Looking Ahead To Lockn’: Donna The Buffalo’s Tara Nevins Talks Occupational Work Hazards & More
Last week I was fortunate to chat with Donna The Buffalo frontwoman, vocalist and fiddle-wielding folk inspiration Tara Nevins. By phone from Piermont, New York, she talked about their upcoming Lockn’ Festival appearance and what it means to be a woman in music today. Tara and her band have been touring since 1989, so in hopes to learn about the topic’s evolution, I figured, what better person to discuss with than someone who has been consistently on the front lines?
You can catch Tara and Donna the Buffalo at the Blue Ridge Bowl Morning slot at Lockn’ Friday August 26. Without further ado, Tara Nevins:
JAMBASE: Going through the Lockn’ lineup, there are seven women listed. As far as I can tell, out of those women, you have been touring with your band the longest, since 1989. Can we talk about women in music a bit?
Tara Nevins: So you’re saying there are seven women on the lineup total?
JB: Yes, ma’am. Two women in Turkuaz (Sammi Garett and Shira Elias), one in Dharma Initiative (Megan Sloggie), one in Khruangbin (Laura Lee), and Susan Tedeschi and Brandi Carlile. What do you think about that?
TN: Wow, well, hey, at least I got some good company! [laughs]
JB: Yes, it’s really great. This is about average, or even a little high, when comparing the number of women on similar-sized festivals’ lineups these days. You also notice, overall, that the younger bands seem to be bringing that in more.
TN: Right. Yeah, that does seem to be true.
JB: And you’ve seen this progression. You’ve been representing women, and touring the live music scene since before seven seemed like a “large” number. Can you speak to that at all? What it’s been like to see this evolve?
TN: You know, it’s really interesting. I have been playing music forever. And because of that, I’ve always just been around guys. Over the years, in “our kind of music” (folk/bluegrass) I’ve seen more and more women playing instruments in addition to singing. There have always been women singers, but for some reason that was more normal to everyone.
In my experiences, I’ve always been judged as a musician. For my skill. Even earlier on when there weren’t as many women, I never felt bias towards me from other musicians. I always felt validated. To be honest though, where I did feel the prejudice, was from the sound people! Can you believe it?
JB: Seriously? How do you mean?
TN: Well, put it this way. I’ve never been an audiophile, where I can say, “Can you turn up the bass to this decibel or that decibel,” but I’ve always been able to hear what I like. I’ve found that over the years it’s gotten better and better, but earlier on, being a woman and asking for specifics like that – I got attitude. Like I was being demanding if it wasn’t how I wanted it. Like I was a “bitch,” but doing this was part of both of our jobs.
JB: And you saw this received differently by men?
TN: Oh, absolutely! That’s where I felt, occupational hazard or whatever you want to call it. As a woman, I mean. And please know, it is not this way anymore. But for a long, long time, it really was. Like, if they asked (men), it was figured out, and handled. They weren’t called an “asshole,” or some other derogatory term. But, if I asked, I was a “bitch,” or maybe worse, I was “some chick that doesn’t know her sound,” or whatever. Don’t you feel that way as a woman, that if you don’t just let something drop, or have a strong opinion, you can get labeled a “bitch?”
JB: Oh, absolutely. And when it comes to your career, why wouldn’t you be adamant and have a strong opinion?
TN: Right? It was frustrating. But like I said, that has changed. And I’m glad it has!
JB: When do you feel like it changed?
TN: It has really been a pretty recent thing. Our whole touring-music-world has evolved in a very nice way. Where men and women from different genres of music, and the community of music itself – the promoters, the writers, the musicians, the sound people – we all work together to make this really cool thing happen. I think it’s actually become a very inclusive and appreciative community.
JB: Well, I’m sure until recently, little girls growing up weren’t used to seeing someone just like them, up there doing it. You should really credit yourself for some of that inclusivity. That’s really cool.
TN: Well, thanks. Young girls do come up to me and are really excited! I always sign their notes with, “Girl power!” and they seem so excited by it. I think so much of this has (evolved) because of social media, because of social networks, and how easy it is right now to record and make music. The experiences of reaching out and hearing live music have all become so accessible, that it just brings more people out of the woodwork, and into the arena of making music. Women included.
Festivals are partly responsible for this, I think. There used to just be a few festivals a year, and just a few women at these festivals. Now, with the whole world of music and every component of that being so open, so available, so approachable and even so attainable, combined with the overall evolution of men and women in the workplace just in general around the world, it is a whole different thing. Look: There are a lot of badass female musicians out there that can’t be denied.
Women see more women playing, and say, hey, “I can play too.” Then they go home and can practice, and even record at home using Garage Band. Then they can even go take part in a songwriters’ circle at a festival with musicians and get personal feedback from someone who does this for a living! So, yeah, I have definitely seen this evolution. It is some part the women themselves, but also, as I said before, that the community of male/female admiration and appreciation for each other, musically, is in a good place too.
JB: So, I guess this is a good time to ask, are you in a relationship with any of your band members?
TN: Presently I am not, but there was a time that I was. Truly, I’m glad now it is the way it is. I like the guys in my band just being my buddies.
JB: Poignant to this topic, of your biggest songs is, “I Love my Tribe.” What is your advice to women who want to go on tour or become professional musicians?
TN: Man. It’s crazy. Honestly, I just kind of do it. But, I’ve had women who are a little younger that are getting started touring with their bands write to me, or they see me on the bus doing it for so many years. I’m taking my vitamins on the bus and trying to find the right kind of food, and you know, dealing with a bus full of all men. It’s super hectic. I sometimes don’t get a shower and my personal space is just my bunk, surrounded by others who may not sleep and share a communal space. They all ask me, “How do you do it?” I just do. It’s part of the industry, man or woman. To me, it is just part of my life.
I mean, if you talk to a woman that works in N.Y.C. in some corporate headquarters, she may say the same thing. I think this evolution is happening everywhere, not just in music. So it stands to reason that it will continue. You have to think, too, that artists are open-minded people. Open to ideas, open to letting things flow in, and flow out, and then flowing out to everyone where we share it all as a community. It would be very anti-art to have that evolution not be connected to our world of music.
JB: You make a good point. You’d think that music and the arts would lead the charge for this type of equality.
TN: I think it does, and then it spills out. Really, I mean, look, we’re about to have a female president! That in itself is a huge deal.
I wonder the progression from Woodstock. How many women were on the Woodstock lineup?
JB: Let me check….looks like there were five. Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane), Melanie (Safka, of “Brand New Key” fame before it existed), and Nancy Nevins (Sweetwater). Nevins! Any relation?
TN: No! But my sister’s name is Nancy Nevins! A different Nancy Nevins. How funny. But, to the original point, I guess there have always “been women.” Maybe there are a few more women now, but it will continue to grow. I think that is because the relationship between men and women is in a really healthy place, as far as respect and appreciation.
JB: Regarding the Woodstock women, do you think it is distinctive that they were all primarily vocalists?
TN: Yes. I do, actually. I swear, early on in my career, people in general seemed really surprised when I could play strongly. When a woman could play an instrument really well. It was all, “Wow! Look how she can play. And she’s a girl!” That has changed, even. But no one has ever seemed surprised that a woman can sing. I don’t know why.
JB: How do you feel about that?
TN: You know, I kinda just understand the whole evolution of it. I don’t want to go back to that, and I’m glad that it’s the same way it is now. But yeah, I had to have confidence in what I was doing, and really stand my ground.
JB: So it’s come this far. What do you foresee in the future for Donna the Buffalo?
TN: Well, we did start our own festival. It’s the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, and it’s running for its 26th year. It’s an Americana festival that has developed into four separate festivals, one in each season, and we’re really proud of it. That’s kind of our niche, and we have our devoted following, “The Herd,” who we love so much. It’s a very grassroots operation that we’ve built over the years.
JB: I read in a previous interview that you drew your original inspiration not just from the old-timey music festivals of the South that drew entire towns and counties together, but the vibe and togetherness that bonded the people in attendance. Do you feel this sentiment is fitting for your upcoming appearance at Lockn’?
TN: We’re really honored to be at Lockn’ for our first time. I think of it as a bit of a newer festival, but it is an exciting one that people talk very highly about. But, you know, I’d say that any festival that is successful fosters community. This should be really exciting, it will be fun to kick off the day.
JB: As a music fan, who are you excited to see perform while you’re there?
TN: On Friday, I’d love to see Ween and Charles Bradley. Saturday? I’m hoping to see Hard Working Americans, and of course Brandi Carlile and Tedeschi Trucks Band.
JB: And does Donna the Buffalo’s connection with Peter Rowan (Old & In The Way) bode foreshadowing that you’ll be covering some Jerry tunes at Lockn’ as well?
TN: We do know a few, but I think we’ll stick to some new tunes and our catalog mostly. But hey, if we did play one, it would probably be “Peggy-O.”
Donna the Buffalo is Jeb Puryear (vocals, electric guitar) and Tara Nevins (vocals, guitar, fiddle, accordion, scrubboard) joined by David McCracken (Hammond organ, Hohner Clavinet & piano), Kyle Spark (bass) and Mark Raudabaugh (drums).