“This all started as a series of jam sessions in the kitchen,” says Joe Funk, bassist for the breakout progressive bluegrass band Kitchen Dwellers. “We were getting together to play covers and traditional music and old-time tunes for fun after school, and everything else just evolved from there.”
For Kitchen Dwellers, "everything else,” as Funk so modestly puts it, has been nothing short of remarkable. In the near-decade they’ve been together, the Montana-based four-piece has performed for thousands at Red Rocks, shared bills with the likes of Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Twiddle, graced festival stages from Northwest String Summit to WinterWonderGrass, and transcended traditional genre boundaries, blending virtuosic bluegrass wizardry with ecstatic rock and roll energy and adventurous psychedelia. With their spectacular new album, ‘Muir Maid,’ the group has come fully into their own, seamlessly blending the past, present, and future of string band music to create their most daring and collaborative work yet.
“This is the first record with all four of us contributing to the writing together,” says guitarist Max Davies, “and the songs really reflect that. You can hear each of our different backgrounds and influences in the music, and you can also hear how much we’ve grown in the last few years on the road, both as individuals and as a band.”
Produced by The Infamous Stringdusters’ Chris Pandolfi, ‘Muir Maid’ is built around live performances that capture the intoxicating energy of band’s concerts and showcase their dazzling musicianship, airtight harmonies, and transportive storytelling. Lightning-fast fretwork and brilliant solos abound on the record, but far from showing off, the instrumental pyrotechnics here always come in service of the song, a guiding principle for the group.
“The person who wrote a particular tune isn’t always the one who ends up singing it,” says Davies, who shares vocal duties with all three of his bandmates. “We base every decision off of what’s going to be best for the track, and to me, that’s the true definition of collaboration.”
‘Muir Maid’ follows Kitchen Dwellers’ acclaimed 2017 LP, ‘Ghost In The Bottle,’ which was produced by Leftover Salmon’s Andy Thorn and featured a slew of special guests, including Little Feat’s Bill Payne and Greensky Bluegrass’s Anders Beck. Tracks from the record racked up more than a million streams on Spotify and garnered rave reviews across the board, with The Huffington Post hailing the band as “a bluegrass phenomenon” and Relix praising the unique way the group’s songwriting “embrac[es] their love of electronica, metal…and everything in between.”
Kitchen Dwellers are:
Max Davies – Guitar
Joe Funk – Bass
Torrin Daniels – Banjo
Shawn Swain - Mandolin
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 actual-ly 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 audi-ence. 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 Amer-icana, 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 millen-nial 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 perfec-tion 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, ex-panded 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 mu-sical 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 ig-nited 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 lo-cales, 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 Coun-try.
“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. “An-gel 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 pod-cast, “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, Dan-iel Donato is indeed a millennial whirligig of creative fire. He’s been dabbling in pro-fessional 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.
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