As a roving singer-songwriter, David Dondero tries to stay afloat in his Toyota Corolla as he drifts from town to town with his guitar, listening to crappy radio in between shows.
“I don’t live anywhere right now,” he says. “I am just a transient.”
Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Dondero employs a raw process: He sings what he knows, and he plays what he feels. His music is folk, but with classic country roots and influences like Jimmie Rodgers — and just a hint of punk, especially on his earlier work.
His guitar takes him up and down highways, wandering through towns and singing about love, heartbreak and loss. A decade on as a solo artist, Dondero says, he’s still discovering his instrument.
“I don’t know anything about the guitar,” he says. “I really don’t know how to play it, I’m still learning.”
This is plainly untrue, as a quick listen to any of Dondero’s records — but particularly his most recent, This Guitar — can attest.
He got his start as a drummer in punk bands in the 1980s and early ’90s, but then a friend who was purging himself of all material possessions to become a Franciscan monk mailed him a gift that would change his life. Dondero taught himself to play on that guitar, and took to it like a golden retriever to the ocean. By the mid-’90s, he’d decided to go it alone — his songs, his voice, his guitar.
“I did the first solo show, and I have been doing it ever since,” he says.
Since then, Dondero has released nine original studio albums — including 2013’s This Guitar — as well as another live album, and along the way earned a reputation as a songwriting heavyweight. In 2006, in fact, NPR’s All Songs Considered ranked him No. 10 on a list of the best living songwriters, alongside luminaries Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen.
“It’s one person’s opinion,” he says. “If I were to make a list, I don’t think I would be on it.”
The title track on the new record mirrors the way
Dondero feels about both his instrument of choice and the progression of his career; it’s a love/hate relationship, one that has given him so much and taken so much away: This guitar haunts me from the case/ I swear I put it back in its case/ But then it sweet-talks its way back into my life/ But every goddamn time I gotta pay the price/ Just to play, just to play/ Till I slip away.
The song is also something of a tongue-in-cheek joke — a song about the guitar that’s played entirely on piano, at least the first time you hear it.
“I thought it was funny to call the album ‘This Guitar’ and have the title track have no guitar,” he says. “But there is a guitar version at the end of the CD.”
Dondero looks at his records like photo albums, collections of his experiences. “It’s just one big thing,” he says. “I don’t even listen to them. It’s just a means of courage to purge yourself.”