[30 November 2003]
Once upon a time in America, the tradition grew of the lonesome troubadour, traveling across this nation, guitar in hand, singing and writing songs about the land and the experiences and the people found along the way. Probably the most famous example of this tradition would be Oklahoman Woody Guthrie (whose unused lyrics were set to new music in recent years by Wilco and Billy Bragg); a more modern example would be the music and life of Texan Townes Van Zandt.
Following in their famous footsteps, traveling the nation with his own personal version of that folk music tradition, comes the somewhat obscure David Dondero, who has gone from Clemson, South Carolina to Pensacola, Florida to San Francisco currently, with many stops elsewhere, working odd jobs along the way.
Knowing that he speaks from vagabond experience lends credence to his music, including the eleven new songs on his latest release The Transient. Most of these songs laud the transient lifestyle, while others just observe it.
Dondero opens with “Living and the Dead”, a country/bluegrass-folk number that tells of his trials and travails in choosing this road-worn troubadour’s existence, a curious mix of highway archaeology and poetry: “I play the skinny indie white boy blues in scuffed up military style shoes, I’m a convenience store connoisseur on a broken shoe string budget tour”.
This deceptively upbeat number is loaded up with lyrics that tell about the rollercoaster life of the transient performer. It’s not easy, we gather, having to drive 14 hours to play to the sound guy as he’s reading his book in an empty venue, nor would it be much fun to sleep every night in a truck. But Dondero takes it in stride, turning his situations into musical fodder, or as he puts it, “Just paraphrasing words just to leave behind a song”. His voice and able guitar picking sets you up not only to listen to his tales, but also to believe in them. There’s an attractive intimacy at work here, and a sound that wavers between fragility and power as needed to tell each musical tale.
Dondero once was part of the alt-rock band Sunbrain, who released three albums prior to breaking up in 1996. After forming the short-lived Flatwheelers (and a brief stint as drummer for This Bike is a Pipe Bomb), Dondero decided to go it alone as a solo folk act.
While touring with Sunbrain, Dondero first met Mike Mogis (circa 1994), who was putting together his own studio at the time. Circumstances prevented their working together again till now, but Dondero finally found his way back to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Mogis and several other local musician pals aided in the making of The Transient.
In the interim, Mogis and his Bright Eyes contingents have had a fair amount of success with David Dondero’s style (far more than he has had himself), and so there’s a bit of irony to the fact that Conor Oberst and other Bright Eyes members show up here backing Dondero (like Tiffany Kowalski on violin and Casey Scott on bass). Wolf Colonel’s Jason Anderson lends support on keys, while Gus’s Craig D. plays drums.
Somber comes with handclaps here. Witness the light reflection on death that is “Ashes on the Highway”. There’s a certain nonchalance to Dondero’s traveling ways; he’s one who wants no fancy funeral, no fuss about his eventual passing: “When I die, burn my body and sprinkle my ashes on the highway / Let the traffic spread the ashes in the ditches and the overpasses”. The idea is keep everything moving. Death doesn’t stop anything.
Perhaps the most beautiful song here is the poignant “20 Years”, a haunting tale of an ex-con out after doing two decades of prison time and finding that no one wants to hire him, that he’s a different man from his experiences, but that the riverboat horn remains the same.
Dondero has fun here as well. In “See It Clear”, a sort of freewheeling nonsensical treatise, he gives in to the temptation of the flesh, then stands for his mom’s critique of his songwriting.
The quiet ballad of “Less Than the Air” is spare, preaching happiness to be found in traveling and observing nature’s bountiful wonders rather than the traps of self-deprecation and easy misery. Dondero’s voice wavers like the wind itself as the song builds from basic voice and acoustic guitar to something with percussion and piano and backed vocals and whistling, then finally collapses into a debate about what tangelos might be. It remains a simple performance, and therein lies its charm.
Simplicity also is the key to Dondero’s ode to the healing powers of a North Carolina small town, “I’m Going Back to Wilmington”, wherein he recounts the comforts of a woman there, the music, and the water.
Another pretty one is the beguiling love song “The Stars Are My Chandelier”, in which Dondero flexes his poetic metaphor muscle in trying to describe a great love: “I could say my love is bigger than the big apple / Like oxyphenbutazone in Scrabble / Just like the stars are my chandelier / Just like these landscapes are my living room / Just like these highways are veins / I am the blood, I am the rain”.
“Vaporize” is almost tribal in its rhythms, a reflection on the missing body of failed mountain climber Naomi Uemura, who made the summit of Denali but never made it back down.
Perhaps my favorite here is the title track, inexplicably buried deep inside this CD’s offerings. It’s yet another song celebrating the traveling life, this one questioning the very search involved in always going to the end of the road and back again, not knowing “what’s for me” and only feeling good when in the act of going.
The closer is one that Woody Guthrie could appreciate: “Song for the Civil Engineer”. In this odd song for the road, Dondero reminds us that behind every snaky stretch of tar, concrete, and gravel, there was a civil engineer and crew working hard to lay it down.
To my ears, the only track that really doesn’t come across well is the repetitive “Dance of Spring”, a monotonous reminiscence of a dead lover now replaced by alcohol and drugs. The other ten are an eloquent bunch of songs celebrating the ups and downs of the traveling wayfarer life with its constant motion, its uncertainty alongside death, love, loss, and more.
David Dondero calls the whole country home, and has seen enough along the way to serenade it in song. He loves the road and its sometime miseries, but like any existential hero worth his weight, he’s determined to keep at it, survival being more than enough if fame isn’t immediately forthcoming.
The Transient is eloquent and enjoyable, simple and upbeat, yet full of clever and often poetic musings. Dondero has released enough music to be called a veteran songsmith now, and he manages to balance viewpoints well as he takes on “the life of the road,” walking that fine line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. And, as I said earlier, living it, he’s earned the right to sing about and chronicle it.
Musically, things remain simple but varied enough to retain your interest. Dondero is a solid picker in live performance, and you sense that. The musicians that back him here lend warmth to the proceedings and their ensemble work never overpowers the folk-singer’s lone voice and guitar that is (and should remain) the focus of the record. Mogis does a nice job of protecting the fragility that makes Dondero’s work appealing. The end product remains unpolished, to a certain extent.
Fans of Americana (or even No Depression and alt-country) will find much to like in The Transient, as will those who like the simpler side of Ryan Adams or the Mermaid Avenue projects by Bragg and Wilco. That he manages to be both eccentric and cozily inviting is a testament to the quiet folk talents of David Dondero, who takes this long-revered tradition and carries that torch into the modern day with charm and aplomb.