Music City native Daniel Donato got his start playing electric guitar anywhere he could find a power outlet. Whether it was a honky tonk on Broadway, the parking lot of a Phish concert, or touring with The Don Kelley Band, Donato has been honing his chops since age 14.
Now 24 years old, Donato’s songwriting prowess reflects that of a musician much older. Using country greats such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as his compositional foundations, Donato takes things out of the box in a meticulous and seamlessly technical manner reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
And on the topic of the Grateful Dead, Donato’s live performances undoubtedly serve as a must-see to grasp all this artist has to offer. Similar to the Dead’s extensive cataloguing of their own live performances, Donato and his three-piece “Cosmic Country Band” live-stream their performances night after night. I believe it’s only a matter of time before fans begin coveting these recordings with the same ardor that has infected Dead Heads for generations.
We had the opportunity to chat with Donato about guitars, his releases, upcoming tour, and more.
Music Mecca: Do you remember the artist or song or event that made you flip a switch and say okay, it is imperative that I master the guitar?
Daniel Donato: Yes! At first it was “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses, but then I heard Willie Nelson and that’s when I fell in love with country music.
MM: It seems like you really cut your teeth playing in bars on Broadway and doing covers. How do you feel this has shaped your own sound, or hasn’t it?
DD: It absolutely has shaped my own sound. It’s a live way of playing and putting the listener first. Definitely a style of playing for people who are into live music. The world has less and less of that in some way, which is totally fine.
MM: I see you recently released a stripped down version of “Always Been a Lover,” and recorded it at a live event for Taylor guitars to promote a new guitar of theirs. How did this all come together, and what made you choose this particular song of yours?
DD: It was Bob Taylor, who founded the company. He saw a video of me playing and became a fan. And that was when I initially met with the company and first started working with them. They had me come in to play a set with one of their guitars and I was just messing around on the song. We were at Zac Brown’s studio and he had heard the song and he said, “You guys should record that.”
MM: What was the primary influence or inspiration behind this song?
DD: I love the Grateful Dead and I love country music. So I love jamming, but I also love songs, and country music is just the truth. So I love jamming and I love singing the truth, so that’s kind of where it came from.
MM: Probably a foolish question, but what did you think of the new guitar they were promoting? Did they give you one for doing the event?
DD: Oh yeah they absolutely give you one. I use it all the time. I love it so much, I even got the other guitar player in my band one. I think Taylor guitars are absolutely the best acoustic guitars. They’re also the company that embraces new technology the most.
MM: Now if telecasters were wiped off the planet, or never existed, would you be a devoted Strat guy then? Or would there be another primary axe of choice for you?
DD: I’d have an identity crisis. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do. I love Strats, but with Strats you get pigeon-holed, you know what I mean? You know, I put out a book when I was 18 called Master of the Telecaster and it was like one of the top 100 best-selling music books Amazon has ever sold. So if it got wiped off the Earth I’d have to think there’s one somewhere with my name on it. (laughs)
MM: What are some of your favorite guitars you’ve had over the years?
DD: I’ve got one that everyone who knows me knows. That’s the seafoam green one. I play that at nearly every show. I designed that guitar kind of by thought. Before I’d ever found it, I’d built a guitar that was just like it, and then one day I walked into Guitar Center and saw the real version of what I’d always been dreaming of. That was right when I first started working with Fender, and I was able to get it from them. I’ve really never used another guitar since, so that was definitely my favorite one. Also my grandfather’s old Martin.
MM: I see you’re kicking off a winter/spring tour here in February. What do you enjoy most about touring? Are there any dates you’re particularly excited for?
DD: Yes! Very simply put I just love the idea of what a human connection means in regard to music. That to me means we’re all agreeing to be in the same room at the same time and we’re going to participate in something together that only happens then. I think that’s a really special thing now. If someone’s letting me be their Friday night, then I want it to be the best Friday night possible. I love that responsibility.
MM: Are there any dates you’re particularly excited for?
DD: I gotta be honest, each part of the country is very different in terms of how people listen to music. And I’m excited for all of them, (laughs) which might be a little cheesy, but I have that much excitement. Playing in the north is fun because the Dead have played the Garden (Madison Square Garden) something like 35 times. That’s a big goal of mine one day, and the community there really embraces that kind of music. But I also love going back down South where I’m from and getting onto the more country-rock side of things.
MM: It seems like 2019 was a big year of releases for you. What can fans expect in 2020?
DD: We got it figured out, man. We have an album that’s already in the can. It’ll be my first full-length album and it’s entirely live in the studio. I want to shake hands with the world, musically speaking, with a full-length by letting people know what kind of musician I am: it’s the live thing, it’s what I’ve always done. Then we’re going to have a produced studio album come out in the winter. We also live-stream every single show and leave that online for people. So sometimes five times a week you’ll be able to hear what I’m doing.
MM: Can you tell us a bit about your podcast?
DD: It’s a new thing. We just finished the first season back in December, and I’m going to start the next season in February when the tour starts. It’s basically me trying to talk with people who are my heroes and kind of distill some of the stories in their lives down to things that we can use in our lives. I always loved Snapple growing up because I always loved the little piece of wisdom on the Snapple bottle, so if I can provide little Snapple facts for people in these podcasts that’s my main goal.
MM: Your Spotify bio mentions you used to play in the parking lot after shows for Garth Brooks, Phish, and John Mayer. Any fun stories from that experience?
DD: (laughs) Yeah totally! It’s on Youtube and you can find it. I actually made a Youtube video of me watching it ten years later. This was a long time ago. I was super awkward. I had these shorts on and I was wearing flip-flops, which I don’t really wear anymore. This woman, she came up, you can’t tell from the video, but she came up and she gave me $500 and a business card. And she goes, “You gotta send me an email.” So I send her an email a couple of days later and it turns out she was one of the producers for the Jimmy Fallon show. So I was scheduled to go on and appear on Jimmy Fallon. But I ended up getting booted off by like Green Day or something. I was like 14. I had just dedicated my life, just started that phase of my life, and it was just a nice positive reinforcement. I’m a person who likes to believe you can have signs that you’re doing the right thing. So in that moment of my life, I cherish that sign.
MM: Who are your top three artists you’re digging most going into 2020?
DD: Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. I also really love Billy Strings. Just new country artists that are stretching it out a little are definitely my jam.
MM: What artist, dead or alive, would you most like to have a coffee or beer with?
DD: I’d like to have coffee with Waylon Jennings, and I’d like to have something that’s neither of those two with Jerry Garcia. (laughs)