The New York Times just published Guitars Are Back, Baby! with a bunch of business statistics about how six-strings are selling like crazy during the pandemic. Strangely, the piece didn’t mention any of the young guitar players rising up in American music with that mix of charisma and dazzle factor that inspires people to want to buy and play guitars. It could have celebrated Marcus King or Molly Tuttle or Christone “Kingfish” Ingram. It could have talked about Daniel Donato.
His journey is so cinematically Nashville that it may enter the realm of myth. As a 16-year-old, he hustled and landed the most auspicious gig for an up-and-coming guitar player in Music City, the 6-10 slot presided over for more than 20 years by The Don Kelley Band at Robert’s Western World in the heart of downtown. There, Donato learned his craft, sharpened his tools and put in thousands of hours of stage time. Now he’s being covered in the major guitar magazines and followed by more than 90,000 accounts on Instagram. He’s a post-modern roots rocker who quivers with energy, quotes leadership literature in conversation, and leans into his branded concept of Cosmic Country. And he’s made a trance-inducing, fun-as-hell debut album called A Young Man’s Country that mingles the soul of Bakersfield, Lower Broadway and the Grateful Dead.
“I’ve always been a person who somehow spends 12 hours a day on one thing for years at a time,” he says in Episode 142 of The String. “And music hit me at that point in my life where I was just very ready for that. Having no cultural upbringing in country music, my parents are from Jersey, I moved here not even playing guitar. So all of that feels like a very nice writing of a story.”
He was eight years old at the time of the move, and not too long after the guitar became his obsession, Donato’s father took on a multi-faceted and decisive role in helping him translate that passion into something actionable. Dad’s the one who suggested that Daniel play for tips on the street, watching out for him while the 14-year-old busked on Lower Broadway. Out of that, he did what any music-manic kid would do. He snuck into Robert’s under-age to see the Don Kelley Band.
“That was a life altering moment for me, because I saw J.D. Simo, who was 25 at the time. And it just blew my mind,” Donato says. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a guitar player that close. Seeing J.D. wearing these rhinestones, playing this beat up Telecaster, playing this music I never could have imagined in my 14-year-old mind. It just changed my entire life and was the defining moment.”
After a couple years of leaving his business card for Kelley and playing with other bands in the downtown bars, Donato got the call and worked three years for the bandleader, racking up music mentorship, life lessons and experience working a crowd. His stories about Kelley as a boss, about working those 6 to 10 shifts, about his awakening to the allure of the Dead, and about partnering with guitarist/producer Robben Ford to make A Young Man’s Country, are all fascinating. Hope you’ll give it a listen.