The 25-year-old guitar prodigy, storyteller, songwriter, and vocalist, Daniel Donato premieres his new single, “Justice,” today on American Songwriter. Somewhere between traditional outlaw country, on which he cut his teeth, and the influences of the Grateful Dead, lies his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, due on August 7.
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Donato describes his fresh soundscape as “cosmic country.” “If you look at the definition of ‘cosmic’ it means inconceivably vast,” the young artist described. “And country is essentially the land that has yet to be explored or defined. How would someone describe their love for music, and who they are as a person? It’s inconceivably vast. I think everyone has a tinge of cosmic in them. I want to be the person that helps people see that in themselves with what I do.”
His love for music dates back further than he can remember, but he points to his first few days busking on Broadway as pivotal. At the age of just 14 Donato’s father, an entrepreneurial spirit, escorted him to downtown Nashville, encouraging him to make a mechanism out of his interest. At the time, that was the acoustic guitar. A few hours and zero tips later, the two began walking back to the car.
“I was too scared to sing at the time,” he remembered. “But, we were walking past this bar called Legend’s Corner, and it just so happened that the singer, Jason Link, was about to pass the tip jar around. So there would be no singer for about 10 minutes. The bass player was Rockin’ Randy Hall, a Vietnam vet, turned hippie. He had the psychedelic bandanas, motorcycles, now lives in Montana, the whole deal. He was like, “Hey kid, looks like you play guitar, get up here and play.”
Donato credits his extroversion and willingness to fail to everything that followed his first stage performance. He played on a Telecaster, the first electric guitar ever made, a relic of American history.
“I envision myself playing at the Ryman, which was like 100 feet away from the bar. I don’t know what it was. I just saw it happening. I knew right then it’s what I had to do. I had found some potential meaning inside,” Donato recalled excitedly. “And I desperately needed that meaning because I was really bad at skateboarding, and that’s what all of my friends were into at the time,” he laughed.
The very next day, Donato and his father returned to their post on the bustling strip. Hoping to make more than he did the day before, Donato scribbled “Saving for a Telecaster” on an old Converse shoebox. After a few hours, he had collected enough money to buy his own classic Fender.
Floating back down the street, reveling in his successes from the day, Donato snuck into a bar called Robert’s Western World. “I don’t know how I did, because there was a door guy there, and after 6:00 pm the don’t let minors in,” he deliberated.
On stage was a 24-year-old guitar player at the time, JD Simo, warming up for a set. I’ll never forget the music playing that night,” he described the sounds of Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash. It was the first time he ever heard old country music. Fittingly, Robert’s Western World, is known as the home of traditional country music. The magic of the establishment begins with fried bologna sandwiches and $3 PBR’s. With only one stage, one bathroom, and zero TV’s, music is central to the patron experience. In those fruitful 48 hours, a musical fiend was born.
Every weekend for the next three years, Donato, accompanied by his father, busked on the same street and sat in with the same band at Legend’s Corner, and then saw the Don Kelley Band at Robert’s. The tradition continued every single Saturday. Every week, the eager teenager gave Don Kelley his card.
When Donato was 17, Kelley gave him a chance. “I think he appreciated my tenacity,” he offered. Donato ended up playing 464 shows with them – four hours a night, five days a week. In that iconic bar, he met heroes like Jason Isbell, Chris Shiflett, and Sturgill Simpson, who all watched in awe as he ripped through guitar riffs on stage.
“It was the right place, right time thing for me,” the emerging artist humbly offered about garnering attention from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and major guitar publications.
The “cosmic” portion of his country career entered when Donato’s high school history teacher, Mr. Ragland, came to Robert’s to watch him play. The next day at school, Mr. Ragland handed over what would become his holy grail – two binders filled with Grateful Dead CDs. Leading up to this point, the artist at hone din on the country sounds ranging from 1947-1987. On his daily commute from his hometown outside of the city, the wonder of jam bands filled his soul.
“Where a girlfriend should have been in the passenger seat, I had everything you could ever want from the Grateful Dead,” he recalled with humor. “While listening to this music and hour each way, I discovered you could interpret art in any way that you want. It is inconceivably vast. That’s why I make my music. It’s a getaway for people who have a particular strangeness that they love in life. It’s an exploratory approach to music.”
Given the current cultural context of the 2020 world, this interpretation is a necessary tool. While the public mines through relentlessly apocalyptic news cycles on a quest for positive messaging, Donato delivers a “Justice,” to the weary, breathing life back into the cause.
After Donato masterfully tears through a scintillating intro riff on the single, he offers a hook: “There ain’t no justice unless it’s just us / Ain’t no justice without you.” Depending on which place in your heart you are listening from, the message is up for individual elucidation. In the present moment, the lyrics behold a certain weightiness.
“As an artist, you only want to put things out in the world that people can find useful right now,” Donato explained. “There’s an intricate maze at the end of all the dialogue going on that will lead to cultural unity. I see that at the end of the tunnel, that’s what I’m fighting for. It’s the premise of our country in a lot of ways. It seems dismal in the present light of things, but I believe we will arrive at a place of unity.”
“Justice” exists to highlight that concept. The single follows “Luck of the Draw,” similarly country-leaning. He sensed the twangier tracks were a gentler introduction to his music, reserving the others for the full-length album. “For those who want to dig deeper, there’s the cosmic form,” Donato articulated. “This is where we explore and jam.”
The tracks he is most excited to share from the upcoming record fall within those bounds. “Meet Me In Dallas,” written after a 24-hour ride from Seattle, segways into his dynamic rendition of “Fire On The Mountain.” The two tracks were cut as a single song, taking up an entire side of the tape.
“I know this is a lot to ask of people,” the artist began, then interjected, “I am a lot to ask of people as well, I’m not a very easy to digest, mainstream artist. But, the album itself is a call to action to tell your story. I love the idea of challenging people to that.” He continued, “A narrative highlights the value of individuality, as opposed to succumbing to one side or the other, and losing themselves. Everyone has a story to tell, and hearing others only inflames that need.”
Some of the songs date back to his busking days. Others came to life in a Motel 6 when he was out on the road for the first time. The eclectic collection, produced by revered guitarist, Robben Ford, represents life through the quickly emerging artist’s eyes. It wields trans-genre influences from his past to deliver a contemporary narrative, A Young Man’s Country.
Listen exclusively to “Justice,” Daniel Donato’s second single and rallying call, ahead of his debut record on August 7.