Donna the Buffalo has been a part of the Americana festival scene for years. 2019’s fall edition of Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival (October 3-6) in Pittsboro has them headlining among acts like Galactic, Roosevelt Collier and 54 other performers. They join thousands of musicians, artisans, festival-goers and organizers who return year after year because they are drawn to the music and everything the community offers.
“We’ve always identified with the festival scene,” Tara Nevins says. “Then [again,] I probably don’t really know what band or musician isn’t, but it’s just a positive breeding ground for good energy and community, and a great way to get a lot of exposure in one place.”
It’s not just about garnering new ears for their own music; festivals allow them to hear new sounds as well. In general Nevins listens to what falls under the traditional umbrella of country and strings. Nevertheless, she recently discovered the Latin, rockabilly and country fusion outfit known as The Mavericks, who she saw again at Nashville’s Americana Music Awards last week.
“I don’t know where I’d been, what rock I’ve been under,” she says. “They’ve been around forever, and they’re fantastic. But I’ve never had the fortune of somehow running into them live. Anyway, I got to hear them live recently. I’m just spellbound. . . . It’s always so exciting to discover something new that you’ve never heard.”
Nevins and company love festivals so much they started their own. Donna the Buffalo and friends from The Horse Flies and Neon Baptist started the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance in New York in 1991. It takes place every July and has helped raise nearly a million dollars for causes, including arts and education and the fight against AIDS. It’s also “the mothership” of grassroots festivals.
Before the Buffalo clan head to Shakori, they will stop over at Brooklyn Arts Center on Sunday, September 22. The band built their decades-long catalog on the road. In fact, when a band travels as much as they have, Nevins says it’s inevitable to grow as people and musicians upon experiencing so many parts of the country and the many different people who inhabit it.
“Life experience certainly helps you grow as a person, period,” she adds. “So I think bringing more life experience (like the festival experience), no matter what it is, can bring other angles to music or more depth to your music. . . . Being around other wonderful musicians, and sharing that with them is inspiring.”
Though their latest album, “Dance in the Street” (2018), doesn’t stray from traditional themes of community, Donna the Buffalo’s recording process and environment did change. The band worked with producer and engineer Rob Fraboni (Bob Dylan, The Band, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt) at the secluded Sonic Ranch near El Paso, Texas.
“[Fraboni] is a very interesting, eccentric, creative person,” Nevin says. “He has a lot of credits under his belt, so he’s been there, he’s seen that, he’s done that, he’s worked with the greats, and he had faith in us, and digs our music and wanted to be part of it.”
Sonic Ranch is the world’s largest residential recording studio on a 3,300-acre pecan orchard. Nevins and company lived and worked at the ranch for a month. While they have spent the same amount of time or more as a whole on a record, it was the first time they were completely isolated and immersed in the process without interruption.
“I’d do it this way again but I’d like to make it quicker,” Nevins admits. “The longer it takes the more money it costs. We took a little too long to make [the record]; I don’t know if we were relaxed or what . . . but two weeks would be better.”
Save for “I Won’t Be Looking Back,” which Nevins wrote with three girlfriends, she and bandmate Jeb Puryear share most songwriting responsibilities on the album. Puryear brought a demo of the title track to Texas. “Dance in the Street” symbolizes taking a stand or taking action during these times of social and political unrest; by way of voting, volunteering, advocating or simply speaking up for what you believe is right.
“It’s just universally calling to arms everybody to just getting out there and having a voice in a positive way,” Nevins explains, “making a change, taking a stand for something by getting out there and strutting your stuff.”
“Motor” was one tune to develop most in this collection. Nevins finished the lyrics and fleshed out the harmonies during their Texas sessions.
“What’s funny about the song ‘Motor’ is we had started making a record with Rob Fraboni a few years earlier,” she details. “We were trying to record it at his house, and ‘Motor’ came out of that recording session. Because we liked the way the music part of it came out.”
Nevins and company already are writing for the next record, though she would like to record the next album before playing the songs for a live audience. It’s almost a throwback to the days when bands would release an album of all new songs, tour it, stop and repeat.
“Nowadays, a lot of bands like us just tour all year round, all the time, whether there’s a new record or not,” Nevins says, “so you’re playing these songs all the time [before recording them].”
See Donna the Buffalo at BAC on Sunday or at Shakori Hills in October and follow @encorepub on socials for festival coverage!