A strong case can be made without extending any hyperbole or prejudice to Daniel Donato that he is the best young guitarist in country music, and maybe one of the best young guitarists, period. Of course, these are subjective matters. But where guitar aficionados love to ask if would you rather hear Steve Vai or Keith Richards—meaning technique vs. taste—with Daniel Donato, you can have both. He has both the tenacity, attack and technique of the best shredders around, as well as the taste and sense of tone it takes to bring the soul out of a song and melody. And with twang taking such a strong position in his repertoire, the country music community should be both proud and honored Donato’s chosen to make his home within country’s confines.
But there is no confining Daniel Donato. He proves that time and again on his debut record A Young Man’s Country. He’s part honky tonk twang that was perfected touring with some of the best independent country names of the era and his tutelage with the Don Kelly Band at Robert’s in Nashville, which might go down in history for being the best proving ground for hot shit Tele players ever, especially since Donato is within those ranks. But Daniel is also part jam band kid who’s been very directly influenced by The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia. A Young Man’s Country is a very intrepid and inspired concoction of two distinctly American music forms fused seamlessly together in a manner that has been done before in certain other variations, but never quite like this.
If anything, A Young Man’s Country leans more towards the jam band side, and country fans should square this in their brain before listening. Instead of approaching it as a country music jam record, regard it as a jam band record that happens to have strong country influences in some of the song structure and cover selections, as well as the guitar tone. It’s very common for bluegrassers and jam banders to cross pollinate. There was a whole era in California where psychedelic rockers merged with country. But what makes Daniel Donato different is as a Nashville native, his foundation was built on country, and then he discovered psychedelia as opposed to vice versa. So unlike Jerry Garcia trying his best to emulate all of those steel bends and telecaster lines, Donato can deliver them with native perfection.
Even then, the guitar playing on A Young Man‘s Country is quite diverse. From Outlaw phase to reggae wah-wah, to just blazing lines native to nothing and everything all at the same time, Daniel Donato delivers it all with a fearlessness and imagination that is hard to not get swept up in, even if you normally scoff at jam music, or psychoactive substances never touched your tongue. The drumming on the record is also really dynamic and lights out, following Donato’s lead down rabbit holes and off cliffs where you don’t always know how you’ll land until it happens.
Some will thumb their nose at Daniel Donato’s singing, griping it’s too thin, or too high, but that’s not why you listen to an album like A Young Man’s Country. His singing is fine. It’s the guitar playing that sets everything off. Sure, if Daniel tried to hang with the straight laced country crooners and their 3-chord, 3-minute tearjerkers, he’d flounder. But he knows his strengths, and leans into them the for the majority of the record.
The hits are hits on A Young Man’s Country, but some of the misses are misses. Concerns were voiced of picking such obvious covers for the record in The Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain,” “Ain’t Living Long Line This” by Waylon Jennings, and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” Donato absolutely slays “Fire On The Mountain” in his 9-minute rendition of a song that expectations are very hard to live up to, even if the vocals feel like an afterthought. “Angel From Montgomery” may be one of the album’s bigger misses, not really giving Donato a moment to flatter the song, or himself. An original that comes right after called “Sweet Tasting Tennessee” also feels like a slight misfire.
But the songs that anchor the record like the opener “Justice” and one of the early singles “Luck of the Draw” illustrate what Daniel Donato is capable of in this rarely-traversed space. The final three songs of the record is where Donato really sells you on his cosmic country concept. “Diamond in the Rough” is right in the Daniel Donato wheelhouse, “Forgotten Days” really shows off his with country tones, and the funky version of “Ain’t Living Long Like This” quickly makes you forget it’s not Waylon singing.
What Daniel Donato is attempting to do with A Young Man’s Country is a bold experiment, and when you’re trying new things and taking risks without a net, there might be some miscues. As talented as he is, one hopes that collaborations and guest spots continue to be regular occurrences for Donato, teaming up with stronger singers, and adding things to other people’s music than nobody else can.
But this, cool, unique, and wildly-entertaining album lays out a vision for what to do with this incredibly-talented young man that will get the world to pay attention to both his gifts, and the possibilities of country music soused with psychedelic influences that surely has been tried before, but rarely with such enthusiasm and skill, especially in the modern context.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)
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