At 25, Daniel Donato carries himself like a journeyman—albeit an old soul who retains the unbridled enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. “Maybe that’s because everyone I’ve ever played with has been much older,” says Donato.
Donato’s candy store is the city of Nashville, where, at 16, he became the youngest onstage regular with the Don Kelley Band at honky-tonk institution Robert’s Western World. It’s where many fans were first introduced to his considerable talent on the Telecaster—though he had to work to convince Kelley he was ready for the gig. “I’d given Don my business card almost every Saturday for a consistent three years in a row,” says Donato. “It came down to a day when his guitar player had cut his hand making a salad, and they needed someone who could play 75 songs to their specific arrangements. Of course, I was the only guy who knew how to do it.”
For the uninitiated, there’s Donato’s loosely ambitious debut album, A Young Man’s Country (Cosmic Country Music). Recorded live over 48 hours at Nashville’s Sound Emporium by guitar legend Robben Ford, it balances Donato’s affinity for Tom T. Hall and John Prine with his more “cosmic” connection to Jerry Garcia and Gram Parsons. Though he’s still developing as a songwriter, “Justice,” “Luck Of The Draw” and “Forgotten Days” offer convincing proof that he can craft sturdy originals when he defies the urge to ramble and wraps things up in less than four minutes. “It’s about the concept of time passing in an insanely fast way,” says Donato about “Forgotten Days,” which you can check out below.
The song is actually several years old, written at time when Donato was dealing with some adversity. “Basically, I got fired from Robert’s, and I had this insane lull in my momentum,” he says. Turns out it was a case of mistaken identity involving another employee who was up to no good. “There was a guy who worked there that looked just like me,” says Donato. “Don understands that now, but at the time there was really nothing I could do. That’s why I run my own business now. You’ve got to be your own boss.”
At 18, Donato acquired a few hundred Grateful Dead bootlegs from a high-school teacher, no doubt the inspiration for his album’s nine-minute cover of “Fire On The Mountain.” A juiced-up take on “Ain’t Living Long Like This” closes the album. Waylon Jennings cut a version of the song at Sound Emporium on the day Donato was born in 1995. It was among the last things he recorded before his death in 2002. “Sound Emporium has all these paper archives in books,” says Donato. “We were just snooping around to see what was happening on my birthday, and there it was.”
Donato also has a go at Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” a song he learned while busking eight-hour days in Nashville. “I was 14, and it was literally one of my first cash tips ever,” says Donato. “Somebody asked me to play a Prine tune, and this stranger comes up, puts an iPhone to my ear, and it’s ‘Angel From Montgomery.’ I figured out the chords and struggled through it. Then I couldn’t get the song out of mind. It’s followed me through various points in my life in very personal ways.”