Album Review — Daniel Donato’s ‘A Young Man’s Country’

Cosmic Country is certainly a name that catches the eye. It’s not something that is common in country music and as someone who spent a fair amount of time diving into the various sub genres of country music, the little bit of cosmic country I did find I found to be…well not very good. It also doesn’t help for artists wanting to explore this sound that the bar was set quite high by Sturgill Simpson with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, one of the best albums of the past decade.

Sometimes though there’s exceptions to the norm and Daniel Donato’s A Young Man’s Country is certainly in this vein. This is by far the best cosmic country album I’ve heard since Metamodern. Even more impressive that this is the debut album of Donato. Combining obvious Grateful Dead influences and sounds with old school country, Donato delivers an album that captivates my attention from beginning to end.

There are a couple of things that immediately stand out about this album. First, is the approach, as Donato and producer Robben Ford lay out the songs like a live album despite it being a studio album. Most of the songs are stretched to their max with extended guitar solos that one is accustom to hearing at rock concerts. I absolutely love this this, as it gives the songs personality and also shows off the impressive guitar skills of Daniel Donato.

That leads to the other immediate impression: Donato is a kick ass guitar player. He absolutely shreds throughout this album. Whether it’s quieter, more melodic strumming or trippy solos, the guitar playing is the absolute hero of this album. In terms of magnetic and mesmerizing production, this album reminds me so much Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. And just like that album it can kind of overshadow the other aspects of A Young Man’s Country.

The other aspects of this album though are by no means weak, just weaker looking in comparison to the absolute strength of the guitar playing. The songwriting is actually quite solid, albeit most of it centers around love and touring on the open road. While it would nice to have some more variety in terms of theme, these limited themes suit the feeling this album is going for, which is one of a traveller on the search for happiness and love as he explores the western landscape.

Opening songs “Justice” and “Always Been a Lover” show the yearning for a love that’s true with the appropriate amount of aching and hooks that catch the ear. But it’s the songs that deal with loneliness that shine the brightest like “Meet Me in Dallas” and “Broke Down.” The former hints at optimism, as someone waits for a lover to meet them and embraces the feeling of being alone. Not to mention it features a mind-blowing guitar outro. The latter is quite dark, going into vivid detail of how broken down the narrator feels. If Donato can continue to deliver songs with excellent details like these ones, combined with his excellent guitar skills, then the sky is the limit for him.

I would be remise if I didn’t also commend Donato for his absolute bold choice of cover songs. He does the Grateful Dead proud with “Fire on the Mountain” and his soulful rendition of the late great John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” is both respectful of the original’s message while being decidedly original and fresh to the ears. Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” is a great choice to close the album, as it allows Donato to go off both vocally and on the guitar to put an exciting exclamation point on the album.

Daniel Donato delivers quite an impressive debut with A Young Man’s Country. It’s not too often an artist of his caliber on guitar comes along, as his style and skill reminds me of a cross between Marty Stuart and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. It evokes a lot of emotion and color, giving Donato’s music a cinematic-like quality that draws the listener in. Needless to say I look forward to hearing more from Donato.

Grade: 9/10

Side note: When putting tags for this review, I noticed that Daniel Donato has actually been mentioned on Country Perspective before. Turns out he was a guitarist on The Black Lillies’ album Hard to Please, which Derek covered five years ago. I found that to be quite interesting, so I thought I would pass that on to you the reader too. 

Album Review – The Black Lillies ‘Hard to Please’

The Black Lillies raised the funds for their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, with the help of Pledgemusic. The goals were met, the studio time was booked, a producer was hired, then life threw the band a curveball: two of the band members left, leaving the remaining three in a tight spot. Frontman Cruz Contreras ultimately decided to move forward with the recording as scheduled and wrote the album in two weeks. Session players Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on bass, Matt Smith on pedal steel and Daniel Donato on guitar joined the Black Lillies (Contreras, Bowman Townsend on drums and Trisha Gene Brady on vocals) for the recording of Hard to Please alongside prouder Ryan Hewitt.

The album kicks off with the title track, a rocking number about a man lamenting over the fact that his woman is impossible to please. The guitars play a key role in the instrumentation with Contreras singing lead while Trisha Gene Brady provides some great harmonies. The Black Lillies fuse country and rock together seamlessly throughout the album, and “That’s the Way It Goes Down” is a prime example of that fusion. A song about moving forward and learning from the mistakes you make, “That the Way It Goes Down” has a driving production that builds to a roaring guitar solo.

The Black Lillies explore love on the next few songs. The bluesy, gospel-like “Mercy” finds two people who are shamelessly in need of one another. Contreras and Gene Brady sing the song as a duet, brilliantly using both singers’ vocal power to deliver the emotional punch of the song. “The First Time” is a mid-tempo heartbreak song where Trisha takes the lead on vocals. Here she sings of consistently falling for a man who continues to let her down and leave her heartbroken. “The First Time” uses what appears to be the pedal steel within a rock setting, and it sounds great out of its usual country element.

“Bound to Roam” chronicles a dysfunctional couple in their last moments together. Contreras sings as a rambling man, Willy, who believes he’s bound to roam and travel, while Gene Brady sings as his love, Sarah, who doesn’t want him to leave her alone and heartbroken. Sarah uses Willy’s devoted love to her to manipulate him into staying by her side forever. It’s a story you should hear for yourself, aided by a great acoustic country production. The Black Lillies sing of a happier love in “Dancin’.” Fittingly, it’s an upbeat country dancing number loaded with steel guitar and a driving guitar and drum beat. The song details a couple who look to reignite their passion and love by going out dancing: the one area in their life where they constantly shine together. It’s a well done song from the lyrics to the production, but I feel like “Dancin'” is too long as the outro of the song gets rather repetitive.

Contreras sings solo in the acoustic “Desire.” He holds onto the love and desire he feels for the one that stole his heart, even he’s been left alone and broken. The country fans reading this will love the steel guitar solo found in “Desire.” The music gets cranked up on the rocking “40 Days”, a song influenced by the band’s first national tour where they played 40 shows in 40 days. It’s the ups and downs of life on the road with an old-time rock n’ roll production led by a piano and electric guitars.

Cruz Contreras wrote “Broken Shore” about his grandfather, who fought in Iwo Jima. This country rock epic is led with a mandolin with heavy guitars and pianos chiming in at various times. “Broken Shore” is a song where the lyrics introduce the settings and feelings of our character, but it’s the production that tells the story. The production rises and falls, moving from simple to chaotic, keeping a song with few lyrics moving forward. It’s another one of those songs that needs to be heard to fully appreciate what The Black Lillies accomplish with it. Hard to Please ends with “Fade.” This piano ballad steadily builds as Contreras sings to his love not to fade away from him. The relationship is facing a rough patch and he doesn’t want to see them give in to the pressure of the situation.

The Black Lillies have accomplished a lot within their short, six-year lifespan. Their previous album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was an Americana staple back in 2013, and it’s hard not to consider Hard to Please in the same way. In spite of all the challenges the band faced before going into record the album, The Black Lillies still deliver a great Americana album with perfect fusions of rock and country with some blues and gospel influences splashed in. Even with songs that are decidedly rock and decidedly country on the same album, every song has a place and purpose on Hard to Please.

Grade: 9/10