The first time I saw Daniel Donato play live, he already seemed like an arena star. It didn’t matter that the show, which took place in late October, actually occurred inside a sold-out, 600-person capacity club in St. Paul, Minnesota. Donato treated his environs like Madison Square Garden, starting with his insistence on playing for three hours over two sets without a headliner.
“When I first started playing down on Broadway, it used to be four sets,” Donato tells me over Zoom a few days later. The 28-year-old Nashville native is referring to his past life as a teenaged guitar prodigy who regularly gigged at the iconic downtown honky-tonk Robert’s Western World. Back then, he played for four hours a night, four days a week.
“I ended up seeing that our community just really wanted to have as much of us as they can,” he said of his current following. “Openers just get in the way of what we do.”
Befitting a guy raised in the cradle of the country-music industry, Donato plays blazing licks on a Fender Telecaster that recall the twangy highs of classic records by Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. But Donato’s growing fanbase doesn’t derive from the country audience. Rather, his star is rising on the jam-band circuit — he’s performed with Bill Kreutzmann’s Grateful Dead side project Billy And The Kids, toured with the improvisational roots outfit Greensky Bluegrass, and garnered praise from Trey Anastasio of Phish. At the show I saw, Donato alternated between sharp leads that nodded to old-school Bakersfield country and crunchier solos targeted at the spinners in the audience. It’s a potent mix of tradition and spontaneity that echoes one of the scene’s brightest young stars, Billy Strings, who has similarly married bluegrass virtuosity with a Dead-friendly sensibility on the way to becoming a top touring attraction.
That’s what Donato would like you think at any rate. During our interview, his ambition was palpable and unwavering. He referred often to the phrase “Cosmic Country,” which is both the name of his backing band and a catch-all brand for the vibe he’s trying to propagate. It’s a feeling pitched between the retro country associated with Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton and the “conversational music” (his term) of the jam world. It comes across with uncommon clarity on Donato’s latest album, Reflector, which dropped in mid-November. Working with producer Vance Powell, whose work with Phish and Stapleton made him an ideal collaborator, Donato was able to convey the expansiveness of his live show without taking focus away from his songwriting, which is reminiscent of the pioneering country-rock records made in the late ’60s by L.A. bands like the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. (Gram Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music” is an obvious grandparent of Donato’s “Cosmic Country.”)
The thing that immediately drew me to your music is the classic twangy tone of your Fender Telecaster. I am a sucker for that sound.
It’s the sound of America, even just on the value level. Leo [Fender] was an entrepreneur who came from an immigrant family, and he had this vision, and he had a talent and a work ethic to get it done. When that happened, it was at the time of industrialization and America was setting up the economy to be fruitful enough to where people could go and start enjoying art, and they could create new kinds of music. And that sound of the entire early part of what Fender was doing created the American sound in a lot of ways. Granted, we’re in a way different spot today then we were in 1954, for better or worse.
It’s a simple tool that can do a lot of complex things when it’s in the right hands. And that’s what I love about it. There’s really no buffer between your skill and your vision in that instrument. You could go ahead and sound like Joe Strummer. You could sound like Bruce Springsteen. But if you really have more sophisticated and nuanced ideas, you could sound like Danny Gatton or James Burton or Don Rich or Roy Nichols.
How much do your shows vary from night to night? The gig I saw seemed to have a lot of improvisation.
A lot of people try to set it up where they step in the same grove every night. But that’s illusory. You’re lying to yourself. You have to embrace the chaos of the reality that every night everything is different, so you might as well have that be part of the vehicle that forms your trip. So every night we play is truly very, very, very different than the night before. That’s part of what keeps it alive for people. Now, granted, there’s forms and patterns that are constant just like anyone’s life. But there’s so many variables and elements that make it so different from day to day that it becomes a living real thing.
I’m just so grateful that I have a band where everybody that’s with me on stage is willing to go along with that. Not everyone is. Especially when you live in Nashville. A lot of people just want to get a gig where it’s the same every night, and they play for 75 minutes, and they go back to the hotel. They don’t have to think about it too much.
One thing I find interesting about you is that you are part of this country music world, and you’re also part of the jam world, and those worlds superficially at least seem completely different. Like you said, Nashville is predicated on this fairly rigid musical system that’s the opposite of what jam bands embrace. Do you feel like you fit in anywhere?
We have just our own channel, really. And I’d rather have my own channel than be on somebody else’s channel.
I don’t think even 10 years ago we would’ve been able to do what we’re doing. But ever since streaming became a thing, it’s eliminated any middle man that’s necessary to get us to our demographic. We can just go straight to people that love what we do. And it turns out that there’s a great audience for that. It’s people that like traditional, old-time American music who are also into exploring within conversational music.
You grew up playing in Don Kelley’s house band at Nashville’s Robert’s Western World. How did that experience inform your own music?
It turned me on to a whole vision for my life. And it also endowed me with an insight into a songbook that is just unmatched. It’s just such a wealth of melody and chord progressions and lyrics and stories and values. I went and saw that band every week for about three years. And I would give Don my business card, and I told him, “If you ever need a guitar player, I know all the songs.” It was 100-plus songs. One day he called me, and I ended up getting the gig. And I did 464 shows with him.
We would play four hours a night, four days a week, and I only missed two shows out of my whole stint with him there. So that was kind of my college experience. It taught me all the basic elements that I needed to go ahead and create a live experience that is transcendent and meaningful, not something that is gimmicky or self-assertive. Something that’s really serving of the music and really focused on the listener. That was always the value with Don’s band. The musicianship had to be top-notch every night. There was just no other way to do it.
The strength of Reflector is that you represent what the band does live, but it also works as a record. That’s a needle that many jam-oriented acts aren’t able to thread.
That was one of the things that Trey Anastasio complimented me on. He was like, “Congratulations on making a record that people could actually listen to.” I think it was three things. The first thing was us as a band, we had played all those songs many times, so the songs told us exactly what they wanted and what they didn’t want. The second thing was that everybody in the band has already made a bunch of records. I used to be a session guitarist before I started touring all the time. I was playing on people’s albums all the time. I was doing sometimes five or six albums in a week.
And then the third thing was our producer, Vance Powell. Vance is the perfect guy for a band that is like what we are. Vance has done records with Nashville session bands that don’t ever tour. They’re just made up of session players that stay at home and make records. But he also makes records with bands that are consistent in the studio and on tour together. So he really knew how to communicate with us and how to get the best of our personalities integrated into the sound and have it come alive on our performances.
You’re obviously a great guitar player, and you play a lot of solos in your live shows. But you’re also clearly invested in songwriting. How do you balance those things? Because I can imagine that a segment of your audience cares most about seeing you shred.
With country music, everybody knows that it’s about the story. And that’s the thing I think that keeps us tied into folk/country/Americana or whatever word you want to use. That gives us the bandwidth to have room for really solid stories that have an emotional reality that is real for anybody who has the ears to listen. That’s the downside and downfall and demise for a lot of jam bands, which is they end up just sounding like suburban funk music. Without a story, you have nothing that you can meet people with. Any song that anybody comes and sees us play, that song can also be played acoustically. It’s just a pure storytelling format. I think that comes from my time at Robert’s and listening to all these Tom T. Hall songs and John Prine songs and Johnny Cash songs and Jimmie Rodgers songs.
That was also a focus for the Grateful Dead — you can jam those songs and you can also play them on an acoustic guitar, and they work in either format.
I think it’s really necessary, especially if you’re trying to create something that is really meaningful for people. Something that they can take home after they come and see you, and it has absolutely nothing to do with you afterwards, which is my favorite thing. My favorite thing is when none of us are really the focus of what’s going on, and it’s really just about the music. That’s really the best part, when it’s the least self-assertive.
I’ve spoken with other artists in the jam world about breaking out of that scene, and how challenging it can be. Is that something you think about?
I think about it every day. We just by happenstance happen to fall into the jam world right now. Every step that we do along the way, I try to make it an inclusive experience for everybody, not just somebody who likes jam-band music.
I see a lot of bands that are in the same stage of their career as us right now. A lot of bands that are in sprinters, sleeping in shitty hotels, and eating terrible food every day. Playing venues with tequila limes all over the stage and angry sound guys that have been working there for 10 years. Without naming any names, I see a lot of bands that are set up to not really ever “transcend the scene,” quote, unquote. And that seems like kind of a dismal future. A lot of people don’t think about what happens after the sheen wears off of your newness. But I’ve been doing this for half my life. I can see a couple of chess moves ahead, and I try to set ourselves up for success in that way.
I would say the biggest thing is to just serve the song and serve the story. A lot of jam bands, they don’t serve the song, and they don’t serve the story. They just serve the jam, and that’s not really where it’s at for any of us in this band.