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.
“It helped me integrate a lot of my imposter syndrome that I’ve been having,” Donato tells Rolling Stone. “And that’s really good because you learn to receive more.”
A longtime fixture on the stages of Nashville’s Broadway district, Donato has transitioned into a force in the rock and jam-band worlds since leaving behind his guitar-hero gig with the Don Kelley Band at venerable honky-tonk Robert’s Western World. Much like how Billy Strings took the bluegrass influence of guitarists Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton to carve out a career in rock and jam, Donato is harnessing the country stylings of Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed.
Listen to his new album Reflector to see what we mean. Over 15 tracks, like the dazzling “Sugar Leg Rag,” Donato showcases his brand of “cosmic country” with a barrage of rollicking guitars and, in standouts like “Gotta Get Southbound” and “Dance in the Desert,” an earnest, reedy voice. There’s also a healthy dose of unchecked exploration.
“Discovery is the key, you know? My personality I was given when I was born was an adventurous one,” Donato says. “Onstage I’m trying to take us to places we’ve never been before, exploring a realm and playing music that has never happened before.”
The inspiration for Reflector comes from the 28-year-old musician’s keen awareness of his generation’s — and much of greater America’s — diminishing sense of self and wonder. Communal creativity and human interaction can be in short supply in 2023.
“I like the ‘manifest destiny’ value. You go out into the world. You have faith and love. You have service and you pursue wealth, health, and happiness,” Donato says. “Anything that you ever touch, see, smell or feel externally? It’s a reflection of what’s going on in your world internally, and you’re the creator of that — you’re creating a world that’s never happened before.”
Over the last few years, Donato has been manifesting a reputation as a guitarist you need to see now. He’s selling out gigs on a current tour and sharing stages with Widespread Panic and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann.
“We have the same principles and values we’re working with, but the only difference between their trip and mine is the scale — more zeros on the spreadsheet, more tickets sold,” Donato says. “In an industry where this is no right answer, it feels like we’re doing something right.”
Donato moved to Nashville from New Jersey with his family when he was eight and started running around Music City as a teenager, learning whatever he could on guitar from whoever he could, most notably on the corner stage of Robert’s.
“I’ve played close to 500 shows there,” he says. “It’s where I discovered country music.”
Meandering up and down Broadway, Donato began to realize he was somewhat of a square peg in the round hole of Nashville’s pop-country aesthetic. So he focused his outlook and attitude on staying honest and making human connections.
“It’s really confusing growing up in Nashville…. If you’re not the guy who can write a Top 10 county song or doesn’t want to play guitar using a wireless mic and walking around [a bar] audience,” he says. “It’s not me, and it took a lot of psychedelic exploration to realize that.”
Donato has been candid about his past psychedelic endeavors. He used to turn to psilocybin and cannabis to deal with lifelong anxiety and depression, both of which he says run in his family. These days, however, he stays positive by learning to embrace his disparate sides.
“There’s a thing in Nashville to take the masculine approach and to fight things as opposed to taking the feminine approach,” he says. “You should empathize with those feelings as opposed to [fighting] them, because you’re going to lose.”
For Donato, daily existence, and especially those moments on a stage, are about the now. He’s never thinking about his last show or the ones yet to come.
“Whenever I’m onstage, in a literal sense, that’s the only gig that has ever happened, because the past isn’t real and the future isn’t real,” he says. Reflector then is Donato capturing this stage of his journey and, like its title says, hoping it might mirror that of his listeners.
“Everybody,” he says, “is on their own trip.”