By Chris Parker
You can sort of imagine Trumansburg, New York, band Donna the Buffalo as a musical embodiment of Field of Dreams – from their homespun Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival to the music and touring, a five-piece roots act has always done it their way courageously.
Tara Nevins and Jeb Puryear have helmed the act for nearly 35 years through 11 albums, thousands of shows, building on their vibrant free-flowing embrace of a panoply of folk music styles and their charismatic performances.
Part of the key is their love for roots music in its many forms. When they decided to try their luck, they went all out, purchasing a bus shortly upon forming, not fooling with half-measures like cars or vans.
“We were always self-motivated, self-contained and, and a very grassroots kind of operation,” says singer/accordion/fiddler Tara Nevins. “We come from a background of playing old-time fiddle music and we’d been playing that music for years and traveling to festivals, federal conventions, and we were already part of that huge community. We were used to being on a road and traveling to those things. So getting a bus and taking a band out on the road was just part of the adventure.”
Somewhere into second year of existence in July 1990, they played an AIDS benefit with two other bands. It went so well, the next year they decided to host a full-blown music festival, inviting a host of fellow musicians they’d met on the road for a weekend. It felt to them not only like a natural progression, but it organically grew into a four-day weekend that hosts thousands.
While the pandemic forced the delay of their proper 30th anniversary, they celebrated it last year instead and are full-steam ahead on this year’s festival, featuring over 80 bands from July 20-23 in Trumansburg. Last year’s festival was a welcome return because the pandemic was a financial and emotional disaster for a band that relies so heavily on the road to sustain them.
“It was terrible,” Nevins says. “The rug got pulled out from under us. Basically, that’s our whole career and it was shut down. It was a very difficult, unnerving time.”
Unable to tour, the band still got together and made music, as much for their own mental health as anything else. That led to a Zoom performance of the immortal Grateful Dead tune, “Truckin,” which is available on streaming services.
“It was the 50 year anniversary of [double live Dead album often referred to as Skull and Roses] so it was like a tribute to that,” says Nevins. “This is when everything was Zoom and online during the pandemic, so it was an online event, and you could listen/watch different performers or listen to the performers do a cover from that record.”
Certainly jam enthusiasts comprise a portion of their audience, but Donna The Buffalo’s oeuvre is wide and deep, ranging through a broad array of folk or string music styles including bluegrass, Cajun, Irish and African. Little is predetermined. They don’t set out to write a song, it’s closer to the truth that it writes them.
“We just write songs and play whichever instruments fit the style and vibe of it,” she says. “It’s just a very natural progression where I’m writing songs and playing instruments that kind of give life to the song the best way I know. We just the write songs that come out and have all our subconscious and invisible influences from our whole life.”
It’s lively, fun music well-suited to shaking your moneymaker with an earnest, earthy energy that’s honest and straightforward in a way you wish more people were, rather than the puffed up pop productions they present. Maybe that’s why this older, less overtly commercial roots style has found so many adherents in the last couple decades, almost as an antidote to our overly complicated and heavily glossed modern world.
“Yeah there’s plenty of people that prefer mainstream pop and country with huge productions and all that,” Nevins says. “I look at both and I love it all but there’s definitely a move towards a more organic sort of thing as the world gets crazier and crazier.”
Donna the Buffalo, Thursday, June 22, at the Greenwich Odeum. 7 p.m. door, 8 p.m. show. $38. 59 Main St., East Greenwich. 401-885-4000. www.greenwichodeum.com.