Donny Van Slee is a Florida boy from the rural town of Weeki Wachee Springs, home of the famous live mermaids. Growing up, Van Slee was shy and his dad bought him a guitar to help him. Later, influenced by the bands he loved – Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – he took lessons, but his main focus in school was soccer.
Once he graduated high school, he no longer played soccer, but he still had his music. While attending college, Van Slee would play in local venues like Tropical Grill, The Florida Cracker, Market 48, and Monte McGill’s, where he would entertain the townspeople and tourists alike. Soon, the singer/songwriter realized that music was more than just a passion – it was his life’s art.
Van Slee’s mother, a nurse, encouraged him to study nursing. But after working in a cafe, the chiropractors owners thought that the chiropractic field would be a better fit. After that, Van Slee quit working at the cafe to do music full time, all while attending school.
In 2016, while still in college, Van Slee met Star Video Productions executive director, Andres Yepes. The producer liked him and put out a music video, “Wonderful World,” completely for free.
By 2018, Van Slee shifted his focus to his post-grad studies and started attending Palmer College of Chiropractic with no intention of doing music. While attending school, he dined at an Applebee’s with a friend. They found out that the guy at the table next to them owned a bar. The friend advised that Van Slee played guitar and sang. He wanted to hear Van Slee, who ended up playing “American Pie” while the whole restaurant sang along. The bar owner hired him. After that, the chiropractic student began performing again on the side.
He got approved to play at Margaritaville and also played at Jerry’s Tiki Hut, Aunt Catfish on the River, and Burgey’s Tiki Hut, where a cover of “Country Roads” recorded there went viral on TikTok.
He remembers, “I was so freaking excited that I had to leave Nashville that night. I couldn’t stay because I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I was so enlightened by Broadway. I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here before I pass out.’” This was in March of 2021.
Coming from a small town, the lights and music of lower Broadway, Nashville, blew the country boy away.
Once he got to Colorado, Van Slee Googled and emailed every venue on Broadway. Surprisingly, the renowned Uncle John Taylor, the entertainment director for Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, got back to him.
“[Taylor] calls himself the dream-maker because he makes people’s dreams come true,” Van Slee notes.
Uncle John scheduled a tryout for Van Slee when he was returning from his internship. He sang one of the few country songs he knew, Billy Currington’s “Good Directions,” and was hired on the spot.
“I thought it was going to be this really chill thing because he said to come to Tootsie’s at 10:00 in the morning in the back room. I get there and it’s packed with a full-piece band. They bring me into the VIP section. They ask me what I was going to play, and I said ‘Good Directions.’ We threw down,” he confesses.
Van Slee got the crowd going with David Alan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and then went to the back room where he played “Mamma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
Uncle John asked when he was coming back and Van Slee said “June.” Van Slee played the next day at Rippy’s and then drove home to graduate from chiropractic school.
A month later, Uncle John calls him and advises, “Hey Doc, I need you here now. I’ll give you a place to stay and a band.”
He left Florida, moved to Nashville, and was immediately enrolled in “Honky Tonk School.” (Yes, it is a real thing where a training band works with up-and-coming country artists.) Van Slee learned how to play on Broadway, all while studying for the chiropractic board exams.
To be fortunate enough to attend Honky Tonk School is a privilege that few new artists are given, and Van Slee does not take it for granted.
“I got scheduled to play with Brad Wolf’s training band for a good two months and it was intense. He was so mean and I almost quit so many times. Now we’re like best buds. I always buy him a drink when I see him.”
Besides fronting several bar bands on lower Broadway and covering a plethora of fan favorites, Van Slee is a songwriter as well. He wrote his first song in high school after a breakup. The first song that he wrote that was recorded and put on Spotify was “For You,” a song that he wrote for his brother’s wedding.
“I recorded that song while I was in Dallas, Texas, taking my boards for chiropractic school. My Uber driver who picked me up and took me to my hotel happened to be a record producer. After I finished the test, he picked me up and we went back to his house and recorded the song.”
He wrote “Path of Love” in high school for a girl he liked, but never recorded it until 2020. That was when he was in a Bible study group, and there, he met a video guy from ESPN who recorded him singing the song.
Not too long ago, he broke his guitar on lower Broadway and a week later was playing the song “Today” at a writer’s round at the Commodore Grill. A Christian couple heard his story and they wrote him a check to cover the cost of a new guitar. “That’s how I got my mahogany Martin guitar,” he explains.
His latest song, “In the Bucket With All the Stickers on it” was written in a honky-tonk style so he could play it with the band because, If you want to hear your song / that’s a twenty dollar bill / in the bucket/ with all the stickers on it / And if you’re lovin’ what you hear, throw down a hundred dollar bill / in the bucket / with all the stickers on it.
“When I debuted that song, someone did put in a $100 bill,” he exclaims.
Van Slee’s does not possess your typical Nashville honky-tonk sound or vibe. It’s different than most of the artists that I’ve interviewed. He credits outliers like Tyler Childers, Jack Johnson, and especially Zach Bryan for his unique sound.
When not being a chiropractor or playing the bars in downtown Nashville, you can find Van Slee busking on Nashville’s pedestrian bridge, which is a favorite place for him.
“Playing in Nashville is always exciting because I am always playing with someone different, sometimes even musicians I have never met before. As long as we both know the songs, we just go for it.”
He continues, “All the musicians who are in all my recordings are just random Broadway musicians who just happen not to be playing a gig at that time.”
For a while, Van Slee used a Belmont student, Tanner Carlson, to produce his music for free. But now that Carlson has graduated and works for Blackbird Studios, he is no longer available to do the engineering pro bono.
I’ve interviewed many who have an interesting path to Nashville, but Donny Van Slee’s road may have the most twists and turns of any thus far. And while he is a doctor Monday through Thursday, it is on the weekends that can play and pursue his dream.
If you are ever on lower Broadway and hear someone refer to the band’s frontman as “Doc” or “Doctor Don,” you are probably listening to Dr. Donny Van Slee.
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