Words and Photos By: Jerry Friend
If you're not already familiar with Daniel Donato, and his band Cosmic Country, you might want to get to know him. The buzz around this 27 year old guitar player has been traveling around in Jamband circles for a few years. He's built up a grassroots fan base, with his brand of music that he calls Cosmic Country. Of course the ideas that are rolled into the descriptor "Cosmic Country' aren't really new.
The term has a history going back into the 1960s that are tied to Cosmic American Music another term popularly attributed to Gram Parsons, who in the late 1960s in California was blending traditional American Roots music with psychedelic and experimental elements. Somtimes referred to as Cosmic Americana. Like many of the genre labels used to describe types of music, the way the category is defined is always up for debate even by the artists that find themselves tagged by these labels. Writer Shannon Byrne published a story about the genre in 2022 that references both the history of the genre and Daniel Donato that you can read here It's a good read, if you want more information about the origins of Cosmic American Music.
Daniel's stock is definitely on the rise in the jamband community and elsewhere too. Michael Weintrob, an iconic music photographer, who's known Donato since the beginnings of his career had this to say when reached out to him to speak about Daniel and his band "During the Pandemic, we created a virtual venue in my studio in Nashville. We created a company called Instrumenthead Live that produced a live stream for Daniel's first record release show. I have been in the scene photographing and hanging with Daniel for a while now. I am proud of where he has gone and where he is headed."
Donato gained the attention some of rock and rolls largest fan bases over the last couple of years, like the Allman Brothers Band crowd in March 2022 by being chosen to play guitar with Trouble No More, the "All Star" tribute band put together by C.J. Strock at the Mint Talent group with permission from the Allman Brothers, to help mark the celebration the 50th Anniversary of the "Eat A Peach" recording. You can read more about this tribute band and see video here
In February of 2023, Daniel landed another opportunity to raise the value of his stock when Bob Weir and The Wolf Brothers welcomed Donato to play with them in Memphis during their show at the Opheum Theatre in Memphis.You can read all about how that went and see some video from that night thanks to Live for Live Music's writer Michael Broerman You can find that story here A month later, Broerman while down in New Orleans caught Cosmic Country again for the 10th annual Nolafunk Series During Jazzfest. Legendary drummer Bill Kruetzmann, joined the band to play songs from The Grateful Dead's songbook.including a 45 minute version of the improvisational masterpiece Dark Star, Michael's story with video from that epic performance here
Later in May Daniel's band took their version of the cosmic brand into the Low Country gaining more exposure into another notable fan base, when they opened up for Widespread Panic, in Charleston SC Panic invited Daniel to sit in with them during their encore to perform Surprise Valley and then again to end the night with The Talking Heads' Life During Wartime Donato spoke with Rolling Stone Magazine's writer GARRET K. WOODWARD about that experience playing with legendary musicians. and wrote about it here It's another incredible piece about the rising star. Here's an exerpt from Garret's story
THERE ARE FEW things more potentially derailing to a rising artist's career than imposter syndrome, that nagging sense that you're just not good enough to warrant a seat at the table. But Nashville guitar phenom Daniel Donato views the condition less as an obstacle and more an opportunity to absorb. He recalls a recent moment onstage with Widespread Panic when he gave in and allowed himself to be open to the music being played around him.
Charlotte NC based musician, Josh Daniels known for his unwavering commitment during the pandemic resulted in over 300 consecutive live streams, showcasing more than 1000 unique songs. This earned him recognition on Pollstar charts, significant press interest, and, most notably, raised tens of thousands of dollars for charitable causes. was at the Panic show in Charlestown and captured this video of Donato with the band Surprise Valley -Widespread Panic with Daniel Donato and it shows the first moments of Daniel's hesitation described as facing his own Impostor Syndrome in that Rolling Stone story, but then he pushes through to deliver a blazing solo that wows the Panic fans who are known to be harshly critical even of their favorite band
Getting back to the present and his latest release Reflector, Donato had this to say about the record.
Reflector -- which features Nashville pedal steel legend Paul Franklin on four tracks -- also reflects "the work I did on myself and the work I did on my art" during the past three years, according to Donato. "I really started discovering new psychological and ritual domains I wasn't really aware of," he explains. "The whole concept of Reflector is of a duality. The entire world that you see externally is a reflection of your internal world, so you have this internal world you exist in and this external world you exist in, and that's what this work is about. I like dualities; it allows me to see where each side of the fence post is, and I can paint in the middle."
This idea of duality along with the adventurous spirit of psychedelic rock and its exploration is very much a part of the ethos of most jam band fans. The idea of living in the moment is what live music fans of all genres get excited about. We seem to find our joy there. For me it's that Holy Ghost feeling, like being taken to church. I feel spiritually connected to these moments when the band plays outside of the framework of the song and its hook. Those exploratory jams, where you find yourself both present and grounded in the moment and ideally lost in the moment. It really helps if the crowd around you isn't talking, so please help your fellow fans out by not talking while the band is playing.
That feeling when the band is taking the song to different places each time it is played, that journey where you lose you ego, your surroundings, your memory of what song is even being played right now in my mind, the expression "steal your face right off your head" can be applied here. When you are literally blown away by the music, the loss of ego is transcendence. When you're both physically grounded with your senses as the band's sonic explorations and light show steer your journey, yet simultaneously outside of your physical body, like a living representation of the concept of Schrodinger's Cat
For me its comparable to the ego death in Zen Buddhism. A feeling that deconstructs and reconstructs reality and you find (or lose) yourself someplace between inner and outer space, where you are alone but together with the mass consciousness of audience. Its that feeling reminiscent of your first psychedelic trip where you shrink your ego into a speck of dust, and have that realization that you're just a tiny piece of the cosmos yet still recognize the connectedness of all things.
This is in my opinion is what Colonel Bruce Hampton, a legend of psychedelic and exploratory music described with the term " Grease" All of this is reflected in the duality or paradox that is on display with this kind of music, the songs are played and then destroyed both the framework of the song and our connections to our own lives, relationships, stressors, are smashed and replaced with only what is transpiring in that moment where its being improvised there is no map or script the musicians change the conversation the audience reacts, we are faced with only the connections right now, in that time and space between the band and the fans. This is the real fear of missing out, when you aren't present at a show when you realize that participation is part of what created the chemistry of the band feeding off of the crowd, and you are a part of all of it, that feeling cannot be obtained any other way than being present.
"I think Cosmic Country is a tale as old as time, really," Donato explains. "It's yin and yang in a musical form. It's three chords and the truth, and then on the other side it's exploration and bravery. I really went through a lot of years of grinding, and still am, to achieve this sound which is a vehicle for my personality, and the personality is a vehicle for my soul. So (Reflector) is more that than any other record I ever put out." He explains that achieving this sound has been a journey, reflecting years of dedication to developing a musical style that serves as a true representation of his personality and soul. Reflector is particularly significant in this regard, as it encapsulates more of his essence than any of his previous works.
The release of Reflector the bands second record of original material has been followed by positive reviews from diverse outlets like, No Depression, Saving Country Music, Slide & Banjo, Glide Magazine, and Magnet Magazine. Praise about Donato's guitar playing are found everywhere I looked when preparing to write this story. As a long time fan of Relix, one of my favorite sources of music news, I found this story by writer Mike Ayers that had a couple of interesting observations about Daniel.
"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."
"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."
There's an expression I've seen on the Daniel's Instagram, and also heard repeated at a few of the CC shows that I've attending that goes like this "Oil at 7, Okra at 8" In my own attempt to understand what this could possibly mean, I think of it like this: the fans are a vital part of the recipe. They arrive when the doors open, and the band comes to play, the band needs the crowd's energy to propel their journey their purpose is the exploration where they can boldly go where they have never gone before the destination remains unknown as the excitement was always about the trip itself. The band brings that cornmeal coated okra goodness and the fans help keep the oil hot enough to make sure that the result fueled by the fusion of the energy coming form both sides of the stage, the result is a performance that is tasty fried goodness that's "crunchy" never slimy.
Cosmic Country has been on the lineup of one of our Mid-Atlantic region's more popular music festivals, Roosterwalk, for the last two years in a row. In 2023, the festival producers also added Trouble No More to their lineup. Here's our review from last year's festival They also host a music series call Rives On the Road, that allows them to book up and coming artists to venues in Virginia, the Carolinas (Raleigh and Charleston) that allowed them to host Cosmic Country to play for fans in Martinsvielle VA. This year Donato has been invited back to perform their for their annual Memorial Day gathering and Home Grown Music Network will be there to cover all the fun.
Two years ago, at Roosterwalk 12, was my first time seeing the band. I caught them in the middle of their performance on the Eye Level Stage in the camping area. I kind of just got lucky, walking by , as the stage was near my tent the jamming got my attention, so I wanted to see what was going down. The first thing I noticed was that the band was having as much fun as the crowd that gathered. This was before he had guest appearances with Panic, members of The Grateful Dead, but after having already been named to play in Trouble No More the ABB tribute band. One of the things I noticed was how much I liked Donato's exploration with his playing. The other thing that caught my attention was the guy on the keys, nicknamed Sugar Leg, named, Nathan Aronowitz. I linked another story about him and a side project a psychedelic gosple funk band he has in Nashville, called Down Boy here. He was also fantastic, sometimes switching between guitar, the keys,even vocals. The interplay between him and Donato was a favorite part of the performance, it really pulled me into their set, so I decided to stick around to the end a choice which seemed to be rewarded, when they brought in Brandon Niederauer, known as Taz ,another amazing young guitar player well known in the jamband scene for being a protege of Col. Bruce Hampton, to help them close down the set with one of ABB's anthems Whipping Post.
I had first heard about Daniel's guitar playing about three years ago, from people on a Widespread Panic message board that I frequent, called The Sandbox. Posters on this board are notoriously hyper critical about music. When new music suggestions get passed around they're worth paying attention to because they are taken in, investigated and then discussion happens, the discourse, which can get a little sloppy online because there is always some prankster trying to win the interwebs, so to speak, with snarky comments, sometimes, it's like keyboard warfare, in the forum. These debates, determine if the artist stock rises among the members or sinks like quicksand. In this case, there were a lot of nods towards Donato's guitar prowess. Now I had confirmed for myself, that I needed to see more of this player.
Thanks to Daniels work ethic, which is tireless, the band tours relentlessly, always trying to craft their music, exploring, new ways of evolving their material and living in those moments of live music giving them the kind of experience that only the road can provide. About six months later, the next time I saw Cosmic Country at the Lincoln Theater in Raleigh they were opening up for the Kitchen Dwellers, and it was my first full performance. It was during the full show that I also recognized their bass player, Will "Mustang" McGee, was also an important part of the vibe, switching between electric and stand up bass, sometimes singing but always keeping the train on time even being there to deliver the funk when the sound goes off in that direction
CC also played at the Fall Shakori Hills Festival of Dance and Music, in Chatam County the band wowed the crowd with a fantastic set of music and the festival even allowed some of the CC fans who have created an online community affectionately known as The Cosmic Country Club to hold a wedding that was attended by Donato on the festival grounds. Wilmington NC, based fans, Brandon Geraci and his now bride, Winnie. I had found out that the couple had gotten engaged at Cosmic Country's New Year's Eve show in 2022. They had been looking for a another CC show date that would be a fit to host their wedding. Shakori's October date seemed like the best possible fit. With that decision in place, the couple with the help of some fellow fans, they made plans, had friends help organize the event.
Somehow they got permission from the festival at the last minute and pulled off an their milestone event that had that He's Gone vibe the one that says "without love in the dream, it'll never come true." quality at the heart of it. All of this, reflected a true sense of alignment of the cosmos, everything fell into place. Here Comes The Bride, was played by Daniel himself, as Winnie walked down the aisle. The couple couldn't have been happier and were seen later that afternoon, up on the rail enjoying the show. I've posted some photos of the band from some of the shows that I've talked about here and met so many of the wonderful fans and members of the fab club in my gallery below.
Last year the band hosted the Cosmic Country Christmas Jam with lots of special guests that was definitely something my story wouldn't be complete without mentioning. I will leave you with a link to another piece written by Live For Live Music's Michael Broermann that including sit ins from JoJo Herman and Duane Trucks, from Widespread Panic along with so much more, like video, you might want to check out here.
Enough about what the band has done let's get on the the important stuff. If you are interested in seeing them live, which I highly recommend because of the exploratory nature of their sounds and the incredible musicianship of all the members playing, consider yourself lucky because they are one of the hardest touring bands out there right now, and their intention to continue to play live as much as they can to evolve their skills nd stretch their boundaries because they believe Space is the Place according to another one of the pioneers of exploratory music, Sun Ra
"The earth cannot move without music. The earth moves in a certain rhythm, a certain sound, a certain note. When the music stops the earth will stop and everything upon it will die."
-- Sun Ra, Space is the Place
Let's get to the good news, opportunities for you to see this band. Here is their tour page Take my advice, as a person who's pursued live music for most of my life and am a happier because of that, follow that link and if this band is coming to a venue near you, buy the tickets. Take an evening and spend it to see why this band's stock is rising, I don't think you will regret it. If you can't get with that, you can stream their music, purchase their recordings, if you can find them listen to them, but understand they are best seen and heard live because they play their music in different ways every night pushing the boundaries of their sound.
Near me, I am hoping to catch them three times in North Carolina over the next month. The band is playing in Winston Salem at The Ramkat on Friday, February 2nd. from there they travel up to Charlottesville VA, then an extensive run up the East Coast, remember to check the dates as they are likely playing somewhere close to your soon. They come back to Raleigh, NC on Thursday, February 15th. at the Lincoln Theater. , They will also be in Asheville, for an late night performance at the Salvage Station on February 18th that I am planning to attend while there for the Billy Strings 3- day run, because... Yes!
Also worth noting here for you fans of Cloud 9 Adventures, If you're going on Jam Cruise at the end of February, the band is onboard the legendary music cruise. They are also lucky to be playing at Panic En La Playa in April.
Lastly in another cosmic connection to our area, I found out that a good friend and better sound engineer, from North Carolina, Sean Grogan, is currently running front of house sound on tour with the band right now. Sean has worked in the music industry doing sound, even has played a tour manger role for some popular acts over the last few years, including, The Chris Robinson Band, The Lone Bellow, Molly Tuttle, and many more