Guitarist Daniel Donato has been rocking stages since the tender age of 14, and has built a growing fanbase along the way. At 16, Donato became the youngest musician to regularly play the iconic honky-tonk Robert’s Western World in Nashville, Tennessee while gigging with the Don Kelley Band.
Now 27 and with two albums of his own under his belt, Donato weaves outlaw country, Grateful Dead-style Americana, and well-crafted songwriting into a unique style he calls “Cosmic Country.”
In advance of his show on Friday, Sept. 9 at the Mangy Moose presented by KHOL, Donato joined us recently over the phone in the KHOL studios.
The following interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. This conversation was recorded on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
JACK CATLIN/KHOL: You have a ton of experience playing with a bunch of older, wiser, seasoned veterans in the music industry, from your early days busking on Broadway in Nashville and then with your experience with the Don Kelly Band. What’s the most important thing you’ve taken away from those experiences?
DANIEL DONATO: It’s funny, because you learn some things in your first year of schooling that you carry with you for your entire life. I would be this kid busking on the street and I would go to these bars at 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. I would get a fried bologna sandwich with my dad and root beer out of the bottle. I would get to meet pedal steel players who played for George Jones or Hank Junior, and Willie Cantu who was in Buck Owens’s band when he played with him at Carnegie Hall. I got to sit in and play “Act Naturally” with them and it’s like they see this promise and potential in you and I get to talk to these guys. If I could compress any of it into something that’s immensely simple and also something that could be eons worth of depth it is to always listen and to always be in tune.
So the abstraction could be born from like, ‘Oh, well, listen to what? And be in tune with what?’ You know, there’s the actual frequency of being in tune with your strings, but are you in tune with the pocket of what’s happening in that, in the rhythmic dynamic of what’s going on on stage? And are you listening to the room? Are you listening to your volume or are you listening to everyone else before you listen to yourself and see how that contributes? It was really like two things. It’s like in kindergarten, they teach you the golden rule and you start with them and then as you grow, the depth of those things evolve alongside you. And [so] always listening and always being in tune, that can go with you to the very end of it all.
No one outside of Nashville knows these guys. But in town, they’re just legends. They wear white New Balance shoes and loose fitting Wrangler jeans, and they have a Co-Op t-shirt on and they’re just the coolest guys in the world, and they’ve played music their whole life. It was such a beautiful Pandora’s box to stumble upon. And it’s sad because Broadway isn’t really that way anymore. I got in there at the very end of it all, and it’s kind of a different trip down there now. And that music in Nashville that’s why “Cosmic Country” means so much to me beyond words, because the very muses that created that music that I know and love, like, I got to spend time getting those overtones from those guys and it’s alive in me now. So, whatever stage and place in space and time, those frequencies are staying alive. It deserves it man, it’s some of the best music the world will ever hear.
KHOL: So, Daniel, in your own words, can you expand on what exactly “Cosmic Country” is and what it means to you?
DONATO: You know, it’s like it’s a tale as old as time. There’s Coke, there’s Pepsi, there’s black, there’s white and there’s sweet, there’s sour. And it’s like there’s cosmic and there’s country. And that’s the deal. It’s a unifying of songs that have stories and simple chords and a place of familiarity, say, somewhere in the garden. You know, and then you leave the garden, you go into the forest and there’s an adventure. There’s a journey there that only music can tell through improvisation, arrangement and orchestration. Plus, we also just put 72 hours of our summer tour out on Bandcamp and Nugs for a less abstract explanation. Those will probably work as well.
KHOL: In case you didn’t know, Jackson is packed with Deadheads and we even have a chairlift on the mountain that basically strictly plays Grateful Dead all winter long. What is it exactly about the Grateful Dead that attracts you to them?
DONATO: Oh, God, it’s hard. It’s just one of those, you know, scientifically recently you were able to to define what a mystical experience is. And I believe there’s three fields and the three fields are: ‘Did you feel an overwhelming connection of positivity and unity?’ Yes. ‘Did the experience expand your thought of what your bandwidth of possibility is?’ Yes. And then the last question is, ‘Are you able to fully describe [the] experience [in] words?’ That’s like the most important one. And everyone always says ‘no.’ Those guys, that band, those heroes were like the conduit for the mystical experience in America, for music. And it’s like they started a universe of a way to groove off into the sunset. [T]here’s no words for it. I listen to it every day. I just love it beyond words. And I had life before that music. And then and I had a relationship with music. And now I have this other part of my life, which is after I discovered that source of music, it was always in my life.
My mom was very young when she had me and she and my uncle were living together at the time in this one-bedroom apartment, and she would go to work and she was working like two jobs. And then my uncle would come and take me out on the beach and he would just play Grateful Dead tapes while I would dance on the beach. I’m like three years old, and the music’s just been in my unconscious and subconscious since before I knew what the word music was. And then as I started discovering it and I started diving into the world of music more, that source revealed itself to me in different ways. My history teacher gave me his entire 100-plus CD collection. You know, Dick’s Picks, Legion of Mary and, you know, organized by color from decade, and like asterisk signs on ‘”Fire on the Mountain ’78” or Scarlet Fire.” Yeah, it’s just always been there, man. It’s one of those things. It’s like light and sound. It never started. It never ended. The music never stopped. You know, they’re just tapped into the truest form that I’ve ever experienced.
Listen above for KHOL’s full conversation with Daniel Donato.
This coverage is funded in part with an Arts For All grant provided by the Town of Jackson and Teton County.