Leave it to David Dondero to title an album # Zero With a Bullet. The always-moving folk singer has long poked fun at his own lack of success, in a sometimes caustic way. This is the guy who seven years ago sang about driving 14 hours to play to just the sound guy at the club, who was reading a book. This album’s title track “# Zero With a Bullet” tells a similar tale: “Got lost on the road / No records got sold.” The song has as its setting today, when it’s easy for anyone to make a record, easy for any musician to find people who’ll promise you success, and harder to maintain a living as a musician. As always, though, Dondero’s pointing the finger at himself as much as anyone. “I’ve been known to blow it,” he sings.
# Zero With a Bullet also sounds like it could be the title of a long-lost dimestore crime novel, a pulpy tale of, say, a would-be superstar lead off into dark alleyways by dreams of success and a leggy blonde, inching ever closer to his inevitable demise. That too is an appropriate setting for Dondero’s songs, which on this seventh studio album are, as ever, populated by lonely souls and drifters struggling their way through the tougher corridors of life. As a songwriter he shares a kinship with hard-luck people. The first song on the album, which rushes out of the gate more forcefully than you might expect, is all about people taking comfort in the seedier side of nighttime, while living “normal” lives during the day. “Jesus from 12 to 6 / Jimmie Rodgers from 6 to midnight,” Dondero songs, “next up it’s a parlor trick / dice games in the neon lights.”
That affinity for people for whom life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine seems fueled by Dondero’s seeming desire to always be on the move. His songs capture places in detail, but also the feeling that life can be about grabbing a hold of the wind (or of a song, as he sometimes phrases it) and seeing where it takes you. “Wherever You Go” is his traveller’s anthem, a litany of places he’s gone and experiences he’s had, with the chorus, “wherever you go / then there you are.”
This traveller’s-eye view of America brings with it a preference for movement over settling down, for freedom over restriction. There are times when you wonder if Dondero might be the perfect representative of the tendency among young people today to move around the country more often than their parents or grandparents did, but he would never fit into the role of generational spokesperson too comfortably. Still, his songs give clear credence to the argument that settling in one place too long breeds discontent, and that the everyday 9-5 working life can be a mask to hide that unhappiness behind. “Job Boss” portrays a common Dondero character, a low-level manager using petty power-moves, and the purchase of luxury items that he can’t afford, to hide his loneliness and anger. Dondero’s observation: “job boss ain’t living so free”.
Yet for all of the travelling in Dondero’s music there is a simultaneous celebration of the specific details of particular locales. Pehaps it’s the travelling life that keeps him focused on the way cities and states differ from each other. “Don’t Be Eyeballin’ My Po’boy, Boy” is essentially a guided tour of New Orleans through its po’boy sandwiches, with a gangster story thrown in the mix for fun.
The focus on places leads to as much disappointment as excitement, though. “Just a Baby in Your Momma’s Eyes” starts with Dondero decrying gentrification: “neighborhood is cleaning uo . I guess it means that rent is on the rise”. The most moving, and longest, song on the album is a contemplative ballad about a part of the country that isn’t changing as fast. “It’s Peaceful Here” describes Laramie, Wyoming; Gardener, Montana, Yellowstone and thereabouts as places that don’t change based on fashion whims. The changes are natural ones: the blowing of the wind, the changing of the seasons. “All of these changes will all be the same,” he observes. These are forces you can rely on. Steel guitar drives these feeling home, but so does Dondero’s voice, which carries the song’s melancholy well. You can almost hear the wind blowing, feel it bearing down to carry Dondero off to another town.