As integral to the culture as the endless paved arteries crisscrossing between coasts coursing with this nation's vitality, our itinerant nature has cast its story upon our land's expansive canvas countless times. From Woody Guthrie's possessive paean through Bruce Springsteen, for whom the car keys opened an uncertain path toward the promised land, in numerous iterations and combinations, writers and musicians have surveyed our rootless soul and the seeds sown roadside along the way.
Reverberating the echoes of its antecedents, Dondero's new album, The Transient, is an alternately loving/cheeky "Wish You Were Here" postcard from a highway-bound "convenience store connoisseur/On a broken shoestring budget tour." Riding a folk-blues strum, Dondero's lyrics are a faucet of allusions, metaphors and casual observations that convey his bittersweet passion for this country and its denizens, which he breaks open like a fortune cookie in search of a bigger message -- or at least a witty epigram.
"It's about the dream of the road -- the feeling of the entire scene, the scene of the entire country -- not being stuck in any town, being able to drive from San Francisco to New York and back," says Dondero by cell phone as he rides up I-95 outside Baltimore. "It is hard, granted, like when you break down or you run out of money, you know? It sucks. You get sick. But it's absolutely better than anything else . . . I can't sit around in one place too long before I go crazy."
Like many a traveling troubadour, Dondero's wanderlust is fueled by history and regret, speeding forward heedless of the shadows dancing in the rearview mirror. Only Dondero's take is not so much wistful as what-the-fuck. With the homespun, honest charm of Townes Van Zandt and the wry social eye of Ray Davies, Dondero's songs have offbeat, ingratiating wit, a funny elbow in your side.
"Death has been very influential in all this, because at an early age I had a lover die," he says with a near-imperceptible quiver in his voice. "When you see your lover die and be put into the ground, it kind of shows you where it all ends up, and it shows that you don't have much time. So I just want to go for broke.
"I'm in love with a lover that's dead' -- I'm still in love with that person but also I'm in love with this living now," he continues, quoting the song's last line. "I'm in love with the living and the dying, and this whole process, the whole fleetingness of it all. It's just a blip in time, you just have to try to electrify that blip."
Dondero's story stretches back almost a decade to when he played with an indie alt-rock quartet called Sunbrain while a student at Clemson University in South Carolina. Sunbrain was signed to Grass Records and, through that experience, he got to know bands in the Omaha, Nebraska, scene through Ted Stevens (Lullaby for the Working Class, Cursive), who heard one of their albums and invited them first to play and later to record a split seven-inch single with Stevens' then-band Polecat. While in town, Dondero also got to know a young pre-Bright Eyes Conor Oberst, who at the time fronted his own band on Grass called Commander Venus.
"I remember seeing a plaque at his house for 50 cassettes sold for Lumberjack Records [the early precursor to Saddle Creek, current home to Bright Eyes, Cursive, and The Faint] that his dad made him," Dondero recalls. "They'd come down and play shows with us through the years. We've all kept in touch and become very good friends."
Indeed, Dondero received an executive producer credit on Read Music/Speak Spanish, Oberst's 2002 emo masterpiece with side band Desaparecidos ("I think I went out and bought beer," Dondero quips). And for The Transient, Oberst offers some backing vocals, while Saddle Creek über-producer Mike Mogis (Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes) mans the knobs on the album.
Though he readily commends Mogis for his help with "complementary textures, little highlights and spices," Dondero clams up on the subject of Oberst, saying far too much has been made of their friendship in the press -- despite the fact that they share an uncannily similar vocal style, right down to the fractured quaver of their tenor.
After four albums and nearly six years together, Grass Records' demise (it sold out, dropped all its bands, and changed its name to Wind-Up, eventual home of Creed) prompted Sunbrain's dissolution. Dondero then joined DIY punk powerhouse This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb on drums, writing his own songs on the side. Before long he was opening for his own band on tour, honing his chops and his style, before finally quitting This Bike to earn his wings as a solo acoustic performer four years ago.
"I did it sort of guerrilla-folk style, kind of getting in people's faces, and if they're not going to listen, sitting in their lap. Being very confrontational about it," says Dondero. "[It was] full of extreme highs and lows -- from playing for five completely apathetic crusty punks with facial tattoos and their backs to you to playing for a houseful of politically active vegan lesbians in D.C. that love you to opening for some metal band in [Kansas City] with a triple bass drum and satin MTV jackets."
After two self-released albums, Dondero caught a break while playing a subway station show where Future Farmer Records president Dennis Mitchell heard him and signed him on to release 2001's Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun.
With some distribution and publicity finally in place, the album earned him his first widespread critical accolades. Highlights include the autobiographical "Analysis of a 1970's Divorce," which dissects conventional thinking prior to the sexual revolution ("They thought marriage was the proper thing to do/And in reality they probably just wanted to screw"), and "If You Break My Heart," keyed to the chorus, "If you break my heart/You pay for it."
More full-bodied than Shooting at the Sun, The Transient enriches Dondero's rumbling guitar style with lingering violin, sonorous organ lines and snappy snare drums that augment his hard-won insights. From "Ashes on the Highway," which suggests the death-wish disposition of his remains, to the album-closing "Song for the Civil Engineer," the album maps the search for meaning and identity across the seamless byways whose breadth and persistence mock our own mortality. Its set piece is the country-folk waltz "Dance of Spring," which recalls a lost lover, musing, "I remember the sweet sound/Now I hear nothing."
"It's about replacing a dead lover with booze and drugs or just chasing after something you're never going to get again trying to fill that hole," he says. "That kind of set the tone for my life, trying to live that lifestyle, the life of being on the road all the time. I want to be like Jack Kerouac. I've read every one of his books, and he's influenced my life directly. I want to live that lifestyle of being on the road all the time for the rest of my life."
Spinning off into more traffic, Dondero admits he may not find what he's looking for or even recognize it if he found it, but he does echo Kerouac in one respect -- he sees the road as its own purpose, extending in every direction and leading as far as the eye can see.