Singer-songwriter Danny Donnelly wanted to be a guitar hero. "That's what I had my sights on through high school and college," Donnelly said during a phone interview from his mother's home in Los Angeles. "I mean, Van Halen and all that. But then I broke my hand and couldn't play.
"When I broke my hand, I had to play a different way. And that made all the difference in my life."
Donnelly will kick off the 12th annual Founders Title Company Folk & Bluegrass Festival, to be held at the Deer Valley Resort on Sunday, Aug. 13. Gates open at 9 a.m. Donnelly's set will begin at 10 a.m. (See accompanying story for full schedule).
In addition to the music, there will be a children's area that will feature crafts, face-painting and storytelling. Coolers are welcome, as are low-rider chairs. But no glass or animals will be allowed.
Advance tickets are available for $20 for singles and $40 for families at Acoustic Music, Intermountain Guitar & Banjo, Salt City CDs, Local Music and Dan's Foods in Salt Lake City. Tickets can also be purchased in Park City at Dan's Foods and Orion's Music, and at all Graywhale CD Exchanges along the Wasatch Front. Tickets will also be available at the gate for $24 and $48.
When he was a young tyke, Donnelly's main musical influences included his folk-singing father and jazz-playing uncle. "They were the main reason why I was so into music. But for songwriting I'd have to say that Bob Dylan is my main man."
Donnelly delved into Dylan's lyrics while waiting for his hand to heal. "I also started getting into (the late) Michael Hedges and downtuned my guitar like him. And that was cool for me, too."
Donnelly has slowly made a name for himself as a studio session player in the City of the Angels.
"What is hard about that is not being able to focus on my own music," Donnelly said. "It's so easy to get busy with other people's ideas, songs and sessions that you tend to forget you have something to say, too."
And there's the fact that Donnelly is pretty humble. "For years I had my friends telling me how great I was. They told me I could make a living out of this, but one of the hardest things for me to do was to know deep in myself that I could actually do it."
But Donnelly didn't have to worry too much. When local-access radio station KRCL offered a national Performing Songwriter Contest last year, Donnelly happened to be in town, entered and won. "I thought I had some good songs, but I didn't think other people really thought they were good."
Still, Donnelly isn't ignorant about the power of his music.
"I was playing with my friend in a coffee house here and a girl came in and sat at a table in front of the stage," Donnelly recalled. "I played my song 'The Distance.' After we finished the song, she jumped out of her chair, asked us who wrote the song and stormed out crying."
Two weeks later, Donnelly's friend bumped into the girl and asked her why she was so emotional that night. "She told him that she had been planning to commit suicide that night but the song had changed her mind."
The switch from playing intimate coffeehouses to full-out festivals is something new for Donnelly, although he has done small-stage spots for the Maui Music Festival, the New Orleans Jazz Festival and the Kerrville Folk Festival.
"I'm a rookie," he said with a laugh. "I played the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival last year on the tent stage to about 400 people. But this is the first time I'll be playing in front of thousands at once on a big stage. It's going to be a rush."
Still, it doesn't matter to Donnelly where he plays. "As long as I play in front of anyone it's a great feeling."
Donnelly has quite a bit more material than is on his two albums — "Passion Tree" and "Blink of an Eye."
"I'm currently working on a new album called 'Open,' which will be all new songs," he said. "I'm also working on an acoustic gospel album that will just be me and my guitar doing a bunch of spiritual songs."