Decades ago, social and political statements were the norm in popular music. The Neil Young model says it’s okay to rock out, dance around and shake your head like a loon, and still say something meaningful.
That’s gotten harder in the days of corporate control of the music industry. But there are a few bands that manage to do it all, and Donna the Buffalo defines the melding of poignancy and folly. Founders and songwriting/singing duo Jeb Puryear (guitar) and Tara Nevins (accordion, fiddle, scrubboard, guitar) started the group 20 years ago, taking their name from a Long Islander’s pronunciation (“dawn of the buffalo”) of an initial idea for a moniker. Joined these days by Dave McCracken on keys, Jay Sanders on bass, and Tom Gilbert on drums, the band released their latest studio effort this summer, Silverlined, and their first-ever music video for the song “Locket & Key” is enjoying airplay on Great American Country.
Donna’s bread and butter, however, will always be festivals. After beginning the GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in their home turf of upstate New York, the band duplicated their efforts in their unofficial second home of North Carolina with the twice-a-year Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival outside Raleigh. This year alone, Donna’s played that festival’s spring and fall weekends, MerleFest, LEAF, and SpringFest and MagnoliaFest on the Suwannee River in Florida.
“People say when you leave a festival, you know, it’s back to reality,” says Puryear, on the phone from New York before departing for their Southeast run. “I think we’re settling on reality at a very base level way too easily, because who really is to say where reality lies? And you know, like they say, we have to go and dominate foreign countries or else they’re going to rise up and chop our heads off or something like that. Is that really the only way? And they say that is reality.”
Watch Puryear at any show, and he’s likely to spend most of the time he’s playing with his head slightly cocked back, eyes closed, and his mouth hanging open a bit, visibly feeling every note he picks on his Stratocaster. An audience member could spend the entire show just twirling and dancing to the Zydeco-infused, fiddle-driven tunes without ever noting their conscious message, based on the notion that a reality where brutality and domination are the world’s corrective forces doesn’t have to be ours.
Although a Donna show is a party first and foremost, the band embraces their subtle mouthpiece, especially in a volatile election year. Even during the Democratic primaries, Puryear consistently dedicated the song “These Are Better Days” to Barack Obama.
“I just think it’s incredibly fortunate that somebody that good-hearted would offer to run [for president],” says Puryear. “It’s sort of a funny song [“Better Days”] to have written when things actually weren’t better days, but I think there’s a collective thing the world is heading toward. Whether it’ll be successful or not is another story, but it’s a dream about where we need to head, when all the good-hearted people in the world will come together. That’s basically what that song is about.”
You won’t find any heavy undertones at a Donna show, just good vibes. Puryear believes that in times of trouble, people rely on the essentials, and among those he includes music right there with food.
“When you put out a kind of message or a sense of joy, to have people resonate with that or recognize something about society that you recognize, it’s a great feeling,” he says. “Musicians show up and they’re trying to ignite sort of a spiritual reality, and the people showing up are really there for the same purpose, and if it all combines into one thing, then it really turns into something that’s quite extraordinary.”