Ever hitched a ride on the happy highway to anywhere-but-here? Is that a yes? Then most likely “that guy” you saw hypnotized by the hot dog rotisserie at that 7-11 in Phoenix or someplace off the side of the highway was none other than the self-proclaimed “convenient store connoisseur” David Dondero — the man doesn’t seem to stand still much. Bearing witness to his wandering, road-weary soul, his second Farmer release The Transient is every bit as dusty and traveled as the great American interstate and as restless as the folks who have to see every inch of it for themselves.
Highways, byways, dead ends, dirt roads and driveways — they are measured here in the sputtered, spastic opening lyrics on “Living and the Dead” and the immediacy of the stripped guitar on the following single “Ashes on the Highway.” One of NPR’s “Best Songs of 2003,” this ode to transience is a righteous road-hobo anthem and a must-have on your life soundtrack if you find yourself “at home wherever you go”: “When I die / burn my body / sprinkle my ashes on the highway / let the traffic spread the ashes / in the ditches and the overpasses.”
Dondero has a certain “less is more” approach to waxing lyrical, and often his words reflect the hazy, obscured state of mind driving on those late night stretches of road: “I don’t know what’s for me / What is out there, good for me? / Where’s a place I could live? / Feel at home, where I live.” It’s the primitive quality of his “terminal wanderlust” that makes The Transient exactly what it is — a record that does not venture outside itself. Inspired entirely from a life on the road, it’s less polished, more honest and knows itself wherever it goes.
Furthering Dondero’s ramblin’ man program is production assistance from some of the folk tramps in Bright Eyes (Mike Mogis, Tiffany Kowalski, Casey Scott and the omnipresent man-child Conor Oberst). The alliance does the trick — Mogis’ memorable glockenspiel know-how shines on “The Stars are My Chandelier,” when Dondero pipes in: “I could say my love is bigger than the Big Apple / like oxyphenylbutazone in Scrabble.”
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck laid it down, ” … nearly every American hungers to move.” That said, if the call of the long, lonesome highway were unique to Dondero alone, The Transient would be an instant classic. Instead, Dondero’s fascination with the great American road trip is as basic to American consciousness as busted flats, and, well, 7-11 hot dogs. Like Dondero, The Transient has, nonetheless, the makings of an interesting traveling companion.