If you’re not familiar with Don Kelley, Robert’s Western World or the term busking, it’s impossible to know the full story of Daniel Donato. Incredibly, even without that lengthy and pivotal part of his past, the 28 year old Nashvillian has brought more music from the cosmos than musicians twice his age. His latest album Reflector is technically his “sophomore” release, but Donato left anything sophomoric about his career and music in the rear view mirror ages ago.
These days, Donato’s focus is on one thing only, bringing his Cosmic Country genre of music to the world. He’s put his popular Allman Brothers tribute project Trouble No More on the backburner. That’s not where his inspiration is. It’s creating a constantly flowing energy back and forth from country music to psychedelia with his audience. There are plenty of stops along the way. Rock, Soul, Blues, Funk, and Jazz just to name a few.
If psychedelia is at one end of the Cosmic Country spectrum, it’s well represented in Reflector with Double Exposure, and both parts of Dance in the Desert. The latter is one of the best songs released in the indy music world this year. It has a beat, energy and natural openness that feels like a modern day Shakedown St.
With Reflector, Donato significantly shifts the starting point for the country end of Cosmic Country. Songs like Rose in a Garden, Hi Country, and Half Moon Night continue the unique country flavor found in Donato’s 2020 debut A Young Man’s Country. However, it’s full-on honkytonk instrumental rippers Sugarleg and Loco #9, where Donato takes a sledgehammer to the country end of his musical spectrum. His unbridled pace and fury provide a clear insight into his early days busking the streets of Nashville. Playing music in public for tips. That was followed by three years and almost 500 concerts by the side of Music City legend Don Kelley at Robert’s Western World. A Nashville country music institution across the street from the Ryman Auditorium.
It’s these formative years as a Nashville street performer, session worker, and member of Don Kelley’s band that set the wide parameters for the deep country influences Donato brings to Cosmic Country.
Donato sat down with SlideandBanjo for a wide raging interview covering his new release Reflector and his incredible journey from playing for tips on the streets to playing in front of thousands and thousands of paying fans. All before turning 30 years old. He begins by discussing the evolution of his current musical palate. “When I was playing with Don, I was really focused on being a guitar player and great musician in a band. I wasn’t spending a lot of time composing or thinking of that kind of stuff. When I left Don is when I started writing and singing more. The honkytonk paradigm is small in bandwidth. It’s not like the Grateful Dead or Phish where you may experience ten musical genres in one night. With Don, it was pretty much Bluegrass, Western swing, and ballads.”
Before looking at the post Don Kelley part of Donato’s musical journey, it’s best to begin with the multi year long trip he took just to sit in with Kelley’s band for the first time. At fourteen years old, Donato’s father would drop him off in Nashville’s touristy Broadway area. There he’d busk the streets almost every weekend. Eight hours a day Saturday and Sunday. Trying to save enough tip money to buy his dream Fender Telecaster guitar.
Among the mass of country music greats performing in Nashville at the time was guitarist JD Simo. A flat out country killer and local legend as the guitarist in Don Kelley’s band and its decades long residency at Robert’s Western World.
Still a young teen, Donato religiously showed up at Robert’s week after week hoping for an invite to sit in with his musical inspiration. Three years later, after thoroughly digesting Kelley’s massive catalogue of live tunes, Donato’s dream came true. He found the golden ticket and got his sit in the with the Don Kelley Band. With that, a baby faced Donato looking like he barely cracked triple digits in weight made the most of his chance. He went head to head with Simo in a honkytonk showdown clearly letting everyone know he can hang with the big boys. By 2012, a seventeen year old Donato hit a major milestone in his young career. The wunderkind with a growing reputation as a must see live performer was given a three year spot by Kelley’s side. Four nights a week. Four hours a night with a quick bathroom break.
This is where Donato says he cemented the country side of Cosmic Country. “When I first started playing music live and I was first getting turned on to music, it was through traditional country music. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings. When I left Nashville to go on tour, I was getting turned on to all kinds of different approaches to music. That’s where the wide variety of music I cover comes from.”
Donato continues with the importance those deep country classics are to his current musical output, “With Cosmic Country, I want us to exist in the present, past, and future. That’s what truth is. It exists in all points of time. That’s why I think a lot of the older songs and influences will find their way into the Cosmic Country sound. It’s really based on what turns me on. Nine times out of ten when we’re driving to a gig, I’m listening to old time country music. Ernest Tubb, Tommy Collins, the old Bakersfield stuff. Music people would have never known. When I was playing at Robert’s all those years, that’s all that was played. It was a strange place. Roy Acuff and Hank Williams Sr. Stuff people don’t listen to on a great scale anymore. But it’s all I’ve listened to on some level. The spirit of that old music finds its way into what we’re doing now.”
Donato credits a night at the Ryman for opening his eyes to the musical possibilities ahead of him. He continues, “I saw Sturgill Simpson at the Ryman on Halloween 2015. The Ryman is less than thirty feet from Robert’s. Sturgill blew my mind. He wasn’t doing much differently than we did at Robert’s. I saw the commercial potential of this type of music and approach. So, I was off to the races. How do I find my own sound and niche on this highway? That’s when I set my sights on being a storyteller at the center of the stage.”
Around this time, Donato discovered another vision shaping muse. The music of the Grateful Dead. Their devotion to playing live and telling tales of old Americana were a perfect complement to his insatiable urge to expand his musical vocabulary and horizons. “If there’s anything I’ve learned playing music half my life. There’s no need to rush. The music will take you there if you have faith in it and you show up every night and play like your life depends on it. That’s the simple answer for me. The Grateful Dead influence is everywhere if you’re trying to improvise on stage. You can’t get away from them. It’s the pinnacle of the American idea. The epitome of what life can be is symbolized in the Dead. I’m just a branch on that tree. It’s like a spirit that can inhabit any band.”
Donato went directly to the Grateful Dead playbook with the 15 song Reflector. Play them as much on the road and let them evolve naturally before going into the studio for fine tuning. “We had 150 shows under our belt when we went into the studio for the record.” Donato recalls. “My philosophy is that the stage is the most important place for music. That’s when it’s really alive. It’s happening and being created and experienced by everyone in the room. That’s way different than a record. The stage is a celebration, and the record is a presentation. There’s a duality there that’s real. I wanted to make sure before we recorded a single note, we had played these songs a lot. The songs told us what they needed individually before we put them on tape. There was a lot of playing the songs to the crowd to see what was turning them on and us on.”
The shine of Reflector is its ability to satisfy the appetite of long time Donato fans while inviting those who want to hop on the Cosmic Country train to come aboard. Songs like Lose Your Mind, Gotta Get Southbound, and Weathervane are certain to be setlist staples going forward. According to Donato, all roads lead to the stage. “A lot of these songs on the record are out on You Tube in their live skeleton. If people are already turned on to these songs, they’ll go and listen to the record and be like cool this sounds different. For those who don’t know us yet, the record is an easy entryway into what we do live. Everything bleeds into the live show forever and ever. I feel a responsibility by being the organizing principal in the Cosmic Country trip, to give everyone and anyone what they need to knock on the door and come inside. I feel like we did a great job with the record. There are a lot of four-minute songs that are easy to listen to. Then they can go online and see a nine minute version. How did they do that? Interesting.”
Coming up in part two, Donato continues the deep dive into the ethos behind his Cosmic Country way of life. And for Donato, it’s just that. The way he lives his life. He’ll delve into his process and responsibility for creating music along the wide Cosmic Country spectrum. He also shares his long term vision and philosophy on his perpetually morphing genre of music.
Donato closes part one discussing any changes he wanted to make with Reflector for his “sophomore” effort. “I didn’t want to change anything. I like subscribing to the mindset of going through experiences with showing up as much as I can for where I am in that given time. I was different during the sessions of A Young Man’s Country than I was in Reflector. Both records were made with an intention of truth, beauty, and goodness, but in different frequencies. As listeners dive into both, they’ll be able to hear my progression in my journey in this life and feel the evolution organically and honestly.”
Daniel Donato Reflector 2023 Retrace Music