Daniel Donato @ Portland House of Music
Daniel Donato had just concluded a rousing, far-reaching jam, and was peering out to the sold-out, mid-week crowd at Portland’s cozy House of Music to pose a rhetorical question.
“How ‘bout a Waylon Jennings song?” he asked. “Uh, another Waylon Jennings song.”
Listeners having consumed more than a few crafty local IPA’s (I stopped myself at two of Bissel Brothers’ tasty Substance ales), might have been excused for failing to discern the prior of Donato’s covers of Waylon, country music’s original outlaw. Nor the expansive, invigorated takes on vintage country selections by Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Buck Owens, and Willie Nelson that typically pepper his setlist. This, after all, was definitely not your grandfather’s country music show. Though proudly reverent of these OG sources of the genre on whose fertile platform the Nashville-bred guitarist, singer and songwriter’s boots now stand, Donato has refashioned this heritage into a potent, vibrant, and thoroughly modern amalgam, infused with southern rock, soul, bluegrass, folk, and a healthy dose of the most melodic and jammiest Grateful Dead.
He calls the result Cosmic Country, a moniker that, per his website bio, is “Both self-descriptive and a statement of purpose. An organic aesthetic bridging Nashville and mid-‘60’s northern California. Tie-dye and plaid. A world of its own.” However it’s known, I don’t believe any other current musician is doing something like it; it’s likely very few have before. Dickey Betts comes to mind, I’m not sure.
Now just 28 years old, Donato has already been at this for literally half his life. At 14 he was busking in Nashville’s lower Broadway area, began a regular gig at legendary Robert’s Western World a short time later, then had the key piece of his musical puzzle click in at 18 when a high school history teacher introduced him to the stylings of Jerry Garcia. By 2018 Donato had his own band, and in 2020 released his first album, A Young Man’s Country, cut live after performing over 100 shows, it contained many original compositions but also featured covers of John Prine’s classic ‘Angel from Montgomery’ and a scintillating 9-minute version of the Dead’s ‘Fire on the Mountain.’ The organic intersections of his sound were honed a year later on his semi-eponymous follow-up ‘Cosmic Country & Western Songs,’ then, most recently, came Donato’s most refined yet boundless record to date, 2023’s ‘Reflector.’
If mega-stars on the pop charts are your thing, you’re never going to hear of Daniel Donato. But if you’re in touch at all with the jam band circuit and modern rock music festivals, there’s a good chance you already have. Over the last couple years in addition to ceaseless one-nighter touring, Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country has appeared at every roots, rock and jam festival and cruise imaginable, while collaborating with the likes of Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes, Billy Strings, and Allman Brothers Band collective Trouble No More. And if the Portland House of Music stop is any indication – a 3-hour showcase of Cosmic Country’s blend of Nashville honky-tonks with an improvisational rock spirit – Daniel Donato’s pursuit of a heretofore unheard psychedelic stoner twang is only getting started.
A November 2023 Rolling Stone headline has already called Donato “Nashville’s new guitar hero.” If that’s true, it’s certainly no overnight success. “I really went through a lot of years of grinding, and still am,” says Donato, “to achieve this sound which is a vehicle for my personality, and the personality is a vehicle for my soul.” For now he seems more than satisfied to just have an outlet for his self-styled brand of music. Though a clean, concise definition of “cosmic country” may remain somewhat elusive, to me it makes sense to fall back on the quintessential country music expression of pickin’ and grinnin’ – a timeworn idiom for playing guitar while smiling broadly – but tacking on one additional clarifying word: Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country is simply pickin’ and grinnin’…and jammin’!