Since their 2000 formation in Kalamazoo, MI, the quintet—Anders Beck [dobro], Michael Arlen Bont [banjo], Dave Bruzza [guitar], Mike Devol [upright bass], and Paul Hoffman [mandolin]—have unassumingly progressed into a phenomenon on their own terms with the undying support of a devout audience. Rolling back and forth across North America on successive tours, they recently sold out 3 nights at Red Rocks, a feat unheard of in their genre.
During 2019, All For Money marked their second #1 debut on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums Chart and third straight Top 3 entry. They’ve also earned critical acclaim from Billboard, Parade, NPR, and Rolling Stone who hailed them as “representing the genre for a whole new generation.”
As always, the band embraces tradition while ushering bluegrass forward on their eighth full-length offering, Stress Dreams. “Greensky is and always has been very unique in our world,” observes Paul. “We put our love, energy, and focus into what we appreciate about our music. We come together as a band in a way that’s organic. We take a lot of pride in how we grow and challenge each other too. We’re maturing together. I think we get more Greensky all of the time.”
They took advantage of the time to become “more Greensky” in 2020. After touring ceased in the face of the global pandemic, the band hunkered down and compiled demos individually at first, sharing emails and voice notes. In July 2020, they got together for the first time in four months, dedicating rehearsals to the development of the new material. Once circumstances safely permitted, they recorded what would become Stress Dreams during a session in Gilford, VT and two sessions in Asheville, NC. The band co-produced with frequent collaborator “and old friend” Dominic John Davis (Jack White’s touring and studio bassist) and “wizard engineer” and grammy-winning producer Glenn Brown. They preserved the hallmarks of their sound while widening its expanse.
“It didn’t feel like we were squeezing this project into the schedule,” says Mike. “The lack of gigs gave us the freedom to get together solely to work on this. It was a relaxed environment. There wasn’t the pressure of time; the songs got space to breathe.”
“For all of our records, we always take more time to explore and experiment,” Paul elaborates. “We finished ideas and kept going, thinking everything all the way through. We really put energy into each specific song and made it the best it could be.”
The single “Grow Together” blossoms into a patchwork of nimble banjo, acoustic guitar, and mandolin as the dobro (routed through a Marshall amplifier) teems with fuzzy heart. Meanwhile, Paul delivers an intimate live vocal performance capped off by the hook—“That we can grow old together if we can find the time”— and an evocative electric guitar solo.
“It was the first tune I had written in a really long time,” states Paul. “My daughter was just born. When she was five weeks old, I sat down on the floor with her and spit this one out. It was an appreciation for my wife and what it meant to become a father. I had never been so moved in the studio as I was when we recorded it. A lot of my songs have come from an open place of serious personal emotions, but this one was different. Instead of fighting against weakness and pain, it’s romantic, happy, heartfelt, and uplifting.”
The opener “Absence of Reason” borders on mystical with its psychedelically-wrung whale moans on the dobro and JJ Cale-inspired fleet-fingered chicken-pickin’, making for what the guys agree is a “positive creative experiment.” Meanwhile, “guitarmonies” uphold the towering refrain of “Monument”—co-written by Anders and Chris Gelbuda.
“‘Monument’ meant more once quarantine happened,” recalls Anders. “It’s about how our lives changed so much when we were locked up at home. We were trying to harness the feeling of everything being taken away in an instant. At the same time, the energy reflects the feeling of getting back on stage and playing in front of 10,000 people post-COVID.”
Penned by Mike Devol, the eight-minute title track “Stress Dreams” leans into a fascinating 6/8 time signature underscored by piano and an ethereal mandolin-led crescendo. “It was quite literally about having weird dreams,” says Mike. “There’s a circular pattern to being stressed and repeating your thought process. In our job, we operate with some level of predictability. Our schedule is booked out a year in advance. Once the Pandemic hit, we didn’t know when we would see each other and play again. Now we are playing again, but we don’t know if it’s going to be taken away in a moment’s notice. It gives added value to the present moment. To make music with my friends for five weeks was such a gift. A lot of the album speaks to this.”
The closer “Reasons To Stay” ends the album on a lighthearted and funky note with its surprisingly sexy climax as Paul assures, “You’re just made of reasons to stay.” “It’s about the physical attributes of the person you’re spending the night with,” Mike goes on. “Paul sings it way sexier than I ever could. If my wife asks, it’s a love song,” he laughs.
In the end, the story of Greensky Bluegrass just keeps getting better as well.
“There’s a duality to this band,” Anders leaves off. “On one hand, we improvise and go outside the box on stage. The studio brings out our artistic side. We grow every time we make a record. I hope you hear and see the evolution.”
“We just can’t wait to play shows, hug our friends, and play music with other musicians we love and respect,” Paul concludes. “Besides, we’ve got 13 new songs to add to the setlist!”
When people first meet Daniel Donato, they’re not fully braced for this walking tornado of creative energy. “They think there’s something that tips the scale in ways they don’t understand,” says Donato about his over-the-top, slightly manic vibe. “But what actually tips the scale is the amount of thought and analysis I put into my work and art, all of which is taken from the lessons of my life.”
Donato, a 25-year-old Nashville native, has distilled those life lessons into his debut album, A Young Man’s Country, his proper introduction to the general musical audience. Recorded at Nashville’s Sound Emporium in a mere two days and produced by guitar-ace Robben Ford, the record weaves outlaw country, Grateful Dead-style Americana, and first-rate songwriting into a singular form Donato calls “21st-century cosmic country.”
It might surprise some that the Telecaster-wielding wunderkind, who at 16 became the youngest musician to regularly play the iconic honky tonk Robert’s Western World while gigging with the Don Kelley Band, began his musical journey in a purely millennial fashion. Before he ever picked up a guitar, he discovered he had an aptitude for music via the video game Guitar Hero. At the time, he didn’t feel compelled to try his hand at the real thing until one day, about the age of 12, he heard the electric perfection of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Paradise City” blast from a set of speakers and his world was changed forever.
“It was the first time I ever had a vision for my life,” says Donato, who was partly drawn to music because he sucked royally at skateboarding. “I then took one of my dad’s old guitars . . . and I literally fell in love with it.” From then on, Donato lived and breathed music, practicing his chops around the clock. He’d play before school, during his lunch break, and in the evenings at home, sometimes falling asleep with the six-string in his hands.
It wasn’t long before he was busking on lower Broadway in Nashville, playing eight hours a day on weekends for tips. It was after one of those day’s sessions that he got a wild hair and snuck into Robert’s on a night when house act the Don Kelley Band was playing and his wig-dome was blown. “It was the first time I ever saw a band that was that good up close,” Donato said. “So I’m literally watching them play and I’m crying. I decided right then that I wanted to be the best guitar player in the world.”
Donato continued busking outside arenas before John Mayer and Phish concerts and on the streets of Nashville and it was then, while playing on Broadway, that he’d give Don Kelley his business card every Saturday night, hoping for a chance to audition. One day, while still a junior in high school, he got the call to come play. Donato was more than ready, and he delivered the goods in spades. He was so good, in fact, that he became a regular member of the band, performing four nights a week for more than 450 shows with the group.
Playing nightly with the Don Kelley Band was a formidable education for the young musician. Jamming regularly with Nashville’s most seasoned players, stalwart pickers who may have played in Buck Owens’ band, or Dolly Parton’s, or Alan Jackson’s, expanded his musical vocabulary while honing his stage presence. Along the way he was soaking up stories of adventures on the road and learning about the ups and downs of the music business. In short, he was gaining priceless life lessons and a musical education from wells that run deep into the musical history of Nashville.
Around the time he turned 18, one of Donato’s high-school teachers, a serious music lover who had seen his student play at Robert’s, gave him a Grateful Dead box set. It was another eureka moment for the guitarist. His love for the Dead may have been ignited much earlier by virtue of the fact that his mother was a bona fide Deadhead who followed the group on tour when she was pregnant with the future guitarist, but it was that collection that changed the way he looked at music. “It gave me a tie to all of the classic country gold I’d been working down at the honky-tonks each weekend,” he said. “Grateful Dead and Merle Haggard had always lived in my heart, but now, the link was made, and I had a vision on how to keep it alive for this generation that I am coming from.”
During the days of his Robert’s residency, Donato continued to busk at various locales, even playing the Grand Ole Opry, and it is the sum of all these gigs, experiences any teenage musician would kill for, that inform the sounds on A Young Man’s Country.
“Ain’t Living Long Like This,” one of three covers on the album, is a song by Waylon Jennings, who was recording at the Sound Emporium the day Donato was born. “Angel From Montgomery,” a song Donato learned on the fly while busking for tourists, pays tribute to the late John Prine. Donato recorded his unique take on the tune before Prine’s death. The Grateful Dead’s “Fire On The Mountain” is tacked on to “Meet Me In Dallas,” a tune Donato wrote while on the road with Paul Cauthen. The other seven songs, all originals, showcase the promise of a young songwriter coming into his own, one of the highlights being “Luck of the Draw.”
The message of these songs contain the central tenet of Donato’s “Cosmic Country” ethos, which is about finding the courage to blaze your own path. As such, it is an ethos the artist extends beyond music into the channels of social media, where he’s built up a huge following of devoted “DD Heads,” as his fans call themselves. His podcast, “Daniel Donato’s Lost Highway,” brings together like-minded creatives to get at the heart of what makes artists tick, for which he’s interviewed Brothers Osborne, Brent Cobb, Orville Peck, and Garry Talent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.
Incubated to the sounds of the Dead, educated by some of Nashville’s finest players, and having more than 2,000 shows under his belt and a social media presence, Daniel Donato is indeed a millennial whirligig of creative fire. He’s been dabbling in professional music since the age of 14 and yet he’s just getting started. A Young Man’s Country is the portrait of a restless artist as a young man, one whose story is singular and is still in its exciting, early chapters — and as this effort shows, the future is indeed cosmic.