Singer-songwriter David Dondero discusses his rep as a 'drifter'

Erin Rossiter, Athens Banner-Herald, June 2007

You can just picture David Dondero shrugging his tired shoulders on the end of the telephone line.

After all, the call followed a day of carpentry work for Dondero, who is staying in Wilmington, N.C., between tours. And, the question, well, he probably expected it.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," he said. "If I were to make a list, I wouldn't be on it."

He'd been asked about a story last year by NPR, which included him as one of the "Best Living Songwriters." His name at No. 10 appeared behind Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney.

There were some lesser known singers on there, to be sure, but none less so than No. 10 himself, the performer spending his summer with his hands at work digging for cash rather than picking at instruments.

"I'd love to make a living off of music. It would be awesome to," he said, but, then again, Dondero clarified, "it's not all about the money."

For Dondero, 37, it's about making the music, too.

This desire is what drove him to focus on his solo career around 1998, following the split of the band Sunbrain and his work with other bands.

Russ Hallauer, who today owns Athens-based Ghostmeat Records, performed with Dondero in the band when the friends lived and went to school in Clemson, S.C. They had frequently traveled to the Classic City to devour the live music scene.

Ultimately, Hallauer relocated his record label here, while Dondero went from one city to the next - Athens, Atlanta and Pensacola among them. Though he performed with other groups, it was not enough. Dondero kept a well of his own material he wanted to play.

"It was necessary at the time," Dondero said, "I had all these songs and I didn't want to wait around for people to do them."

Since that time he has developed a small yet devout following, thanks to the low-key album releases from small record labels, including Ghostmeat, Future Farmer and Team Love.

It's not clear in conversation whether he prefers being relatively unknown, or is simply used to shrugging off his innate ability to write music. Seriously likening his creative process to a routine more natural than nature's call itself, Dondero could not explain precisely how he develops new material.

"I don't know. I don't even remember half the time how I wrote a song," he said. "You write stuff down, fiddle around on the guitar, before you know it you have a song. It happens all different ways. There is no set pattern or time of day."

Furthermore, he credits his musical know-how to others. Though a performer of drums, guitar and, lately, the mandolin, the indie artist says watching friends, asking questions and "cheating" by using others' techniques is how he has learned to play. But the lyrics and arragements suggest otherwise.

As an example, consider the solo brass sound that punctuates the title track of his latest album, "South of the South." It moves in and out of lyrics about steamy Florida. Dripping with the humidity and dodging the stormy moods, the first-person narrator makes a Pogo Stick hop from North Miami to Ybor City, even offering to cut a slice of the dense air for a friend to breathe.

Asked about the new material, its creator simply says, "It's not like a mass-selling record ... It's pretty under the radar. Either that or people think its sucks."

He likes the sound, nevertheless. So does Hallauer, who appreciates Dondero's artform, which strips down one reality scape after another.

"I view his writing as absolutely unique and painfully honest," said Hallauer, whose label put out three of Dondero's albums, including a re-release.

"He does not depend on imagination or conjecture. His stories are folk music in the truest sense in that they only describe first-hand experience and things that effect him directly. There is no facade of art or industry between Dondero and the listener. To write like this so consistently for so long is dangerous and brave and commands respect from anyone that has attempted to pick up a guitar and write a song."

With many of Dondero's songs and lyrics hinging on travel and the sites, smells and sounds of geography, it's no real wonder the media and music critics frequently peg him as a "drifter."

But that's not exactly how he'd categorize himself.

Or, maybe it is.

"I guess it's true. I've been living on the road for a long time, between sketchy situations (as far as steady income goes)," he said, of the musical life. "You get home, do a tour, make a little money. (But) the money runs out... quick."

Given the chance to live from gig to gig on the road, or stay in one place, his answer is clearer than any.

"I get more tired of the humdrum, stuck in one spot life," he said.

His being in one place following a series of tour dates around the United States, Europe and Great Britain did help Hallauer bring him to 2007 AthFest for a performance. He is scheduled to play at 4:40 p.m. Saturday on the outdoor stage.

Though not an artist considered local to the city, and his music not necessarily Athens by sound, Dondero's addition to the festival's lineup shows the talent level and musical diversity AthFest and its CD-compilation strives for.

"I'm not sure his music reflects Athens at all, but I feel Athenian musicians can learn a lot from listening to David's songs," Hallauer said.

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