Daniel Donato: Cosmic Raise

Mike Ayers on January 12, 2024
Daniel Donato: Cosmic Raise

photo: Jason Stoltzfus


Daniel Donato’s musical career started on the street.  It wasn’t out of necessity, or a dare, but rather as one of those things you hear from your parents, like “clean your room” or “take a shower.” This directive came from his dad, who suggested that he play out on the streets of his hometown. The Nashville-bred Donato, who was only 14 at the time, had just finished eighth grade and had no previous performance history. There were no expectations— just a pure moment of a father encouraging his son to play.

“I made no money,” Donato recalls of that day. “I was really disappointed in that. As we were walking back to the car to head home, there was a band playing that saw me walk by. They yelled on the microphone and asked me if I wanted to come play with them. I did and that moment was this experiential endowment of a vision for my life.”

Donato went back to the streets the next day, with a goal of making some money and buying a telecaster. He made over $500 and found his way into another gig that would prove fruitful for the next several years. While eating dinner with his dad at Robert’s Western World, ostensibly celebrating the day, he saw the Don Kelley Band, a fixture in the Nashville honky-tonk live scene. He says that, for the next three years, he gave them his business card every weekend, before finally being asked to play with them when he was 17. 

“Those two days were the revelations of my life,” he says. “It was like someone said, ‘Here’s the stage. And here’s what it’s like to play in front of people.’”

Over the last several years, Donato has turned his childhood dream into a professional reality. He’s become a force on the jamband circuit, playing with everyone from Bob Weir to Bill Kreutzmann’s Billy & The Kids, Widespread Panic and Umphrey’s McGee in 2023 alone. Those accomplishments all seemed to happen just as naturally as his initial breakthrough moment as a busker. And they have all helped support the rise of his own band, Daniel Donato’s Cosmic Country—a tour-de-force of guitar shredding in country form, where Donato’s vision makes for a blissful and raucous experience at the same time.

“I was given a vision and thought, ‘OK, this is what I’m going to do forever,’” Donato says of his early days. “I said, ‘I’m gonna do it as well as I can, with as much passion as I can, as long as I’m living.’”


One might think that growing up in Nashville and becoming well-versed in playing guitar and songwriting would lend itself to the city’s music industry.  But Donato had other plans. When he started the Cosmic Country project in 2018, his goal was to find an act he could tour with and to stay on the road as much as possible. He would email clubs nonstop, creating his own touring itineraries and finding gigs at venues that would offer him a $250 guarantee. If 100 venues were contacted and three wrote him back, then that was a success. 

“I knew it wasn’t going to be commercial pop-country because it’s just not who I am,” he says. “In Nashville, if you want to be a songwriter, there’s rules to that. And if you write songs that don’t fit within that framework, you’re not really allowed in the service. And that’s totally fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not how I go about things. So I was saying, ‘Well, what kind of country does Daniel do? It’s ‘cosmic country.’ It just kept going from there.”

Talk to Donato about the concept of Cosmic Country and he will likely profess an ethos of sorts around the music. Most musicians recoil at the idea of labeling the type of music they play; Donato seems to relish in it. But the group’s name is not simply a stylistic quantifier intended to feed an algorithm on your phone. Donato truly uses the notion of “cosmic country” as a guiding force.

Donato’s first album, A Young Man’s Country, came out in 2020, after he released several singles and the Starlight EP. The 11-song LP mixed Donato’s compositions with covers of the Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” Both show the promise of a young guitar player who’s already logged many miles yet is also clearly comfortable in the studio. Then, he dropped, Cosmic Country & Western Songs, a set of covers, in 2021.

His second album of original material, this year’s Reflector, is cosmic country at its peak. The warped psychedelia of the ‘60s continues to reverberate throughout the record’s 15 songs, like a long-lost ‘68 Garcia lick transported to a Broadway honky-tonk in Nashville. He also leaned into his love of another pioneering act, helping start Trouble No More, an officially sanctioned Allman Brothers tribute act, with Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, Dylan Niederauer, Jack Ryan, Lamar Williams Jr., Nikki Glaspie, Peter Levin and Roosevelt Collier.

On Reflector, you can hear his improvisational roots front and center on songs like “Gotta Get Southbound” and “Hi-Country.” The opener, “Lose Your Mind” finds Donato commanding an Allman Brothers-like groove while his outfit proves their instrumental prowess. 

“He does stuff on a guitar that I don’t hear a lot of players do,” says Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann. “He’s got a combination of finger picking and pick picking at the same time. He does it real subtly, like he’s backing himself up on the guitar. It’s very cool.”

Kreutzmann jammed with Donato and Cosmic Country at the Republic in New Orleans during the 2023 Jazz Fest concert series. George Porter Jr. and Branden Lewis of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band also sat in. The show featured an epic, 45-minute version of “Dark Star” that shows just how exploratory Donato can get while leading a band. It’s hard to predict where things like this will lead in the future, but it definitely clicked.

Donato returned the favor this past August by joining Billy & The Kids as an auxiliary guitarist, rubbing elbows fellow guests like Sierra Hull and Doom Flamingo’s Kanika Moore, as well as Kids mainstays Tom Hamilton, Aron Magner and Reed Mathis. They played a ton of Dead classics, highlighted by gorgeous versions of “Terrapin Station,” “Wharf Rat” and a 20-minute run from “Foolish Heart” into “Scarlet Begonias” in Baltimore.

“The thing that I’ll always remember was Bill asking me what I thought could make the band better,” Donato says. “And that was wild. And then the second thing was how persistent he was about having fun. Bill is way older than everybody who’s in Billy & The Kids. And he has more experience on a stage playing drums to people than probably any drummer in American history. But, the things that he has taken with him this far are the ability to have fun and the decision to include everybody who’s on the trip with him.”

“It feels like I’ve known him forever,” Kreutzmann says. “He really relates to all the musicians onstage when we’re playing.”

Shortly after Jazz Fest, Donato found his Cosmic Country outfit opening up for Widespread Panic at the Credit One Stadium in Charleston, S.C., an 11,000- person capacity venue. Donato sat in during the band’s encore for an epic “Surprise Valley” that gave way to a fiery cover of Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” 

“It’s always great when someone wants to do one of our songs with us and it’s really easy to do a cover,” Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools says. “The younger, newer innovators integrate well with the former innovations; they seem to be able to mix in without a problem. In Daniel, I hear a respect of history and what came before—doing what innovators do, which is absorbing all of that, putting it into their arsenal and then creating something new and fresh.”

Donato recalls that Panic moment with awe, the way he tends to talk about any musical experience. 

“When you’re 14 and you play Guitar Hero in the living room while eating Hot Pockets, the video game simulates big arenas with 10,000 people. If you have an active imagination, like me, you want to do that in real life. That moment became a reality when I sat in with them. I felt incredibly unsure of myself, for like two minutes. But, when we did a solo on ‘Surprise Valley,’ the whole place just lit up.”


Talk to Donato about what’s next and he’ll prophesize again about the Cosmic Country vision. It’s one that involves playing as much as humanly possible, wherever that may be. He may be a dreamer but he has been able to will even his wildest dreams into realities. And, besides honing his songwriting abilities, Donato’s goal seems to be making sure Cosmic Country maintains its fan-first mentality. He’s passionate about getting tickets to shows into the hands of people who really want them and is working to distribute them in a way that prevents scalping. It’s hard in this day and age, but he’s trying. Throw enough positive energy into the world around you, and it’s certainly doable.

“I feel like we’ve entered into the flow of how the trip is probably just going to be for however long the universe wants it to be,” he says. “I hope it just goes on for decades. That’d be my prayer. And the only thing that will change will be the scale. We’re just going to keep going out and playing shows to our community. And we’re going to keep trying to make something happen that has never happened before, that can never happen again. We’re not going to be the band that sells a million records, and we’re not going to be the guys who get a billion streams in two weeks on Spotify. But we’re definitely going to be the band that sells a million tickets. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re just gonna keep on touring and just try to elevate the frequency of what we’re doing.”