By Chet Eagleman
Collegiate Staff Writer
To better understand the popularity of Donna the Buffalo’s hybrid of rock, country, and zydeco music we look at the Appalachian fiddle aspect of their sound.
This begins with the musical origins of founding member and fiddle player Tara Nevins. Nevins was studying classical violin at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam NY when the old-timey fiddle bug took hold.
“I was in high school when I got the ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ record,” Nevins said while getting ready for a Donna tour which stops in Grand Rapids on Dec 9 at the Intersection. “So I knew about fiddle music, loved it, and wanted to learn it. Then when I went off to college I actually met people who were playing this old time mountain music and I dove very heavily into that.”
Nevins furthered her learning with a field study of the instrument at the roots music festivals of the south.
“By attending the Mount Airy and Galax fiddlers conventions I was lucky enough to become part of this community of folks who were playing this old time music,” Nevins said.
During this period she was able to witness legendary fiddlers like Benton Flippen and Fred Cockerham whose old time styles would leave a lasting impression. Once she was steeped in the old time music she was asked to play in an all-female string band.
“Once I was already part of that community of fiddle players I then hooked up with three other women and we formed our band called the Heartbeats.” Come to find out Nevins still keeps in contact with the girls from the Heartbeats to the extent that a couple of them played on Nevin’s new solo record Wood and Stone (Sugar Hill).
“We’ve been playing together a little bit again lately,” Nevins said of the Heartbeats. “They’ve been helping me with a few support dates for the new record.”
On Wood and Stone Nevins addresses the vulnerable aspect of the human condition in detail. “This record is pretty personal,” said Nevins. “The majority of the songs are of the relationship journey nature but they’re very upbeat sounding. The whole notion of people staying together forever is becoming more and more iffy to me the more I look around and experience. It’s really painful and really hard but every time you come out of these relationships you definitely grow and learn something about yourself.”
Of the 13 songs on Wood and Stone two are covers; included is a Van Morrsion song (“Beauty of Days Gone By”) and a new version of the jazz standard “Stars Fell on Alabama.”
“I was asked to adapt “Stars” for a movie a couple of years ago in the fiddle/old time mountain style. I used the same lyrics but rewrote the music; completely rewrote the melody and added fiddle and banjo.”
Wood and Stone was recorded at the studio of Levon Helm (The Band) in Woodstock NY; Helm is featured on drums on two tracks. One charateristic of the songs of Donna the Buffalo are the postive, sometimes socially political, nature of the lyrics. Nevins would have it no other way.
“I’d rather write a positive song than a negative one,” Nevins said. “I think it speaks to my general life attitude. There’s something to be learned in everything.”