The Grateful Dead has its Deadheads and Jimmy Buffet boasts Parrotheads. There's little distinction between the fans and fanatics once the crowd has its own name, both will follow the musicians to the ends of the earth.
Donna the Buffalo can consider itself among the fortunate beneficiaries of that kind of rapt attention and appreciation. After 25 years, ten albums, and headliner status at any number of high profile festivals nationwide -- including at least three in Florida, Virginia Key Grassroots Festival, the Magnolia Fest, and the Suwannee Springfest -- the band basks in the appreciation of loyal legions that have dubbed themselves "the Herd."
"I don't really know how to explain it," singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tara Nevins responds when asked for the reasons behind the band's rabid following.
"There's something subtle in the music that maybe emits some kind of vibe, or attracts a devoted community. But I don't know what that ingredient is. It's some kind of intangible... It has something to do with a bigger picture across the board, a vibe, something that draws people in because they feel like they can belong to something cool. We don't have much to do with it, even though we've become friends with a lot of the fans... We just feel fortunate they're out there."
That devotion could be attributed, at least in part, to the band's seemingly nonstop touring schedules. Besides Nevins, the band is comprised of her musical partner, co-founder, vocalist, and guitarist Jeb Purvyear, David McCracken on keys, bassist Kyle Spark, and drummer Mark Raudabaugh. All five log hundreds of hours on the road each year. It may also have something to do with the fact that the group's musical template is daring, to say the least. It presents an infectious blend of rock, reggae, bluegrass, folk, and country, all tempered with a jam band sensibility. It's an eagerness and vitality that stems from purely organic origins.
"We're not really that cerebral about it," Nevins insists, speaking by phone from the band's tour bus as it motors its way toward Florida for a series of gigs. "When we go into make a new album, we think more about where are we going to record, what style setup we'll employ, whether we're we going to sit in a circle, record it in a church, do it in a studio.
"We're pretty diverse due to our influences, so when we go in to do a record, we look at our material and that determines how we're going to arrange things. We don't sit and go, 'How are we going to expand musically on this record?' Maybe we should. That's not a bad idea. (chuckles) But really, it's all about how we're going to arrange and record it."
That sense of spontaneity is best expressed in the band's live shows which have a freewheeling, anything-goes party atmosphere that allows the music to seemingly shift at a whim.
"Every night is different," Nevins maintains. "For one thing, we don't make a set list. So that's spontaneous right there. We do have certain things we do every night, but we also have certain things we do randomly as well. Some nights the jams go longer than on others. We've also had different members over the years. It's been Jeb and me the whole time, but the other guys are relatively new -- some for three years, some for five years -- and so we've always had new blood coming in, and that keeps things fresh."
That reach also offers opportunities to embrace fans. "We also make it a point not to play the same gigs every year," Nevins adds. "We try to branch out, to go to new places, provide ourselves with new experiences and to meet new people."
She says she always gets excited about gigs, old and new, "but it's always very good to have a few new ones that turn your head around." Those include working with musicians she's a fan of or performing at new places to break up the routine. "We like to switch things up," she admits. At the time we were speaking, Donna the Buffalo was on its way to Tampa for a three night run, then down to Key West for four nights of shows.
"A lot of our Herd fans will come down for that, and it becomes like a big event, not just a one night gig," Nevins explains. "It's like, 'Come along, make this your winter vacation... You can come down to Florida for the warm weather, hang out in Tampa and then caravan down to Key West and party down there.' We always have a lot of irons in the fire."
Still, Nevins has to admit that it's not always easy capturing that live spark in the studio. "It's always been a challenge," she concedes. "There are people who, after they see us for the first time, come up to me or Jeb and say, 'You know, I heard one of your CDs and uhhhh, I don't know. But after I saw your live show, suddenly I get it.' I think that's true for a lot of bands. It's very hard to keep that live spontaneous element to it in the studio. But we try."
The fact is, Nevins has heeded that sense of purpose from the very beginning. She claims she grew up listening to AM radio and weened her first influences from the classic singer/songwriters of an earlier era. "I had my music books that taught me Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, but I also just loved fiddle music."
She says her major ah-ha moment came with the discovery of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the landmark 1972 album that featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Byrds, and other members of rock's younger country rock elite. On that album, they joined forces with the original old school establishment, artists like Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Vassar Clements.
"My head just turned completely when I started hearing the traditional fiddle music on that record. Then I met Jeb at a music festival. Jeb listened to a lot of stuff -- the Beatles, Roger Miller... but we quickly found we had this Gemini connection through this old time fiddle music. We started playing a lot of festivals in the south where you'd hear someone playing an accordion, and that led us to all kinds of traditional music, zydeco, African, Irish, reggae... all that stuff."
Happily, the fans soon followed and they've been on the trail with the group ever since. "You don't have to be a member of the Herd to enjoy Donna the Buffalo," Nevins contends. "You just have to like the music."
Donna the Buffalo. 8 p.m., Tuesday, January 6, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Royal Palm Place, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Call 561-465-3946, or visit funkybiscuit.com.
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