Nashville-native guitarist Daniel Donato is one of the busiest musicians on the road today with over 140 shows booked for the remainder of this year alongside both his own band, Cosmic Country, and Trouble No More, the new-generation Allman Brothers Band tribute outfit headlining festivals and amphitheaters around the country. In the cracks between his long list of live shows, the ever-curious Donato also hosts a running series of wide-ranging conversations on his Lost Highway podcast.
Live For Live Music‘s Otis Sinclair caught Daniel Donato at home fresh off a recent stop at Bonnaroo as he rested up for a busy weekend at the tenth-anniversary edition of The Peach Music Festival to chat about life on the road, where he finds his inspiration, and his cosmic philosophies on life and music.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Otis Sinclair: Welcome, Daniel Donato. So awesome to sit down and talk with you today. Good to see you are finally able to relax in Tennessee and take some time off the road after Bonnaroo last weekend and The Filling Station in Bozeman, MT the week prior. What was it like playing with Brent Mason out in Big Sky?
Daniel Donato: When I first started playing guitar, there was about two years when I was in the same lane as most people. You kind of fall into it by loving rock and roll and the archetypal guitar hero persona. There was something that happened in my trip which blew me into the realm of country music. Brent Mason was the gatekeeper, if you will, in terms of a country guitarist who brought it to the most amount of people in the most innovative way.
Since I was 14, I’ve been learning Brent Mason’s solos and songs as a session guitar player. No one goes into a Garth Brooks show, or a Brooks & Dunn show, or a Shania Twain show, or an Alan Jackson show, very few of those people are there to think of Brent Mason. For me, that’s all I think about. It’s kind of like math rock meets country, his music. And it went swimmingly. We brought out this energy in Brent that he doesn’t get a chance to explore in the cohesive paradox that is the studio guitarist life, which is very different than the life of an improvisational jam guitar player.
Otis: So, how does it feel to finally be home and off the road?
DD: I’m home for 24 hours. We’re gone for five days, home for three days, gone for seven, home for two, then gone for twenty. This is probably the way it’s going to be for the next 2–3 years.
Otis: Well, you sound like you have the energy and the espresso to keep up with it all.
DD: I don’t know if it’s because I have this Eastern European New York City immigrant blood in my system, but I can just f—n’ wake up at 6 a.m. on three hours of sleep, go to Bonnaroo, knock out an hour of press, do a set, do another hour of press, go out into the crowd, meet a bunch of people, take photos, hang out, smoke joints with fans, friends, and family, hang out with Billy Strings! I’m totally cool throughout it all because I have a vision. When you have a vision, it’s 24-7 cause your vision exists outside of space and time. It’s coming through your heart and soul. If I’m living for that vision, I’m just gonna go and go and go. It makes it hard to have a normal life…and I’m realizing I don’t want a normal life, so it’s fine.
Otis: How about the influence of the Allman Brothers Band and what it’s like to play the Allman Brothers Band’s music with Trouble No More?
DD: That’s like another universe, dream come true. I don’t really have a story of my dad giving me a guitar when I was a three and everyone in my family playing. It was far less linear than that. We randomly moved—our blue-collar family—to Tennessee. Nobody in our family has ever lived there. We lived in this town called Spring Hill, TN. The day that we move in, which is Christmas Eve, I’m eight years old. My dad gives me a guitar. I f—n’ hate the guitar.
I picked it up after four years, after I’m terrible at skateboarding and I loved Guitar Hero. I loved it with a passion. I was so bad at skateboarding and so good at Guitar Hero that I ended up ditching my friends who were great skateboarders. I was trying to be cool and fit in with some tribe. And when I picked up the guitar again, I said, “F— this fake guitar,” and I picked up a real one.
Before that happened, I fell in love with the song “Jessica” on Guitar Hero, the Allman Brothers song. I remember thinking, “God, if I can just play this song and feel like I’m flying…” And then here we are fifteen years later, it’s March 25th and we’re at the Beacon Theatre, it’s a sold-out night, and after we get done singing “Blue Sky” in my solo, before I even think about it, I’m playing “Jessica”. As I’m playing that and the theater erupts with joy, I’m realizing, like, “Man, good job. That 12-year-old is alive. The part of you, that Self, that was you before the world told you what you were or what you could be or what you should be.” ‘Cause you’re given that when you’re born, it’s in you. It’s still in us, it’s just under all this content that is manufactured by society.
It was following that and listening to that tone, that song, that siren whisper, to that true call of myself that led me to that moment. These are the moments that I’m hungry for as I move forward and get older is realizing more of these moments and having these things be alive in my soul, and believing in them and allowing whatever external world time it takes to actualize in the external world. It’s a thrill, an absolute thrill. To be able to learn so much amazing American music really informs you on the writing process. There’s nothing that needs to be changed about Allman Brother’s records. If you could learn those and be a student, that lives in your subconscious and when you go to write, it comes out cause it’s alive in you…
Otis: And what’s it like to jam out with Taz?
DD: Taz is a young, charismatic genius. Since I’m a little bit older than Taz, I can see parts of myself in him, but since he’s a genius, he teaches me things, as well.
Otis: I’m stoked that you’re performing at Peach. The loyal crowd is always so true to the festival’s roots, pure energy on the mountain.
DD: As long as there’s humans, there’s always going to be people dressing up in their favorite tye-dye shirts, rolling some joints, going to the mountain and forgetting their problems…. As long as I’m alive, I want to be involved in that scene. I think as far as a debut at Peach, I think myself and Cosmic Country have the busiest schedule. I have in total 4 performances throughout the whole weekend that are scheduled. Who knows what else happens…
Otis: Do you have any sit-ins planned for Peach or any guest appearances planned?
DD: …I’ll just leave it open. I’ll say that I’m open. I’m there to play.
Otis: I saw a glimpse of your recent reading list. What are you currently reading?
DD: I find that when I’m home I can read a lot more. When I’m on the road, I don’t have as much bandwidth mentally to read. I’m either writing, listening to a show that we did and taking notes, or we’re traveling somewhere and I’m picking on my guitar. When I’m on the road, I have a Fender guitar that I sit with in the back and I literally play all day. Cause it’s like my responsibility on the road to be there for my muse, so whenever she’s calling, I want to respond. When I’m at home, I’m really into Carl Jung. Like, inexplicably captivated by him. Right now, I just finished Man and his Symbols.
Otis: I had to read The Undiscovered Self [The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society] by Jung when I was in college, and that was very interesting.
DD: It relates a lot to music for me. It’s crazy. Two symbols that Carl Jung talks about are three and four, four being the symbol of wholeness, the square, and if you think of a four-piece band, you have that [wholeness]. How do you explain so many amazing bands that were four-piece bands. You have The Beatles, The [Rolling] Stones, Phish. Then, you have three. Most time signatures are in four or three; all chords are built off of three tones. There’s only three diminished chords.
Another thing Carl Jung talks about is the duality of self, the yin and yang. In music, the yin and yang is the major and minor, tension and release, feminine and masculine forms of chords. The feminine major chord is the birthing of a release, the birth of the song, where the song is born from. The dominant chord is the five, which can be viewed as the dominant, father, masculine figure. What the dominant does is it pulls you away from the center, then it brings you back to the center. That’s what a chord progression is. It’s almost like a chord progression is life itself in some way.
Through [Jung’s] works, I was able to uncover parts of myself that were not yet conscious that help inform the musical trip that I’m creating, that’s emerging through my Self. Capital S, Self. He inspires me as much as Robert Hunter‘s words inspire me. It’s on that level of inspiration. I read it every day when I’m not on the road.
Otis: So, how did you meet up with the Widespread Panic boys? How did the Milwaukee busking event come up?
DD: My manager is really good friends with the Panic management camp. Owen [Canavan] is a lot like me, he started as an underdog and the universe gave him no shortcuts. Through each lack of shortcut, he gained another point of character in his development. He made the call. He was like, “Can Cosmic Country open up the show?” and they were like, “Well, no, nobody opens up the show.” So he goes, “Well, how bout outside? The boys will play the f— outside, they don’t care.” And they’re like, ‘Sure!’
So, on the first night, Steve Lopez and some of the other Panic management team, they declared that day “Widespread Panic Day,” so after we finished the 3rd song, the WSP team and the Mayor of Milwaukee come walking out under the tent where we’re playing and had this whole ordeal that was unbeknownst to us. And to me, that was such a beautiful time to appreciate all the work that band has put in after all this time and being persistent in their vision. To be there to witness that feet away from me, it was such a green light. I was reminded how young and how new I am to this. It was a reminder like, “Hey, your journey is just getting started, kid. Take it easy.” This is potentially what lies ahead for you down this road of unlimited devotion.
Otis: “An honest tune with a lingering lead has taken me this far.” Can you shed some light on your history as a hybrid picker?
DD: With the hybrid picking, I use an acrylic pick. Not many guitar players do. I’m really into the physics of what I do, not so much the pedals. Playing country music you have to cover a lot of ground. Sometimes, you have to sound like a banjo player. Other times, you have to sound like a mandolin player, or you gotta play bass and lead at the same time.
Listening to Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and James Burton—who played with Merle Haggard and other big country artists—these cats, back in the day, were just using their fingers and picks at the same time. And it kinda creates this yin and yang of machine vs human. [With my style] I can speak on both sides of the polarities. I can do a really intricate flatpicking, bluegrass style riff with just my pick and then I can get immensely emotive and connective with the skin of my hands by touching this feel. It’s a totally different sound.
When we get in the studio, we get nitpicky about that. Like, “Do I start the song with my pick or my finger?” They sound different; they flow different. When you come to a Cosmic Country show, every night’s a different mixture of the two. I can just close my eyes and play. Oftentimes I look out into the crowd to get into the collective unconsciousness of what’s happening. I forget about the guitar and try to listen to what the music is. It’s always a different form of the two. It’s kind of my own style now after doing it every day for 13 years.
Otis: Does it have more to do with the setlist or how you’re feeling that day?
DD: As I say, in music, everything is everything. Great example of this is recently I was talking to my manager about B.B. King while walking down Beale Street, and then that night, when Trouble No More was playing, I was playing a solo. He came up to me afterwards and asked me, “Do you know how much that sounded like B.B. King?” It all feeds into the unconscious inbox of my mind and soul. It’s how the weather is, it’s how the venue is, it’s how the people are, it’s how I’m feeling, it’s how the band’s feeling, it’s the setlist, it’s how the power is in the room, it’s everything.
If you read the book, How Music Works by David Byrne, the first chapter is about this. It’s even about where your society is. Like, music now is looking for something. We feel like we lost our connection to a benevolent source of infinite depth. It’s even like where the world is that affects how I’m playing. I feel like that’s the job to get as much of “that” in “there” as you can.
A great artist is perfect for their time but also ahead of their time. Billy Strings will go down as one of the greats of our generation and of all time. I feel like we are living in a time now where there are a couple of those people. I can feel it and I’ve been seeing it happen in Nashville for a while. I remember seeing Sturgill Simpson play to three people and I was sitting in the center with a Diet Coke when I was 17. I’ve seen Chris Stapleton at the Station Inn when someone said he was singing too loud! I remember watching Billy play at the Five Spot to twelve people.
Otis: I can’t wait to follow your trajectory and roadmap of gigs zigzagging across the country. Good luck this weekend and have an amazing time at the tenth anniversary of Peach Festival.
Catch Daniel Donato at The Peach Music Festival in Scranton, PA June 30th–July 3rd. To view a full list of his upcoming tour dates and purchase tickets, visit his website.