David Dondero will be nursing a broken right hand when he arrives in Tampa to headline Summer Jam Music Festival. He earned it a month ago after punching a bar in Annapolis, Md. And before you dismiss him as a reckless troubadour wasting away his talents in dive after dive, take a moment to hear his side of the story.
“I was angry about the [Aurora, Colo.] shooting and heard these guys piping up about how they still support guns,” he explained in a recent CL phone interview. “So I was like, ‘How many times are these idiots gonna get up on their pedestal and talk about how great guns are after a bunch of people get shot in a theater?’ Fuck this.”
So I asked about legitimate sportsmen. “If you’re a big man deer hunter,” Dondero, 43, fired back, “then why don’t you go try and shoot it with an arrow?”
That fervor, passion and eccentricity marks every step of Dondero’s already rich influence on the Great American Songbook. Over the course of 14 years, he’s painted nine solo LPs with colorful narratives about some of America’s greatest cities (the Florida-centric “South Of The South”), humorous pleas against idiots adopting pets (“Not Everybody Loves Your Doggie Like You Do”), and heartbreaking tales of love between friends (“Jackson Crosses”). He’s listed by NPR alongside Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Tom Waits as one of the world's best living songwriters.
Still, Dondero — who’s been known to make ends meet by working odd jobs in between tours — gives off not one breath of entitlement or haughtiness during our 20-minute chat. Instead, he sounds grateful for the supportive friends and fans he has all over the country and even rattles off a list of more than 10 cities — including Pensacola — when I asked about his “hometown.”
He doesn’t own a car and lives a “hand-to-mouth” existence, but he’s somehow devoid of any major gripes regarding how the digital age seems to be leading toward free music consumption. He does, however, think iTunes charges too much, so he built a new website and made nearly all his recorded output available for streaming or download via Bandcamp.com, which has enabled him to make some money on the side.
“People can listen, and if they like what they hear, then they can donate, or not,” he said. “But the best way to support artists is to spend money at the door — buy things directly from them.” It’s a populist take on a sore subject for financially reeling major record labels — and it suits Dondero perfectly.
He literally sees almost each aspect of the political spectrum as he traverses the country’s varied corners and crevices, and while he detests the “Republicans’ use of religion as a tool to sway wage slaves into voting for them,” Dondero refuses to believe that all hope for his country is lost. “[It’s] crazy that these greedy, wealthy people have the audacity to use religion and the teachings of Jesus on their stump,” he said before softening his tone. “But I don’t think America is fucked — I have a lot of friends trying to do good, progressive, and thoughtful things.”
That keen observation and desire to explore both the sunny and twisted sides of each scenario he’s faced with is paramount to Dondero’s songwriting, and it’ll be on display this Saturday — even with his strumming hand on the mend. In fact, the injury may have unintended benefits. “It’s got me to play simpler, which is probably a good step back,” he explained. “It could be a good thing in the long run.”
Click here to read about five other bands you should make sure not to miss at Summer Jam 8.