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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Singer and songwriter David Dondero has been touring the world and putting out records for nearly two decades. Critics and other musicians praise him, and he's been on a handful of record labels. But he's still far from a household name and now, he's doing everything on his own. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters has his story.

CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: On a cold Sunday night in the college town of Ames, Iowa, a couple dozen people gather at DG's Tap House. David Dondero just pulled into town, driving an early 1990s Toyota Corolla.

DAVID DONDERO: It came with a 160,000 and now, it's gone - yeah, I put 10,000 on. Now, it' s got 170,000. It's a pretty good car. It just, it has an issue with the starter and the battery cable terminals. I got to mess with that crap tomorrow.

MASTERS: Often, he'll book a tour from his cellphone between cities.

DONDERO: Reno; and Monroe, Utah; and Pueblo, Colo.; and Denver and Omaha; then here. So it's good to be back in the Midwest.

MASTERS: In Ames, he plays a career-spanning set including some from a new record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS GUITAR")

DONDERO: (Singing) This guitar took me 'round the world, got me money and it got me depressed and now it left me empty-handed at the end of the line. Stranded alone, broken out of my mind.

MASTERS: 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.

DONDERO: Yeah, so it's weird. It's a juggling act of holding employment and losing employment and trying to make it all happen. But this guitar was kind of like a reflection of that, you know. Like, this damn guitar, here I am again back down to nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS GUITAR")

DONDERO: (Singing) This guitar taunts me from the case. I swear to God I put it back in its place, but then it sweet talks its way back into my life. But every damn time I've got to pay the price. Just to play...

MASTERS: Dondero has been playing solo for most of his career. Singer and 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 has them all.

JOLIE HOLLAND: Dave's first record was incredibly brilliant and then the last record that he put out is incredibly brilliant.

MASTERS: Holland recently recorded a cover of Dondero's "The Real Tina Turner."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE REAL TINA TURNER")

HOLLAND: (Singing) I condensed my whole life in a gym bag, that was stolen tonight from your car. My wallet, my keys, my shoes and photos, they even took the voter registration card. Put my mouth into a smile and let my heart drive. Buy some new used clothes and I'll be fine. But here's to the thief that took my old life. I was a real Tina Turner in those times. A little Tina Turner in my mind...

MASTERS: 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 has a manager and booking agents who do their jobs.

HOLLAND: That allows me to do my job, which is to write music and keep a band together and do everything else that I have to do to in order to lead the band and write the songs and keep myself alive in this environment where it's just so incredibly difficult to pay the rent.

MASTERS: That is if you choose to settle down and pay the rent.

DONDERO: I was with labels with managers that are always talking about the next level and trying to be in the big time. And I'm happy enough being able to float my own boat and roll around and play in small clubs to people that want to hear it. And doing it this way has taken away all that kind of pressure of trying to get to the next level, whatever that is.

MASTERS: Dondero may not want any of that. But David Bazan, who made a name for himself fronting the band Pedro the Lion, has a wife and kids.

DAVID BAZAN: I mean, there's no net for Dave, of any kind, except for his own constitution.

MASTERS: Bazan says he admires his friend. He first met him when they toured Europe in 2008. Bazan says he watched him every night.

BAZAN: Whoever's in the room, even if they don't know about him prior, are just kind of captivated and it energizes him. And I could see it over and over again; him being plagued with self-doubt, you know, when he's not on the stage, when he's kind of going about his day. And then he gets up on stage and it's a reminder to him, like, oh yeah, I'm kind of made for this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE SEEN THE LOVE")

MASTERS: You could see it at the sparsely attended Iowa show and you can hear it on his records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE SEEN THE LOVE")

DONDERO: (Singing) Drive around this country, pretending like we're famous. Wearing our disguises for the people we are not. And I know you're just letting go...

MASTERS: Dondero seems happy doing things the way he does.

DONDERO: If you do it my way, you're, like, even in songs you can go some different direction every day. 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. You don't ever have to do the same thing twice if you don't want to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING AND THE DEAD")

MASTERS: For now, David 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. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVING AND THE DEAD")

DONDERO: (Singing) I play the skinny Indie white boy blues in a scuffed up military style shoes. I'm a convenient store connoisseur on a broken shoe string budget...

NEARY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. BJ Leiderman wrote our theme music. I'm Lynn Neary.

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