The free-wheeling David Dondero keeps moving while addressing the divided state of America
*Editor’s note: The address that appeared in print was the wrong Natty Greene’s location. The correct address is 2003 Yanceyville St., Greensboro. The article has been updated online.
Songs about dislocation and rootlessness are nothing new. But singer-songwriter David Dondero probably lives it a little more deeply than your average guitar-toting troubadour. Dondero has been touring the country for over 20 years, starting out as the drummer in the Florida band This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb before going on as a solo artist in the late ‘90s when he wanted to begin focusing on his songwriting. He’s gotten to all 50 states, several times over. Dondero will be passing through North Carolina next week, playing a show at Natty Greene’s in Greensboro on April 24.
Wandering from town to town is part of the job of a working musician, and some artists experience that restless roaming as a variety of romantic isolation. The road album is a well-worn cliche because the life of a touring musician is something like the world of an astronaut, seeing the world turn while floating in one’s own little bubble, living just a little removed from everything. Some of Dondero’s songs capture that detached feeling, conveying a mix of awe at the vastness of America and the wide world, while also suggesting a sense of despair and struggle, relationship woes, anxiety about the future, humor and a dusky vision of life. If a reincarnated Woody Guthrie were to plop down in 2018, he might do something akin to what Dondero’s up to, writing songs that celebrate the American landscape, taking aim at greed and hypocrisy, and puzzle over love.
I spoke to Dondero earlier this week by phone. He was somewhere in the midwest, getting ready to head up to Canada before dropping back down to the U.S., through the South, and out and up again to the Pacific Northwest. He’ll be returning to Australia in July.
“I’m a working musician, and I try to work as much as I can, so it kind of makes sense to keep going to another town,” Dondero said. “It’s an ongoing travel situation.”
That situation is further intensified by the fact that Dondero is (for this tour at least) essentially without a home base to return to, having recently moved out of his last house. Dondero’s life is the road. At 48, he mostly travels solo, which can create psychic/emotional strains but does give him time to get meditative on long drives. And, having made friends and connections all over the country, he has loads of places he can land temporarily while in transit to the next gig.
Dondero’s music is homespun. His songs are pleasingly unpolished, dipping into DIY indie folk-punk with touches of neo-old-time, country-rock and more, all colored in flashes of humor and poetic ruminations. There’s a dramatic candor in some of his songs, like on “Bio-illogical Father,” which sketches out a broken and bitter relationship with an uninvolved parent. “Some things in this life you just can’t get over, even when you get a whole lot older,” he said.
“Rothko Chapel,” off of his 2007 album Simple Love, is a moving reflection on how the mysteries of art, faith, and devotion can contain an impenetrable darkness that’s similar to the ultimate unknowability of other people. It’s deep, funny and kind of depressing. Another song with that same mix of qualities is “This Guitar,” in which Dondero treats his guitar as the thing that has forced him to make a slew of questionable life decisions, ultimately leaving him poor, adrift and alone. And Dondero sings with a voice that shivers and heaves, at times evoking a slightly more self-restrained version of Conor Oberst. One minute Dondero might bring to mind the cool reserve of Karl Blau and another he might spur a comparison to the manic rawness of Jad Fair.
It’s all part of Dondero’s effort to represent what he calls “the fleeting movie of your life.”
If Dondero routinely tackles tricky subjects in his songs, the current political divide in America is presenting the songwriter with a challenge. His relentless touring gives him a different perspective on the United States.
“I still am amazed by traveling,” Dondero said. “I see the country — over and over — in fine detail. I’m like a fly on the wall everywhere. And I feel like I have a right to speak up about what’s going on. I’m a very patriotic person, and it really scares me what’s going on.”
In response, Dondero is hashing out a batch of political songs.
“It’s a string of protest songs, which are somewhat comedic. I’m trying to find a comedic light through this darkness,” Dondero said. “I can’t help but write songs about what’s going on right now. But I’m trying to not completely bum out the crowd and myself.”
See David Dondero at Natty Greene’s, located at 2003 Yanceyville St., Greensboro, on Tuesday, April 24, at 6 p.m. nattygreenes.com.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.