Album Review: Daniel Donato, A Young Man’s Country

 

Daniel Donato

A Young Man’s Country

If finding inspiration from Guitar Hero really resulted in this, I’m excited to hear where Daniel Donato goes next.

Which is to say Donato, a jam-band-loving, guitar-playing prodigy influenced by honky tonk music, already proved his talents long before releasing his debut album. Given how there was a time when rockers like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris loved country music more than some of the artists within the actual genre did, it’s fitting that A Young Man’s Country sounds like the love child of the Grateful Dead, Waylon Jennings and the aforementioned Parsons.

Further fitting, too, given how Parsons is the only name in that bunch not covered on this album, instead replaced by a clunky version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” that highlights the disconnect between the lyricism and presentation of this album. For the most part, A Young Man’s Country is my version of a “fun” album in 2020: the guitar playing, of course, is excellent, not only highlighting some killer grooves, but also nailing the transitions excellently to match the right tones of the content.

That’s a two-pronged statement: On one hand, the instrumentation and production takes precedence over the content itself, but also shapes it. There’s a fantastic rollick to the breezier tones and interplay between the guitars and drums on “Justice” to highlight how Donato is a young drifter with a strong passion for adventure. It’s a “young man’s country” in that, it’s his take on the cosmic country sounds of yesterday, framed by an underlying thematic arc of being a young man trying to navigate a new world and understanding his place within it.

Of course, that also leads to my two biggest criticisms: for one, there’s not a lot of character to Donato’s voice, which can stifle his flow and enunciation at points, but also is something I predict he’ll grow into with more time and experience. Second, though, most of these tracks amount to Donato being a hazy drifter rambling his way through life, understanding and adapting to the musician lifestyle as he goes, which, save for the fantastic solos scattered throughout, can make this album run together at points. It’s never bad, mind you, though “Always Been A Lover” is fairly clunky in its structure all around, but I still think Donato could push a bit harder in this department. Even if the content isn’t the main focus at points, I still think it matters. “Meet Me In Dallas” shows him flexing his storytelling muscles a bit more, and with the fantastic, darker bass intro that adds tension to him being a stranger in a new town, it works to further compliment the tones, especially with the quieter middle section that roars into a flurry of rapid-fire solos, making for what is easily the best track here.

If anything, too, the “Fire On The Mountain” and “Ain’t Living Long Like This” covers show how Donato has a firm grasp on his performance skills, truthfully surpassing both songs with his own takes and making them all the better for it. Sure, many of the performances run long here – you expect it for the style – and even if they’re ultimately gratuitous, when they’re handled this excellently, I find it hard to complain. Part of this extends to a well-balanced mix, where even if that lead guitar pretty much always defines it – as it should – it’s never carrying it on its own. The jaunty saloon piano and rickety percussion gives “Forgotten Days” a fast-paced, honky-tonk-flavored playfulness that’s among the album’s best, and the same can be said for “Diamond In The Rough” with that swampier groove accented by the organ in the low end.

Of course, it’s also “Diamond In The Rough” that highlights a subtext of the thematic arc – an album informed by its past, but not content to dwell in it, fueled by Donato’s determination to take what he’s learned from his idols and blaze his own trail. And that’s mainly what defines A Young Man’s Country as a whole – an album that, while a bit clunky in spots, is fueled by a notable heart and passion, and it’s only Donato’s first step toward crafting his own cosmic-country sound. So far, so good.

Recommended tracks: “Meet Me In Dallas,” “Diamond In The Rough,” “Ain’t Living Long Like This”

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