Interview: Tara Nevins
Tara Nevins is an amazing fiddle player and a passionate songwriter. She is also a member of Donna the Buffalo. Her latest release is her solo album, Wood and Stone. Tara called in to discuss her love of old-time music, how Donna the Buffalo came together and working with Larry Campbell.
McClain Johnson: How old were you when you first started playing fiddle?
Tara Nevins: Fifth Grade.
McClain Johnson: Do you remember the first song you learned how to play?
Tara Nevins: Heck no. I started out playing classical music in school. Then I discovered fiddle later on. I went to college for classical studies too. I discovered old-time music, traditional fiddle music. When I left school, I just dove into that. I left the classical studies behind and focused on traditional fiddle music.
McClain Johnson: What do you love about old-time music?
Tara Nevins: It’s kind of hard to describe what you love about a certain type of music. I love the melodies, I love the rhythms. It’s just so old sounding. It’s so earthy and hearkens to a certain spirit of simplicity. It just speaks to me.
McClain Johnson: In your own songs, they really seem like they come from that same sort of spirit. Your joy of playing really comes across.
Tara Nevins: With this record, some of the songs sound like they could be traditional. Some of them are a little more contemporary sounding. I wanted to make a record where the traditional ones maybe sounded, still traditional, but slightly more contemporary. Then the contemporary ones sort of sound contemporary, but a little more towards the traditional. They kind of all met. Larry Campbell definitely saw that vision himself and really helped me with that. I think he succeeded in helping me make it a really cohesive sounding record. I really enjoyed making it. I love old-time music. I love all kinds of music, but the fiddle is sort of my main thing.
McClain Johnson: Do you follow a certain process when creating songs?
Tara Nevins: No one particular process is set for me. It happens lots of different ways. I might come up with a melody that I really like, but have no words for it. I can have a melody for months and finally think of what kind of words to put with it. I could come up with words and not have the melody yet. Sometimes, I just sit down and the entire thing comes out at once. Words and melody. I have no set time of day or schedule of when I like to write. I write when I feel like it. When the mood strikes me.
McClain Johnson: When you first joined Donna the Buffalo, how did that come together?
Tara Nevins: Well, for years I’d been traveling to festivals in the south. In those years, I met Jeb Puryear, my partner in Donna the Buffalo. Originally, all the members of Donna the Buffalo were old-time musicians. We were all playing old-time music together. I started writing songs. We were playing them on fiddles, banjos, standup basses, and acoustic guitars, initially. Then, we slowly switched over the electric instruments. Jeb started playing electric guitar. I bought an electric fiddle. Jim Miller, who was in the band at the time, bought an electric guitar. We just kind of switched over from the acoustic to electric. We got our first gig and thought, “What are we going to name our band?”We came up with the name Donna the Buffalo. We definitely started out being part of an old-time music community, being very active in that for years and years. I guess it was when I started writing songs that we decided to try electric instruments.That’s how Donna the Buffalo was born, and it just went on from there.
McClain Johnson: Live, you guys bring it. You rock really hard. Plugging in can definitely amp things up a couple of notches.
Tara Nevins: Yeah, I think that’s probably why we did it. We were just experimenting at the time.
McClain Johnson: Is the songwriting process different in Donna than when you’re writing songs on your own?
Tara Nevins: No, it’s really the same. Really, Donna the Buffalo could play any one of the songs on my new record, Wood And Stone. They could play any one of them perfectly fine. We do play a few of them. It’s all interchangeable. When you’re making a record with a band, there’s five of us. Five voices, five opinions, five different people painting the picture. When you are making a solo record, it’s fun to step out of the box and paint your own picture. Use the colors you want to use, and just kind of do what you want. I love, and sometimes miss, acoustic music. For years I was in a band called The Heartbeats. We were an all-female string band. We wrote songs that were a little more contemporary acoustic. That was my first real love of a band. I missed doing that. I had The Heartbeats come and they played on Wood and Stone. They play the instrumental that’s on there, “Nothing Really.” Rose Sinclair, the banjo player, she plays abnjo on a few things. We’ve been getting together. They are going to do some gigs with me. I miss acoustic music. I love acoustic music. Wood And Stone is definitely more acoustic sounding than a Donna the Buffalo record. It just feels good. You kind of have to soothe your soul and get all your music love that’s in there.
McClain Johnson: That’s got to be fun for you to be able to dig in deeper to some different aspects of things you’re into.
Tara Nevins: Absolutely, challenge yourself, working with some different people. It’s a big world out there. There are a lot of great musicians out there. Working with Larry Campbell was fantastic. Byron Issacs, who played upright bass and is also in Levon’s band, is wonderful. Jim Lauderdale sang a duet with me. Teresa Williams, who is in Levon’s band and is Larry’s wife, is a great singer. She sang with me. Alison Moorer sang with me. The Heartbeats played on it. Larry played all over it. Levon Helm played drums on two tracks. It’s exciting to stretch out and do something totally different, challenge yourself. It keeps you awake.
McClain Johnson: That’s fun to be creative in so many different ways, to push your sound in so many different styles and directions. I like that no matter what you’re doing, it always has your signature stamp on it. If you’re with Donna or doing something acoustic, your style always comes through.
Tara Nevins: Thanks. I like what I like. I play what I play. I am who I am. That’s a really flattering thing you said, because a lot of the artists that I love, that are really great, they have a certain mark. You just always recognize them. That’s something I definitely relate to. You’re familiar with Larry, right?
McClain Johnson: Yeah. He’s a beast. He’s played with Dylan and Levon. How did that happen? How did you get him?
Tara Nevins: I spent about four years hanging out in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s 96 miles exactly south of Nashville. I wrote most of these songs during the time down there. I always assumed that I’d be recording there in Nashville. I’d begun talking to some producers. On day, I was talking to Jim Lauderdale, who is a longtime friend of mine and Donna the Buffalo’s. We made a record with him years ago, called Wait ’til Spring. I was talking to him one day about the project and played some of the songs for him. He was like, “I don’t know who you’re thinking of, but I think Larry Campbell is your man.” I didn’t know Larry personally. Jim called him for me and explained the project Larry was interested. I sent Larry a bunch of songs. Larry really dug it. He dug the whole concept. Larry has listened to, and knows a lot about, all kinds of traditional music. He’s been playing it for years, folk music, and traveling with Bob Dylan. He plays with Phil Lesh, he plays with Levon Helm, he’s played with Sheryl Crow. He’s played so many kinds of music. He’s always thought it would be cool to do stuff that was old-time, but make it a little more edgy. My project spoke to him. He liked the songs and he said, “Let’s do it.” I was like, “Alright, here I go.” We ended up doing it at Levon Helm’s studio, in Woodstock, New York. It’s basically my back yard. I live an hour and 20 minutes from there. I never in a million years thought that I would be doing it in Woodstock, New York, at Levon Helm’s studio, with Larry Campbell.
McClain Johnson: That’s something that would never have been on the radar.
Tara Nevins: I know! It’s a fabulous studio. They are really into things sounding organic and real, just really honest. They don’t overproduce things there. They like to pay attention to whomever it is they’re working with, and bring that out. Not make it so cookie-cutter, like every record sounds the same coming out of there. The studio is growing. More and more people want to record there. It’s becoming one of the places to be. I feel so fortunate that I can have the opportunity to work there. They were incredible to work with. Levon Helm is incredible as a person, never mind as a musician. Larry Campbell is a great guy.
McClain Johnson: Did you guys try to record things as live as possible?
Tara Nevins: Yeah, all the basic tracks were. As much stuff was done live, and then we went in and I overdubbed my vocals. Larry overdubbed. Larry played a lot of instruments on the album. He play everything. He plays incredible pedal steel and electric guitar. We had fun and played some double fiddle on a few of the songs. On “All I Ever Needed” and the Van Morrison cover, “Beauty Of Days Gone By,” we both played fiddle together. It was really fun. On “You’ve Got It All,” we worked the rhythm section together on fiddle. He played mandolin and banjo. The Heartbeats came and played. Stuff was definitely overdubbed later, but we got the basic core of it done live.
McClain Johnson: That’s amazing to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience like that.
Tara Nevins: It was one of those special things that came along and presented itself to me. I went with it and I’m so glad I did. I even got to play, on May 28th, the Midnight Ramble. If you ever get a chance to go to one, you should go. It takes place right in the studio. 200 people can fit. It’s really intimate. Everybody kind of squeezes into the studio. There are some chairs, a lot of people stand. There are two levels to the studio. People are up, people are down. There’s an opening band, always, that’s who I was. Then, the Levon Helm Band plays. Reach out and touch him, there he is. To be able to play that is a real honor. That also came out of recording there and playing there. He’s fabulous. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve that, the whole thing. It was nice of Jim Lauderdale to reach out and call him. It was great of Larry to dig it and take it on.