Wander Lore

Folk singer David Dondero finds his songs the old-fashioned way -- by roaming the country's highways and byways

David Dondero gets around. In his 32 years, he's traversed the continent many times over, traveling from Anchorage, Alaska, to Pensacola, Fla. Along the way he's resided in a slew of American burgs -- including San Francisco, from which he reluctantly uprooted himself last September for a life of nonstop touring.

"I've lived in a lot of places," Dondero says during an interview at his favorite Mission District spot, Oh So Little Cafe. "San Francisco is the only place I didn't want to leave. This is a liberating city. Then again, I suppose it could be a big cage for a lot of people. That's kind of why I had to break free. I figured if I was going to get [my label] behind me, I needed to break free of rent and live out of my truck -- just to do all I can to sell records and play."

On Shooting at the Sun With a Water Gun, Dondero's third CD overall and first for S.F.'s Future Farmer label, he sings, "This world is not my home, [I'm] just passing through it." The songs on all three of his albums reflect this nomadic ideal, documenting the vagabond adventures of hitchhiking and train hopping, of truckers on speed and ancient tour vans. He also delves into what happens at the stops along the way, crafting snapshots of the many barflies, misfits, and everyday people he encounters on his journeys. Like some modern-day Kerouac, Dondero is a man who writes on the road -- often from behind the wheel. And you thought motorists with cell phones were bad.

Joe Raaen


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"I write when I'm driving, which is kind of dangerous, I think -- especially when I'm driving down a curvy mountain road and trying to write ideas down on my notepad. That's why I need to get one of these things," says the scruffy singer, pointing to his interviewer's microcassette recorder.

While Dondero's life-documents may come off a bit casual at first listen, closer inspection reveals clever, insightful lyrics as well as buoyant, catchy melodies. Also, like the best bohemian folk singers, Dondero makes music informed by experience, taken from autobiographical events and overheard anecdotes. "Most of them are little stories that I've seen, or my own story," he says. "There's not a whole lot of embellishment -- except for maybe the end of 'The Waiter.'"

"The Waiter" is a vintage Dondero vignette, found on Shooting at the Sun. Over manic guitar strums, violin vamps, and percussive slaps, Dondero documents a true-life horror: Apparently, while he was bartending in New Orleans in 2000, one of his service industry compatriots was mugged when returning home from work. Unluckily for one of the assailants, the waiter was packing a weapon peculiar to his field: a wine key. When he punched his attacker in the temple, the robber started twitching; the would-be thief's accomplices freaked and hauled him away. "The corkscrew thing happened," explains Dondero. "But the rest [of the song] is conjecture. We were guessing his friends took him to the river, rather than take him to the hospital and get busted."

Dondero resided in New Orleans for a year, then spent another 12 months in San Francisco, where he lived on Albion Street and bartended at the nearby Casanova. Images from both cities pop up on Shooting at the Sun.San Francisco references include such 16th Street fixtures as sidewalk troubadour Carlos Guitarlos and the infamous Swan, a scraggly, homeless disseminator of one-sheet rants who inspired Dondero's "Pied Piper of the Flying Rats."

"Swan would feed the birds underneath my bedroom window every afternoon," remembers Dondero. "It was just amazing, that flock of birds, thousands flying up into a gray cloud of life."

As for New Orleans, Dondero name-checks Big Easy dives like Molly's and Checkpoint Charlie. He funnels a host of experiences into the song "The Real Tina Turner," which takes its title from a conversation Dondero overheard in a Pensacola bar, where a former stripper talked about how she was a "real Tina Turner" back in her day. One line -- "If it wasn't for the liquor and the weed/ I never would've made it through the winter" -- came straight from the mouth of a friend who'd just finished a job in Alaska. Another verse, about the state of New Orleans back in the '60s, derived from Lance, a guy who'd served as doorman of Cafe Sbisa since the Korean War.

"Lance had great stories," remembers Dondero, who claims he was the only straight guy working at the gay bar. "One night I was talking to him at the podium out front, and he looked down Decatur and commented on how there used to be clotheslines stretched across the street, with prostitutes and sailors everywhere. There were no parking meters, and you could park your car on the sidewalk and just leave it. I just thought that was a cool image, so I put it in the song."

Ted Stevens, a member of Omaha, Neb., bands Cursive and Lullaby for the Working Class, once postulated that the mysterious Dondero was raised by wolves in the Appalachians. In truth the longtime musician is a native of Duluth, Minn., and has been making music since fourth grade.

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