[3 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The cover photo is of David Dondero in a trucker cap and flannel shirt, in front of a silo of some kind, looking solemn. You can read hardship into his expression. It could be a news photo for an article about the state of working class America. Times are hard. But look, in the background, there’s a rainbow.
A Pre-Existing Condition is an album of folk music, featuring hard-traveling troubadour Dondero, his acoustic guitar, and occasionally some friends, playing mainly covers and a few playful originals. Coming just a half year after his last album, # Zero with a Bullet, it’s a stop on the endless road, a snapshot in time—not as driven as his other albums, but just as devoted to the way songs can chronicle the lives of people and places.
Sometimes there is hardship in the background but sweetness out in front, like the tender version of Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’”, with Dondero singing at his softest, or the slightly more bittersweet, still gently approached “Don’t Cry No Tears”, the Neil Young Zuma track that Dondero has been routinely playing live for years. Then there is one of the absolute classic songs about the rich and poor struggling over resources, a chronicle of the damage done to people’s livelihoods in the name of progress, with the stroke of a pen. That’s Woody Guthrie’s Robin Hood tale “Pretty Boy Floyd”, with its forever relevant observations on which crimes matter most: “You’ll never see an outlaw drive a family from their home”.
Among the covers are several all-time classics, actually: Jimmie Rodgers’s “T for Texas”, Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”, and “(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone”, another Charley Pride hit. All are performed with a light touch. Dondero being always his own man, he covers Jawbreaker right there with Guthrie, Dylan, and Elizabeth Cotton.
These are songs of America: of trains, of the landscape, of working people and their love lives. His own songs fit in well, whether it’s a tribute to a legend (“Song for Buck Owens”), a lightweight but caustic jab (“Not Everybody Loves Your Doggie Like You Do”), or a death song that serves as an opposite, almost, of the Dylan track (“Hand Me Over to the Undertaker”).
The album ends with the title track. This healthcare blues has to it a call for class war: “It’s the rich against the poor / And their days are gonna come / We’re breaking down the mansion doors”. As on the album overall, on this song Dondero underscores the pain and frustration behind American blues and folk music. He puts death songs, ramblin’ ‘round songs, heartbreak songs, and protest songs in a contemporary context, where capitalism keeps us chasing “golden carrots” and subjects our mortal, transitory bodies to a kind of slavery.