Editor's note: This story was updated at 9:30 a.m., Aug. 10, to reflect the correct origins of Merlefest.
Even though some Louisiana zydeco, Smoky Mountain bluegrass and Kingston roots reggae joins Donna the Buffalo onstage at each show, every stop still feels a little like Trumansburg, N.Y.
Donna the Buffalo got its start in that village along New York's Finger Lakes in 1989, and the band returns every July for the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance that it founded more than two decades ago. Filled with Cajun, folk, world beat, country and old-time fiddle acts, the festival is basically a mirror of Donna the Buffalo's musical influences and style. The band just completed its 22nd GrassRoots Fest last month and drew George Jones as a headliner.
"It started out where part of the community was into it, but part of the community was skeptical because music festivals mean partying and maybe drugs and hippies," says Tara Nevins, Donna the Buffalo's co-founder, singer, guitarist, fiddler, accordionist and songwriter. "Over the years, I think the whole community has come to embrace it as a positive thing."
Much like the festival it founded, Donna the Buffalo is a big tent of Americana packing in as many converts as possible. Nevins and songwriting partner Jeb Puryear have knocked out more than 180 songs; they add accordion when a tune needs Louisiana flavor, strings when they want more country, and even extra minutes when 11- to 16-minute songs like "Seems to Want to Hurt This Time" and "Push Comes to Shove" need room to breathe.
As a result, Donna the Buffalo's been labeled as a Cajun, bluegrass and even jam band at various points. None of those descriptions have fallen too wide of the mark.
"We're hard to describe sometimes, you know?" Nevins says. "We have elements of a lot of that stuff, and I don't like it when people get us totally wrong and peg us the wrong way. But you don't have a lot of control over it, and you just play what you play."
As the years have progressed, Donna the Buffalo has fallen into a broad, amorphous category of Americana perhaps best defined as festival music. The band has also become a fixture at annual events like North Carolina's Merlefest, named for the late Eddy Merle Watson, and the All Good festival in West Virginia.
Along the way, Donna the Buffalo and its followers have taken on the decidedly jam-influenced nickname the Herd, dedicating themselves to keeping this brand of music alive and broadening its definition for anyone willing to listen.
Nevins is nine albums into this experiment thus far (not counting her two solo recordings) and isn't done spreading the word. She and the band built on their success in Trumansburg by launching the biannual Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival in Silk Hope, N.C., and kicked off the first Virginia Key Grassroots Festival in Florida this past February. She still believes that people are looking for something in their lives, and that roots music and the festival atmosphere surrounding it can fill that unmet tribal need.
"My brother came to GrassRoots for the first time this year after I told him, 'You've gotta come, it'll change your perspective,' and he didn't know what it meant," Nevins says. "When the festival was over, he said, 'You were right.' And I think that happens to people all the time. ... They feel like they're part of something."