Along with such true-bluegrass names as Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Sam Bush and Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, some odd monikers show up on the schedule for this weekend's MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C.
Odd as in Donna the Buffalo.
Bands such as Donna the Buffalo — and String Cheese Incident, another MerleFest act — have often found themselves at odds with folk purists, but they've been accepted over the years at MerleFest and are just now finding summer homes at other festivals.
"I think the festivals have broadened their scope. MerleFest was always pretty broad," Donna the Buffalo frontwoman Tara Nevins said Monday from her home in upstate New York. "And then the Winterhawk [now Grey Fox] Bluegrass Festival, that's been going for so many years, and it's always been the most pure bluegrass festival. Even they have now put up a dance stand.
"Now they've been having Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, the Cajun bands. They're having us this year for the dance [stage]. I think it's partially that the festivals are starting wherever they started and then broadening out to incorporate all roots music on some level.
"So," Nevins concluded, "we fit because they're broadening, but we also fit because we have a lot of roots stuff right in there."
Indeed, don't be fooled by the electric guitars of Jim Miller or Jeb Puryear, who heads Donna the Buffalo along with Nevins, Jed Greenberg's electric bass, Joe Thrift's keyboards or even Nevins' own electric fiddle. Even on such songs as Puryear's "Funky Side" (RealAudio excerpt), the band's serious reworking of John Anderson's seminal "Seminole Wind" or Nevin's jaunty, accordion-driven "Tides of Time" (RealAudio excerpt), all from their 1998 Sugar Hill CD, Rockin' in the Weary Land, the musicians remain rooted, whether it's in folk, blues, zydeco or reggae.
In fact, except for drummer Tom Gilbert, "We all come from the old-time Appalachian fiddle-music scene. Everybody plays fiddles and banjos and upright basses. And for years we played the old mountain tunes and always played acoustic music," Nevins said of the band, which formed in 1987, in Ithaca, N.Y.
"And then myself and Jeb, at some point in our lives we started writing songs, so the electric thing came in. But I really think we approach our songs, and the way we play together, almost like the way we approach playing the old-time stuff," she insisted.
"We start playing kind of all at once, keep going and get kind of a groove going. There's a lot of bands that have a sparser sound — someone comes in and takes a lead. We don't quite do that. We're like, 'Ready, get set, go!'
"We try to all be in the same place. Doesn't always work, but when it does, there's nothing better."
Nevins played fiddle, accordion, guitar, rub-board and tambourine on Rockin' in the Weary Land, but she concentrated on fiddle for her acclaimed 1999 solo CD, Mule to Ride (Sugar Hill), where she's joined by the illustrious likes of Ralph Stanley and Dirk Powell on banjo, as well as Powell's wife, Louisiana bayou guitarist Christina Balfa.
"I would say that Donna is a little more eclectic and that my solo one is a little more conceptual," Nevins said. "To me, it's kind of like you set Bob Marley on a back stoop with a guitar, and he sat there singing a song. And then, the next house down, you sat Ralph Stanley on the back steps, with his banjo, singing a song.
"I feel there's a thread between all that, whether it's country, old time — the roots. So it's exploring the thread between the idea of one world, one music community, one roots thing."
Nevins' and Donna's "one roots thing" has been a smash hit at MerleFest, where last year the musicians were "discovered" by enough newfound fans to sell 900 CDs. This year, Donna are hoping to have on hand copies of their upcoming disc, Positive Friction, even though its street date isn't until June 20.
Donna the Buffalo's MerleFest 2000 schedule:
Friday, April 28; Dance Stage, 5 p.m.
Saturday, April 29; Hillside Stage, 4:30 p.m., and Dance Stage, 8:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 30; Watson Stage, 10:30 a.m., and Dance Stage, 2:45 p.m.
Tara Nevins' MerleFest schedule:
Friday, April 28; Cabin Stage, 8:20 p.m.
Saturday, April 29; Plaza Stage, 2:20 p.m., and Traditional Stage, 3 p.m.