Donna the Buffalo has played in various incarnations since 1988, blending folk, bluegrass and zydeco music. The quintet, from Trumansburg, N.Y., has become a fixture at summer music festivals and founded the popular Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance. Assistant Accent Editor Patrick Doyle spoke to guitarist and founding member Jeb Puryear about the group’s long history and the balance between recording and live performances.
They played live at Castaways on Saturday night.
Patrick Doyle: What does Donna the Buffalo mean?
Jeb Puryear: We had this gig coming up and we needed a name, so we started fooling around. [Then] somebody was trying to get something with the word buffalo in it. And then the original name was “Dawn of the Buffalo,” that was an original idea that somebody had, which is a perfectly fine name, I think, but it sounded a little pretentious (laughs). We hadn’t even played a gig, you know, so that was just kind of funny. Somebody else was pronouncing it with the Long Island accent and it turned into Donna the Buffalo, so that fit our psychological disposition a lot better.
PD: You guys released your first album in 1993, right?
JP: Geez that’s a good question. I think so, yeah. We had a cassette tape or something before then. They don’t really count anymore. They were big back then.
PD: How would you say your sound has changed since [your first album]?
JP: It’s hard to tell. I think our sound has definitely gotten broader. We’re able to encompass more areas of music. And with the current lineup it’s a little sparser and a little more open. You can tell what’s going on. It’s a little clearer sound. Everyone we meet is a new influence to us and it’s always changing a bit and then a lot of it stays the same. In general, Donna the Buffalo has maintained a certain spirit that keeps driving it, you know. … Music’s a journey and we’re definitely on the journey.
PD: When did you start that journey?
JP: 1988 I think our first gig was. I started playing the fiddle when I was seven.
PD: Then you moved to electric guitar.
JP: Fiddle music is really great. I grew up in this area, and there was a hotbed of old time fiddle music. … I thought it was a very popular thing because these clubs were full when I was a kid and my father was a big fan, [so] we used to go all the time. I thought it was going on all over the world, but it turned out it was
really going on in these couple small towns right around here. So that and my fascination with electric guitar [comes from] the combination between the fact that there isn’t that great a performance scene with the old-time music, [and] some of the more song-oriented music [makes it] easier to communicate with people.
PD: You guys play covers and originals. What is your most-played cover?
JP: We actually do very few covers. Every now and then someone will inspire it, like when Johnny Cash died we started doing “Ring of Fire” and stuff like that every now and then. Besides that we don’t do many covers. Then we’ll do a few Keith Frank zydeco tunes. The band is really a songwriting band, you know. We’ve written over a hundred songs, and everybody always wants to hear all of them. We’re always in the process of forgetting a bunch of them and remembering. … We’ve been lucky in that regard. A lot of bands struggle with a limited repertoire.
PD: Do you prefer being in the recording studio or playing live shows more?
JP: I’ve been liking recording a lot more in the last couple years. … I’m just feeling like I’m getting excited while the record industry is totally collapsing (laughs). It’s kind of ironic, you know? … We’ve been doing different projects with different people, doing the solo record; the only thing about doing that is like, if you do a band record, you do it with the band, but if you do a solo record, you can call up anyone you know and get them to come and play or do a duet on the record.
Donna the Buffalo will perform at 9 p.m. Saturday at Castaways, 413 Taughannock Blvd. Tickets are $18 in advance and $20 the day of the show.