Donna the Buffalo's Journey of Being Taken Seriously

“Excuse me, but I have to eat while we talk. Do you mind?”

Tara Nevins is at home doing what most people do as part of their morning routine, scrambling eggs — sorry, “fluffing them,” as she points out — while also attempting to answer the questions posed by an inquiring journalist. New Times has caught her during one of those rare intervals when she and her band, Donna the Buffalo, aren’t on the road playing one of the 120 gigs this hardworking ensemble finds itself involved with annually.

Clearly Nevins is adept at multitasking. But as the band’s primary singer — not to mention its designated fiddler, guitarist, and accordion player — she has to be. After all, the band is known for its eclectic musical mix, one that incorporates rock, bluegrass, zydeco, folk, and anything else that happens to strike its fancy at any given time.

“We fly by the seat of our pants,” Nevins admits. “It's not even funny.”

Formed in 1989 by Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear, Donna the Buffalo is based in New York State, but its following — a devoted group of fans who refer to themselves as “The Herd” — has made the band favorites at festivals throughout the country. Indeed, it draws the faithful with the same steadfast devotion that characterizes Deadheads and Phish followers.

“It’s the music, but it's also about the vibe and the message,” Nevins insists. “Something about us encourages a sense of community, and people are drawn to that. Community is a great thing. I don’t know what it is about that. Is it our songs? The way we play them? It’s hard to say what that ingredient is or what we’re trying to put our hands on here.”

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That fan following seems to have grown organically. “In the beginning, we were not the greatest band technically, but even then we began drawing people,” Nevins reflects. “Our songs, our vibes... The Herd is so self-organized. It started when somebody came to a gig and started talking to someone else. They both liked the music and decided to meet up at another gig up, making the soundboard their meeting place. Then other people began joining them there, and it grew from there."

That rabid fan following evolved despite the negative feedback heaped on the band by its peers, critics, and many industry insiders. Nevins concedes that at least some of that criticism was warranted.

“Some groups are automatically darlings of the press,” she muses. “They come out, and the press automatically embraces them. But we’ve never been darlings of the press. We spent many years undoing a reputation that wasn’t very good. When we first started out, we weren’t very good, at least technically. We were a bunch of funky gypsies who’d usually roll up to a gig late and come tumbling out all barefoot. But at the same time, the Herd was loving us, loving the vibe we were putting out. Behind the scenes, there was this disparaging attitude in the industry about Donna the Buffalo. We may have deserved some of that. So now we’ve matured and gotten extremely professional and outgrown all that. This is the best band we’ve ever had."

Originally dubbed "Dawn of the Buffalo,” the band adopted its present handle after being misidentified as "Donna the Buffalo.” More than 25 years later, the group is still going strong, headlining four annual festivals in upstate New York and playing numerous others — including the the Grassroots Festival in Key Biscayne and the Magnolia Festival in upstate Florida — year after year.

“Jeb and I are the two founding members, and we’ve seen some personnel changes over the years," Nevins says. "But now we have a great crew that we really love, and it seems like everyone’s having a great time.

“I think we’ve made a lot of headway and created a lot of love. Some people’s minds may have been changed for sure. I would sure hope so.”

The Virginia Key GrassRoots Festival, with the Donna the Buffalo, Family Stone, the Wood Brothers, and others. February 18 to 21 at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park, 4020 Virginia Beach Dr., Key Biscayne. Tickets cost $25 to $120 via virginiakeygrassroots.com.

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