Thinking About David Dondero

During the formative years of my music taste, I took to a lot of artists that would stick with me for years to come. It's all the stuff that formed the foundation of my likes and dislikes, my eternal mental iPod, stuff that I've written about at length here. I still listen to most of those artists on a near-daily basis.

Except David Dondero. David Dondero is a Minnesotan singer-songwriter, one of the best alive, yet still pretty invisible. For some reason or another, I hadn't listened closely to Dondero in years. His song "Train Hop Flop" came up on shuffle the other day and I couldn't help but wonder where he's been, or why he slipped through the cracks.

I'm no Dondero expert, but the construction of his career seemed strange in my head. See, I found out about David Dondero because he was named as one of the direct, contemporary influences on Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes. In fact, I imagine that's how a lot of fans found his music. In fact, that fact gets repeated on every David Dondero album review on Pitchfork and I assume many other music review sites. That single fact was supposed to be a good rub, but the more it gets repeated, the more it seems like an inescapable ghost.

Because despite getting the props and support of a chart topping, pre-blogosphere pillar of indie rock, David Dondero is still playing random taverns & bars across the country today. And I wonder if, in hindsight, he wishes he wasn't attached to that fact, if he hates being written up as a Bright Eyes footnote. What started as just support from a younger, established act suddenly became the only notoriety Dondero was getting. Conor Oberst's blurb would be stuck onto his album covers, which was a lead-in that turned into a definition. How strange that must have been, to have inspired a young kid, see that kid attain fame and fortune, use that connection for attention, and then come to be defined by that connection while you continue to play bars.

Of course, that's a lot of emotion and pathos to read into an artist's career based on flimsy facts like touring schedule and label switches. But that's what we do with artists we like, especially those that are adept at conveying something that feels like truth. We imagine their lives, and sometimes, their frustrations with their career trajectory.

When I think of David Dondero, I kind of think of modern folk. I'm sure he has predecessors that embody the sound and ideal better, that's the way music history works, it's turtles all the way down. But at least for me and my musical education, he was one of the early guys that I could listened to and identify the roots. I would put on something like "Chainsaw Preacher," and though my limited knowledge could only describe it as "some kind of angry country," I could tell hear that anger hearken back to tradition. And I loved it, which was huge, because at that age, at my urban public school, everyone hated anything remotely country. We were conditioned to be nauseous at folksy, americana, bluegrass roots shit and here was something that played with those sounds. And I loved it.

That had to be the beginning for me of my understanding of folk as a genre, or even songwriting as a craft. I was blown away by the songwriting of Oberst & Kasher, as guys who could do these tortured confessionals in verse form, but with Dondero it was about his storytelling. I didn't feel like he was transcribing personal experience, but he was spinning some fun yarns, and that was enough.

It all comes back to "Train Hop Flop." It was the first Dondero song I listened to, and it still remains my favorite. Back then, before Amazon/iTunes/Spotify, this MP3 felt like the digital equivalent to a rare 7-inch at the bottom of a record store bin. Because no one was talking about it except for this tiny message board community I found. You couldn't find lyrics for it, the CD itself was tough to find and it wasn't available on any peer to peer networks. Even today, it's not on YouTube or Hypem. Of course, now it's easy to legally obtain, but for a while there I felt like one of only a couple thousand people that had heard this song. It was more than a song I liked, it was one that I invested in.

It's a super simple song, but strummed at an energizing brisk pace, with an infectious acoustic riff right off the bat. The bass and drums kick in perfectly and add real meat to the bones of Dondero's guitar work. Not that he needs it, since he plays with such a dynamic urgency that fills the track, an effect I wouldn't hear again until I discovered Jeff Mangum. Then there's the story itself: a couple of young kids, arrogant and naive, attempt to decide to hop passing boxcars to satiate their need for rebellion and adventure. It ends anti-climatically for them, as they chicken out part of the way through and end up taking a Greyhound bus back home, and, as the song goes, "the whole thing just stops."

It's a unique, short & sweet tale that would have done well in any of my creative writing workshops. In fact, I think I tried to write about train hops on a couple of occasions, but gave up to instead write about kleptomaniacs or some shit. Still, when it came up on shuffle, I was struck by how the energy still rang throughout. There was a beautiful, sleek, well engineered simplicity to it all. I wish more people heard it.