He started his career at 14 years old, long before he was old enough to ever legally enter a honky tonk. At 28, Daniel Donato is an Americana force and full-blown road warrior, on the grind and looking back with nothing but gratitude for the many miles it took to arrive in the here and now.
“I’m really glad that the Universe hasn’t given me any shortcuts, because, in reality, there are no shortcuts,” the singer-songwriter told The Creek’s Charles Davis and Sam Stephens in a recent on-air interview.
“I’m happy for the grind that we have. It’s a beautiful thing, really.”
That grind consists of constant touring, nearly nonstop since December of 2022. The road is a source of inspiration for Donato—it’s where he tests out new songs, figures out what connects and what doesn’t, lets loose, tries new things, and ultimately dials in his unique, deeply informed, and versatile brand of roots music, which he affectionally calls “Cosmic Country.”
“We’ve all heard of yin and yang, right? It’s kind of like that.”
It’s also a little bit of a lot of things, a musical blend of sounds and influences that challenge country music’s historically steep tradition of simplicity in form and arrangement. Harlan Howard famously declared that country music is “three chords and the truth.” While Howard’s words still ring true and serve as a beacon for keepers of the country music flame, expanding upon that foundational guidance is often where real artistry is born.
“In Nashville, the song is the boss. And that’s the universal truth. In country music, people talk about how it’s three chords and the truth. But as long as you’re truthful, you can sometimes play more than three chords and have fun with things that are a little more complex or you can take it back to things that are a little simpler.”
In his own career, Donato’s constant exploration of new ideas has given him a vibrant edge that sets him apart from the rest of the pack and puts the scope of his versatility on full display, especially on his newest album Reflector.
“’Cosmic Country’ does all of that. It takes you to simple places. It takes you to complex places, but it’s truthful all the while. That’s the main source of the sound: truth and love.”
But Donato admits that without that foundation, without those greats that came before him, he would have no career. Specifically, without the other beacon of country music still kicking for purists and classic country music fans: downtown Nashville’s historic Robert’s Western World.
“Robert’s Western World is the last real honky tonk in Nashville. I discovered that place when I was 14,” he revealed.
“The songbook that’s played there is that of an older America. Songs from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, maybe the 80s. It was really just a lot of old-time country western music, bluegrass music, old American standards, old rock and roll, and rockabilly songs. That really inspired me. That’s where I discovered the music of Hank Williams and the music of Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, and all the great country western artists. That got a big hold on me when I was a young teenager. It really kind of opened up my whole soul to the art of storytelling and songwriting, essentially simple music with deep truth.”
And it wasn’t just a place to sit back and observe. Donato really got in there and learned from many of the folks behind those great recordings that defined the genre.
“All the old session cats and touring musicians that used to play with Buck or Hank, Jr. . . . when they would come off the road, they would go play Robert’s just so they could stay busy and keep playing and keep their chops up. As a young kid, I was able to meet all those cats and learn from them.”
“I’m really grateful. If it wasn’t for that place, I wouldn’t be on the phone with you.”
Bringing those old lessons and the new ones he’s learned along the way to his sets is paramount for Donato, whose live shows resemble something of a well-curated and absolutely spontaneous all-star jam session with the greats.
“’Cosmic Country’ is a celebration, not a presentation. It’s a living experience of music. Some of it is rehearsed and a lot of it is improvised. We really want to make it an inclusive experience for everybody. We want everyone to be able to dance and sing along and feel something.”
Donato’s Cosmic Country Tour comes to The Capitol Theatre on November 30th with special guests Eggy. Tickets are available here.