Tara Nevins is best known for fronting Donna The Buffalo, the enduring (20 plus years) rock/jam/festival band based in Trumansburg, New York. Years pass, band members come and go, but Tara (and co-founder Jeb Puryear) keep Donna hoppin’ and constantly touring.
But in her heart of hearts, Tara Nevins is an old-time fiddler. Her most vivid musical experiences are tied to the traditional music of the North Carolina hills, where she sought out and learned the tunes that still excite her and deeply influence her work with Donna and as a solo artist.
I met Tara last spring at Merlefest. She’s slender and good-looking, with a warm bearing. While some professional musicians seem bored with their routines Tara maintains a passion for music, especially traditional forms, including cajun, zydeco, and old time. She’s something of an old time apostle, and when I told her I was interested in learning more about the music she suggested I attend the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy, North Carolina (the subject of an earlier post – scroll down, you’ll find it).
“Mt. Airy has been and still is my Mecca,” she told me. She books no shows during the week of the festival, and sure enough this year she rolled into the festival grounds in Donna The Buffalo’s big purple tour bus, which has an interesting history all its own: among its previous owners are Toby Keith and Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club.
The sun was on full broil that May weekend and it felt like you could roast potatoes inside the bus, so after a brief talk we stepped outside where Tara pointed out several friends and former band mates who were singing country standards. One old pal is Joe Thrift, well known to old time practitioners for his fiddle tune “Pale Face.” Joe, a highly respected violin maker, once played keyboards for Donna. He was also the band’s bus driver, he told me, and considered himself very good at it. I hope to interview him for this project a bit further on.
The purple bus was on Tara’s mind when I caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about her early days as a musician, her love of old time, and whatever else came to mind. Donna the Buffalo had played a gig in Annapolis, Maryland the night before and soon after departing for home the bus began shaking violently. The problem turned out to be bad rims. “We all got on our computers and found a 24-hour roadside service,” she said. Several hours and four hundred dollars later they proceeded toward Trumansburg. “I got to bed at six-thirty this morning.” I was reminded of something Jorma Kaukonen wrote a few years back (roughly paraphrased here): Being a professional musician means long hours of driving interspersed with brief periods of actually playing music.
Donna usually does around 100 shows a year, Tara says, but this year they’re doing far more. “We have debt to pay.” She said touring is getting a bit harder as time goes on. “I don’t like being out of my routine. I don’t always get to eat as well as I’d like, or exercise as much. I really like to get in an hour of walking each day, and that can be hard to do when you’re on the road.” The band is currently working on a new disc, and she’s also trying to get out more to promote her latest solo album, “Wood and Stone.” Though she sounded somewhat tired she was also upbeat. She clearly loves the path she has chosen.
I asked her how old she was when she knew she would spend her life making music. “I never consciously thought that,” she says. There was no decision one day to forego everything else in favor of the musical life. But many years were spent developing the chops, and worldview, that made this life possible.
Tara grew up in Orangeburg, New York, not far from New York City. She got her first violin at age 5 and took up the guitar at 14, learning the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carol King. She wrote her first song at 17 – “it was a silly little song called ‘We’re On Our Way To A New World Now.’ The theme was kinda ‘the younger generation is alive and happening. We know what it’s all about.’ It did foreshadow the uplifting, worldly message that’s in a lot of Donna the Buffalo’s music.”
She played violin in the high school orchestra, and during that time discovered that not all the old masters played classical music. “When I heard the ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album, it turned my head. I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Her classical violin studies took her to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, but she did not solely concentrate on the classical curriculum.
“My roommate played in a band called the St. Regis River Valley String Band,” Tara says. “They played old time and I fell in love with it in a minute.” The band liked her as well, and eventually added her as a member. “Before I knew it, playing old time was what I was doing with my life.” While she had earned a teaching degree, “I had no interest in teaching music.”
Instead, she wanted to learn as much about old time as possible. After college, she “dove in,” and no place was more important in her development than the Mt. Airy festival. “We also went to Galax and Brandywine, but Mt. Airy was my favorite. It was small and there were lots of local players to learn from, and some of the greatest players came from that area, including Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, and Fred Cockerham.”
There was, she adds, something of a culture clash. “This was a very southern festival, and we were outsiders. We were from the North, the West Coast, the Midwest, and we were alternative minded. We were called ‘The Revivalists’ because we were the younger generation that was reviving this music. At first, the local people looked at us sort of crossways. I think we amused them. But they knew we respected their culture and that we had come to learn their music. And come Sunday morning when it was time to leave, we left the place spotless. Eventually we were accepted, appreciated and loved.”
One sign of that acceptance was that the outsiders began winning contests. “We started an all-girl band called The Heartbeats and one year won the best up and coming band.” The Heartbeats “were and are an extremely significant band in my life. We are a powerful old time band that plays hard driving fiddle tunes and songs that have a bit of pop sensibility.” Tara also won the fiddle contest. “Being accepted at that level was a very powerful experience,” Tara says , though perhaps her most memorable musical experience followed an on-stage performance of the classic tune “Sally Anne.”
“I played the tune in the fiddle contest and got off the stage. I was standing there and Riley Baugus walked up to me and said there was someone who wanted to meet me. I was a little nervous, but I went with him. So he takes me to a campsite, and there’s Dix Freeman, who played banjo with Tommy Jarrell for years. He had heard me playing ‘Sally Anne’ and said ‘You sound so much like Tommy.’ Well, I had learned the tune from a Tommy Jarrell recording. He asked me to play it again. For me, being face-to-face with Dix was mind blowing. He was very nice and invited me to his house and showed me around. There was a little cabin there where they had square dances. He also had Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug. “
For Tara, these were life-shaping events. “These times were like Christmas when you’re a kid. They still are very powerful for me, and I know for a lot of other musicians.” Donna the Buffalo, she adds, has its roots in old time. “Originally, all the people in the band were old time musicians. Jeb picked up the electric guitar and I got an electric violin from my dad. We added drums and morphed into an electric band, but the old time influence is definitely there.”
I asked Tara about songwriting. She is a solitary woman in that regard. While she and Jeb Puryear write all Donna’s original material, and have been doing so for 22 years, “we haven’t written a song together.” She hasn’t co-written with anyone, she adds, though she does perform with other writers, including country hit maker Jim Lauderdale, who appeared on her recent solo album as a harmony singer.
Her new solo disc, “Wood And Stone” (Sugar Hill Records), has stellar contributors, including drummer Levon Helm and producer Larry Campbell, and has kept her in pretty good company, appearing on the Americana charts with recordings from Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. The disc is a deeply personal reflection on family life, including the breakup of her longtime marriage. Yet it is not, she says, “maudlin or so private that it’s embarrassing. This is not a woe is me record” or, as she has said elsewhere, a musical version of a “chick flick.” It is also something of a departure from her first solo record, “Mule To Ride,” which came out on Sugar Hill in 1999 and showcased Tara’s fiddling. That disc, which also charted, featured several high profile guest artists, including Ralph Stanley and Mike Seeger.
Her only woe, she says, is that she hasn’t gotten out to play the tunes as much as she’d like due to commitments with Donna the Buffalo.
“I’m thinking I’d like to put together a little band and do more gigs in the spring.” Despite over 20 years of public performances, including gigs before large audiences, she is still uncomfortable unaccompanied. “I never have just played solo, except maybe at a songwriter workshop.” When she’s with a smaller band, she adds, she enjoys talking with the audience, which she doesn’t do much of when playing with Donna. “It’s nice having that sort of communication.”
Near conversation’s end she offered advice for younger musicians. They should listen to the classical masters – Bach, Beethoven et al. – but also to the best of other traditions, whether Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, the Balfa Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, The Frank Family, plus rock and pop deities including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. And if old time turns their head, as it turned Tara’s, she suggests Jarrell, Flippen, the Smoky Valley Boys and the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, for starters.
And, of course, a yearly visit to Mt. Airy. She’ll be the fiddle babe in the big purple bus.
Talking with Tara reminded me of my trip to Mt. Airy and the other great old time players I’d heard there, including Mark Olitsky. Mark’s clawhammer banjo had turned my head when I first heard it a couple of years ago at Clifftop. We eventually struck up a friendship, played some tunes together, and shared campsites at a few festivals. After eating some of my highly carnivorous cooking, Mark went vegan.
So, next time out, a conversation with Mark (if I can track him down). For now, a short break for Christmas. And for those who have wondered about my son Branch (scroll down a bit and you’ll find a piece I did on his deployment to Iraq) — he’s back home. And he’s looking for an upright bass. He’d probably like to find Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug as well. Lord help us every one.