about a song for a number of months. [Keyboardist] Dave [McCracken] has recently been trying to get us to do the older songs more often. I was never really big on change throughout my whole life. But now I’m slowly coming around to realizing it’s not only necessary but inevitable. If you’re going to change, you might as well swivel around and make the change a good one.
Q: I’m always curious about the afterlife of songs—about their zigzag path after you introduce them to the world. Is there one of your tunes that has had a rich side career at weddings, funerals or some other rite of passage?
A: Well, some people propose onstage during our shows; that’s kind of exciting. And we once played at a very personal engagement. Our friend George wanted to propose to his girlfriend Althea, so we showed up nonchalantly and we started playing while he got down on his knees. The song was “This Goes”: the complete line is “This goes to someone I love.” That was pretty cool.
Tara Nevins. Photo by Matt Dunmore
Q: The Herd is the band’s power base, a fellow charitable institution. What is something about The Herd that most non-members don’t know?
A: The main thing I like to say about The Herd is that you don’t have to do anything to be a member. You just have to like a song. Actually, I don’t know if you have to go that far. The herd is a very amorphous thing. They’ve done a lot of good things. One time we all went down to some resort in Key West to do a Herd fundraiser. They set up a stage on the lawn by the beach and we played there for a week. And someone added up all the money that got spent and it was a lot of money. And I thought we directed that a little bit.
Q: What were the highlights of your Caribbean cruise with The Herd?
A: Actually, we’ve done two cruises. The first one wasn’t a real joke but it was a lark. You know, there’s a small part of everyone who would like to go on a cruise but not be stuck on the ship. We had like 850 people on this boat, and they were our people. And the feeling was: Okay, well, we can all be stuck together. We did a second cruise a few years later. In the middle we went to St. John and the federales came and expelled maybe 10 people for smoking marijuana. It was a bit of an entrapment because if you’re out in the Caribbean and you’re playing Bob Marley on the deck, what are these poor people to do? But they were doing it blatantly and the security guy got personally offended. So we’re playing in the lounge that night and we’re wondering: Are we supposed to have fun now? I mean, all our friends just got thrown off the boat. It’s like that first moment after someone dies and you’re supposed to carry on with your life and you’re not sure how. And our old drummer Tom [Gilbert]—who is a very funny guy—says: “Man, I’ve felt more awkward vibes watching porno with my parents” [laughs].
Q: What’s up next? A boxed set of rarities? A carnival tent tour? Would you like to do what the White Stripes did: make a documentary about playing cafes, parking lots and other pick-up places?
A: I would like to do all those things. A carnival tent tour we talked about. A boxed set of rarities would be great. Actually, we’re planning a record featuring our greatest guests, including some of the people we’ve invited to play songs with us at the end of grass-roots festivals. And I would love to play very small towns all over New York state, towns with just a few houses and a bar. A tiny town tour—that would be cool.
Q: You know, the Moody Blues once considered buying an English village to headquarter their many operations. Have you guys ever been tempted to make a smaller communal real-estate transaction?
A: No–our way of hippiedom is just post-commune. Utopianism is a beautiful subject but if you don’t take it as a challenge, the endless meetings and shared everything will just drive you insane. Especially when you’re in a band. The whole notion of equality in society is interesting but not very realistic. It just kind of doesn’t happen. If you put any five kids together in a room, one of them will become the leader of the others, and nobody thinks that’s weird. That’s not to say that the people who are smart and strong should ruthlessly take advantage of everybody else. There’s all this fine-line interplay about being a communist or a capitalist, a Republican or a Democrat, when it’s pretty much the same subject. People are just fishing around to find the best way to do things.
Fact File: Donna the Buffalo
o The band’s name is a funkier version of the original proposed name Dawn of the Buffalo.
o Annual attendance at its Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, N.Y., has increased from nearly 1,500 to more than 15,000 over 19 years.
o Keyboardist Dave McCracken once toured with zydeco star C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.
o In 2005, Fiddler Tara Nevins prepared a documentary on Carlton Frank, the late, great Creole fiddler.
o DtB songs have been licensed for the cartoon Living Evil, created by Yanni Osmond and Spanky the Woman Tamer.
[Find out more information about DtB’s upcoming show at the Sellerville Theatre on Oct 28th]
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