David Dondero performs at D.G.'s Tap House in Ames, Iowa.
David Dondero performs at D.G.'s Tap House in Ames, Iowa. John Pemble
Guitarist and songwriter David Dondero is a transient. He's lived all over the country, from Alaska to Texas. When he's not touring, he finds work — most recently as a carpenter in California. But it never lasts. Music always finds its way back into his life.
"It's a juggling act of holding employment and losing employment and trying to make it all happen," Dondero says. He points to his own song "This Guitar" as reflection of the lifestyle he's chosen: "This damn guitar! Here I am again back down to nothing."
Dondero has been playing solo for most of his career. Singer-songwriter Jolie Holland remembers meeting him in the late 1990s outside a show in British Columbia. He was selling records out of the trunk of his car. She says she has them all.
"Dave's first record was incredibly brilliant, and the last record he put out is incredibly brilliant," Holland says.
Holland has taken a different path from Dondero: She's signed to a respected label with a roster that includes Tom Waits and Mavis Staples. She also has a manager and booking agents who handle the business side of things.
"That allows me to do my job," Holland says. "Which is to be an artist and write music and keep a band together and do everything else I have to do in order to lead the band and write the songs and keep myself alive, and continue to do these things in this environment where it's incredibly difficult to pay the rent."
That is, if you choose to settle down and pay the rent — something that Dondero isn't exactly interested in.
"I was with labels," he says, "with managers who were always talking about the next level and trying to be in the big time or all this jazz. It's really kind of a ridiculous idea at this point. I'm happy enough being able to float my own boat and roll around in small clubs to people that want to hear it."
Dondero says living an amorphous life without high expectations has allowed him to rest a little easier.
"I'm perfectly content in that atmosphere," he says. "Doing it this way has taken away all that pressure of trying to get to the next level, whatever that is."
Dondero may not want any of that, but musician David Bazan — who made a name for himself fronting the band Pedro the Lion — has a wife and kids, and needs a sense of stability.
"There's no net for Dave, of any kind," Bazan says. "Except for his own constitution."
Bazan says he admires his friend, whom he initially met when they toured Europe in 2008. He says he watched Dondero perform every night.
"It's just an undeniable thing," Bazan says. "Whoever's in the room, even if they don't know about him prior, are just kind of captivated. It energizes him. I could see it over and over again, him being plagued with self-doubt when he's not on the stage, kind of going about his day. Then, he gets up on stage and it's a reminder to him: 'Oh yeah, I'm kind of made for this.'"
Dondero seems happy doing things the way he does.
"Even in songs, you can feel something or go some different direction every day," he says. "You don't have to get stuck in the same words, or the same pattern. You can change it up every time if you want. Especially if you do it my way. You don't ever have to do the same thing twice if you don't want to. Just do it different every time."
For now, Dondero is on the road, on another tour with no end in sight, taking it a show at a time, looking for a place to settle down ... until he gets restless.