Donna the Buffalo has fiddled, picked and sashayed its way through a journey of fine roots music. Make that American music. The kind that's bred in the South -- country, bluegrass, gospel, Cajun -- but Donna the Buffalo hail from Ithaca, N.Y., in the upper reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. The warmth of the South, though, is never far from the band's music.
Jeb Puryear (vocals/guitar) and Tara Nevins (vocals/fiddle/accordion) are the original remaining members of this band that turned 20 this year. Numerous members have come and gone through the revolving door, but the core duo's friendship and musical evolution has persevered, making Donna the Buffalo a beloved, constantly touring American band.
The Herd, as its fans are affectionately known, thrives on the band's blend of genres and dandy songwriting. The writing is subtly crafted with messages of peace, tolerance, love of nature and the greater pursuits of justice. Nevins's words lean toward introspection while Puryear's poetry turns up the socio-political commentary. Bob Dylan and Neil Young come to mind. So do Joan Baez and Carol King.
Donna the Buffalo's 7th record, Silverlined, was released in early July on North Carolina's Sugar Hill Records. The record continues the firm-yet-evolving sound of mountain music that is occasionally splashed with reggae and folk. It seems to hark back to the spirited decades of the 1960s and 1970s without forgetting that it was written and is performed in the present.
The album is filled with feisty tunes including "Tomorrow Still Knows." The song may be wrought with uncertainty, where Puryear sings "It's dark, we have made it so," yet is filled with promise and hope.
"Garden of Eden" is spruced-up with unconventional tabla rhythms where Puryear's eco commentary blossoms, again with more subtlety than preaching.
The title song "Silverlined" has Nevins's signature bluegrass/roots melody. David Hildago, the legendary guitarist and lead singer for Los Lobos, guests as a vocalist on the track.
"Locket and Key" is a wistful song stitched with the banjo of fellow American music comrade Bela Fleck.
Puryear said it's the music that matters in the end. "Something about music that centers a person, it showcases where we're headed as humans." For Puryear, it's all about the "joy of music." He grew up listening to and playing old-time fiddle tunes, informing his formative years.
He was recently strolling down the streets of N.Y.C. when our chat turned from music to politics. Puryear's voice became a bit more firm as our conversation turned to the current state of American affairs.
The historic 2008 elections have most folks riled up and paying attention. Puryear makes no apologies about his feelings as he eases into his observations of contemporary politics and the American culture.
Puryear bemoans the loss of grace and graciousness in American culture. "We've been diving to the bottom as a culture. My grandmother embodied a sense of class that I don't see any more," he said. "I wrote a song a while back, a couple of records ago called 'These are Better Days,' about where we could be."
What about the gents running for the highest office in the land? "I'm terribly excited about Obama," he said without hesitation. "The old paradigm of militarily dominating others won't work."
He's not too keen about McCain's choice of his running mate. "A bunch of snide remarks from her seem like we're living in two different countries."
But the band marches on, writing solid music and thinking man's lyrics where activism is a natural part of things. The band began the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in 1990.
The fest started as a concert to benefit a local AIDS support organization in Ithaca, N.Y. After the success of the first event, members of Donna the Buffalo created an annual festival to raise money for the fight against AIDS and other worthy causes, also providing a platform for national exposure for local and regional musicians. The festival focuses on traditional and contemporary roots music. It has grown into a major summer event with dozens of artists performing and the event attracting some 15,000 music lovers to Trumansburg, N.Y.
The band is currently a quintet with David McCracken (keyboards), Jay Sanders (bass), and Tom Gilbert (drums) rounding it out.
Donna the Buffalo will perform on Thursday, Sept. 18, at the Visulite Theatre at 9:45 p.m. Tickets are $22 in advance and $24 at the door.