Ramblin' Gamblin' Men

David Dondero and Adam Gnade hit the road

For the millions who have come to worship its wanderlust sentiments, Jack Kerouac's On the Roadis a sacred text. The book is widely celebrated as the rejection of conformity, the pursuit of boundless freedom, and of the spiritual joy of true self-understanding. But that's not the only story emanating from Kerouac's famous 120-foot scroll. Indeed, the novel offers moments of rapture, but lingering in its conclusion is a feeling of tremendous sadness. Notions emerge that the romance of the road is hollow, that bliss is fleeting, that answers are unattainable, and that there are no "promised lands" to be found. For narrator Sal Paradise, every destination is a disappointment; freedom comes with a heavy cost.

The themes in On the Roadhave been picked up and re-envisioned countless times since its 1957 release, but recently two captivating storytellers — one an indie-rock veteran, the other a relative newcomer — have expressed a notably exquisite melancholy riffing off Kerouac's motifs of movement and isolation.

Narratively speaking, both David Dondero's South of the South and Adam Gnade's Run Hide Retreat Surrender are travelogues set almost entirely in America; the former's runs from east to west, the latter's from west to east, then back again. Both artists are avowed fans of Kerouac's writings, and each emphasizes that his album is, like On the Road, essentially autobiographical. Dondero's journey is the by-product of the life of a perpetually touring musician, and Gnade's borne from a desperate, deep-seated need to flee.

David Dondero pens tender travelogues.
Mark Reader
David Dondero pens tender travelogues.

Dondero, 36, has known little else besides a nomadic way of life. Born in Duluth, Minnesota, his parents divorced when he was a child, and his mother and stepfather raised him in a dozen towns in Illinois, New Jersey, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana before his 18th birthday. After a stint at Clemson University, he joined the band Sunbrain and began touring in the early '90s — around 1994, while playing in Nebraska, he befriended and creatively inspired a young Conor Oberst (South of the South was released on Oberst's Team Love label). After Sunbrain broke up, the singer spent years driving around the country in a Nissan pickup while performing, recording solo albums, and working countless odd jobs. Last year, he got himself an apartment and a steady bartending gig in San Francisco, but that situation didn't last long. Now, Dondero says over the phone from Austin, Texas — where he's been staying with a friend for the past month — he's reduced his possessions to a single suitcase full of clothes, a guitar, and an amplifier.

"When I'm stuck in some place for a while I gotta get outta there," he explains. "It ruins certain things and confuses certain things, and in other ways it brings clarity, thrusting yourself out there and taking a gamble. I think it's fine to be aimless and not have it figured out. I've always thought that as soon as you have it figured out, you're dead, you know?"

South of the South begins in Florida — coincidentally, the state where Jack Kerouac died in 1969. Over the folky acoustic picking, the eventual arrival of summer-lazy cymbal splashes, and the Latin-flavored trumpet on the title track, Dondero's gorgeously quavering tenor details a trek through Jupiter, Miami, Ybor City, Pensacola, and other Sunshine State cities. Letdowns occur; he meets "some mannequins who smelled of coconuts and Coppertone" and discovers a Cuban district once "a center for the arts/it's now a mall-like atmosphere, homogenous and insincere."

Small epiphanies occur in the spry "Journal Burning Party" and the Delta blues-infused "Let Go the Past," the lyrics in both echoing the incipient desire to leave old troubles behind. But the pensively picked "Brownsville Revival" swims in religious pessimism, as Dondero sings about a man who transports his dead daughter to a Florida church futilely hoping for her resurrection.

From there, Dondero heads through Texas and Arizona. He sings wryly of the bad choices he's made and the relationships he can't maintain in the coarse country-rockers "The One That Fell From the Vine" and "You Shouldn't Leave a Lover Alone Too Long." Soon he arrives at the spare "Laying Low in Ely, Nevada," which captures the bittersweet notion that the dream of paradise is elusive. "I've always been just a scratch-off ticket away/Always win another ticket to play/Then I come up empty and I throw that thing away," Dondero sings, "but at the Hotel Nevada, everything changed." That's because after slipping a fiver into the slot machine, he hits the jackpot. But as the tale slowly plays out, the gambler gets blind drunk and beds a fetching grifter who makes off with most of his winnings. In that hotel room — hungover, conned, and thousands of miles from the beginning of his journey — he finds himself right back where he started.

Adam Gnade's Run Hide Retreat Surrender odyssey starts in San Diego, California —the 30-year-old's now-abandoned hometown. His debut album is based on a four-month cross-country trip he embarked upon in August of 2004 with his girlfriend Jessie and good friend Rob. A music journalist, poet, and occasional home-recorder, Gnade's decision to hit the highway came from a desperate need to escape his horrible job, his damaged, drug-addled circle of friends, and his own debilitating depression, anxiety, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts. "I was rotting physically, mentally, just decaying and destroying myself," he writes in an e-mail exchange. "If I would've stayed, I would've killed myself."

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