DtB History Part 1: The Early Days (1994-2002)

DtB, 7/93, Sherman, NY

By Robert "Gumby" Hillard

Well, while my memories of Donna the Buffalo go back a few years, you'll need to ask a true old timer about the earliest incarnations of the band to get a complete picture of the band's evolution. My first exposure to DtB didn't come until 1994, more than a few years after the 1989 release of the White Tape.

The White Tape
The White Tape was Donna the Buffalo's first cassette-only release back in 1989. It was recorded in Richie Stearn's Barn with Dirk Powell spinning the dials and knobs. Dirk is a founding member of the Cajun band Balfa Toujours and has also recorded two highly recommended solo records on the Rounder label, If I Go Ten Thousand Miles(1996) and Hand Me Down (1999), both featuring Jim Miller on guitar/vocals.

The White Tape features the original line up of Jeb Puryear (guitar/vocals), Jim Miller (guitar/vocals), Tara Nevins (fiddle, accordion, vocals), Jennie Stearns (guitar/vocals), Richie Stearns (keyboard/vocals), Jordan Puryear (bass), and Shane Lamphier (drums/vocals).

The White Tape's black & white cover art by Damian Carr is a pixie playing a button box accordion, wrapped in ribbons and riding the tip of a thunderbolt. The song list, which is hand written on the inside cover of the cassette sleeve, is as follows:

Side 1: This Goes, Spinning World, The Waltz, America

Side 2: Southern Winds, Thunder & Rain, There Must Be, Rockin' In The Weary Land

Personnel Changes
Richie Stearns was DtB's original keys player, joining the band at its inception in the late 1980s and sticking around until around 1991 (at least).To the best of my knowledge, he left the band to tour full-time with his other project, The Horse Flies, who released their MCA debut Human Fly in 1987. Their second CD, Gravity Dance, came out in 1991 and the subsequent tour likely played a large role in his departure.

Joe Thrift joined the band in 1991 and made his recording debut with DtB on the 1993 Purple CD session. Joe remained with the band through February 2000, appearing on four CDs including Positive Friction. Joe left the band to pursue other interests, including work as a luthier (stringed instrument maker).

Richie came back onboard for a temporary spell in the Spring of 2000, playing with the band up through Merlefest and into May.

Kathy Zeigler made her debut at Peasant's Cafe in Greenville, NC on 5/18/00. She and Richie swapped on and off for a while, although Kathy played a majority of the Summer/Fall 2000 dates. Kathy stayed with the band through Rhythm & Roots (9/3/00) at the end of the summer, while Richie was off on a cross-country tour playing banjo and tenor guitar with Natalie Merchant.

Richie came onboard full time in Winter 2000 and continued through 12/31/2001. He appears on Live at the American Ballroom, which was recorded in January/February 2001. Editor's note: Parts of this CD were recorded in April 2001.

Kathy came back onboard in early 2002 and has been the full-time keyboardist ever since, with the exception of a few southern shows (Birmingham/Alabama in Jan/Feb) where J.T. Puryear (Sunny Weather) played keys.

DtB's bass duties were originally handled by Jordan Puryear, Jeb's brother and Bubba George String Band mate. Jordan played his last show at the Windy Hill Festival in Titusville, PA in September 1996.

Shane Lamphier (Bubba George, Good Dog/Bad Dog) was the band's original drummer. When he left in 1994, old time fiddler Jimmy Triplett banged the skins up through summer of 1996 (his last shows were at GrassRoots, I believe).

During the interim period of late '96/early '97, after Jordan and Jimmy had left, but before Jed Greenberg (bass) and Tom Gilbert (drums) made their debut, there were a variety of players rotating through the rhythm section. Amongst my favorites during this run was Atlanta artist/bassist Anke Schofield. She was seriously funky--check out shows from the Fall '96 run with her. If there were other bassists, I can't recall who they were. Anke may have been the only one, for all I know.

The drummer role during this short stretch was ever-changing, and included Jim Roberts (who served as the band's primary interim drummer), Charlie Shaw (5 Chinese Brothers), Stahl Caso, and Trevor MacDonald. There may have been others as well...

The rock-solid rhythms of Jed Greenberg (bass) and Tom Gilbert (drums) had been in place since early 1997. Tom and Jed made their debut together on that fateful Thursday night (4/17/97) at Thursday's in Bridgewater, PA, and have made an indelible mark in the band's musical progress.

The Early Days
What is interesting to note about the evolution of Donna the Buffalo is not so much the amazing band that they have now become, but the fact that they have always had a strong allure. When I first started following this band around back in 1995, I would often drag friends along to check them out. While a few took the bait, most were confounded by my fascination.

The band was a great deal looser in those days, both musically and personally. The band toured in short spells, going out only every other month or so, and rarely left the PA/NY area except for occasional sojourns to NC (home state of then-keyboardist Joe Thrift). Jim Miller rarely, if ever, sang lead vocals. The accordion was there, but was not nearly as significant a part of Tara's instrumental rotation (nor the band's overall sound, for that matter). And the amazing guitar player that is Jeb Puryear was still only just beginning to emerge.

It's not to say they didn't have moments of greatness way back when. They did. But those moments were typically based more on unbridled passion and genuine emotion than anything you could really put your finger on. These days, they bring that same sense of spirit, that same degree of authenticity, but they combine it with a higher level of musicianship, a greater sense of group chemistry, and--lest I fail to mention the most significant change--one of the best damn rhythm sections in the land.

Of course, the heart and soul of this band has always been their songwriting. And THAT is why the White Tape (and the Red Tape) remain a vital part of Donna the Buffalo's discography.

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