With his band, The Wasted Arrows, and his photography, David Norbut seeks authenticity while portraying a working-class life
David Norbut leads me outside. “First and foremost,” he says, “you need good lighting.” He speaks in a low, deliberate voice.
It’s a bright and pleasantly mild day in January. We’re at the Brew HaHa! in Greenville. In the parking lot are Teslas, BMWs, women in jogging clothes, men in scarves, students with laptops, all en route to get their morning jolt, or perhaps to read poetry, laugh, and work on their computers, all in a sophisticated setting—the modern coffee shop.
This is far away from the Delaware that Norbut captures both in his music and his photography: an isolated Delaware of rural landscapes and tight-knit relationships, of loss and pain, of early mornings at the Wilmington docks with massive ships, giant machinery, trucks and truckers. A surprising hint of the desolate Southwest also colors his work.
Norbut is the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter for The Wasted Arrows Band, a Delaware-based blues and country-tinged rock trio of Norbut, Pete Daly on drums and Peter Stanko on pedal steel.
We walk to the edge of the building. There is a tall pine tree, out of place for a parking lot. Norbut tilts his head down, staring at the sidewalk. After a moment, he says, “Right here is good.”
Since he is a photographer himself, I assume he’s led me somewhere worth capturing. I take out my old Nikon and aim it at him. He’s about 5 foot 10 and his hands are covered in rings. He has black sunglasses on and a long beard. He reminds me of a weathered cowboy—rugged, shaped and marked by the world around him.
Outside of his artistic endeavors, Norbut works at the Port of Wilmington. “It’s chaos,” he says, “Everywhere you turn there’s forklifts and tractors and trains and boats and tugs and giant ships. You gotta stay on your toes. You gotta stand your ground. There’s a lot of dirty language and a lot of tough characters.” He pauses. “I think it gives you a little bit of your own character…being in an environment like that.”
The docks are in his blood. His father and brother worked there. “There’s an authenticity to the working-class people that always attracted me,” he says.
He tries to capture this gritty, hard-scrabble, self-reliant life in his music, which is analog, just as his band is simple: acoustic guitar, drums, pedal steel—the instrumental pillars of country music.
“There’s something about the breath of the voice and the strum of the guitar and the drums,” he says. “Playing with your hands, working with your hands.”
In their song “Death Bells,” Norbut sings about the rain-soaked funeral of a lost loved one. “I hear the wails/The cries of the children/Smell the earth on this pine box.” It’s an Americana burner filled with the imagery of roads, gold dust, a white dress and a crow cawing.
Drummer Peter Daly’s favorite Wasted Arrows’ song is “Arizona,” titled after a state where Norbut has roots. He and his wife have made frequent trips to visit family there. He proposed to her in Sedona in 2006. “I always joked with my wife, ‘I’m going to propose to you in the desert one day,’ and I finally did,” he says. He is influenced by everything there, from the landscape to the Native American culture.
“Dave loves the desert, he loves Arizona,” says Daly, who met Norbut almost a decade ago at a photoshoot for Daly’s previous band. They pulled up to the shoot location at the same time. Norbut was driving a black Chevy Silverado and had long hair and tattoos. Daly complimented him on his truck, and they hit it off.
“It’s nice to meet someone else from the area who I had some things in common with,” Daly says over the phone. He pauses, then adds, “I never felt like I really belonged in Delaware.”
While Norbut’s influences are southwestern, Daly’s heart lies somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line. He wears cowboy boots and a lot of denim. “I just feel comfortable. That’s just me. Some people make comments about it.”
The Wasted Arrows was born from a tragedy. Norbut had taken a hiatus from music in order to pursue photography. The death of his wife’s father brought him back. He went to Arizona for the last time in June of 2016 to spread his father-in-law’s ashes.
A Sad Time
It was a profoundly sad time. “I really didn’t feel like interacting with people. I was trying to capture the desert and the void that I felt from the loss.”
His photos during that period were devoid of the street life and animated characters that usually inhabit his work. A dilapidated building sits among cacti. Shadows loom over a canyon. He took a portrait of himself there in the passenger mirror of a car; the reflection of himself is out of focus, but the desert floor to his right is in full view.
When he returned he began writing the music that would eventually be distilled into The Wasted Arrows. “It’s stories of me being a dock worker. Getting up in the morning in the dark. Going to work at the same docks. Going to the same dive bars.” It’s his life at its most honest.
Norbut, Daly and Stanko have just survived a lineup change and are in the process of recording their first album.
“We’re just sort of, you know, gearing up for the next chapter of whatever is going to happen,” says Stanko over the phone. He first joined in the fall of 2017, originally playing keyboard after posting an ad on Craigslist. He eventually used his tax refund to buy himself a pedal steel, a fundamental part of their new sound.
“[Stanko] heard me always wanting a pedal steel or slide,” says Norbut. “He’s been teaching himself how to play it. He’s amazing. We started incorporating that into the new sound, right as we were starting to catch the wave that I wanted to be on.”
Stanko calls the pedal steel “a crazy, complicated contraption.” It’s a solid steel bar with 10 strings and foot pedals. It looks industrial, as if it was coughed up by a coal-powered machine. It’s an American staple, producing swooning voice-like metallic sounds, often to the accompanimentof a broken-hearted outlaw on his way to a lead-filled end.
“With Pete being on pedal steel, that definitely adds an element of that old school country sound that I love so much, and I know Dave does,” says Daly.
That’s what The Wasted Arrows is channeling with a pedal steel—America stripped down, on the edge of a new horizon. “We want to take these classic ideas but do them with our spin on it,” says Stanko.
Norbut doesn’t want to play the main stage at Bonnaroo or the Super Bowl. He doesn’t want fireworks, dancing sharks, or VIP passes—the glamour and excess of entertainment. A perfect concert to him is an old barroom, a capsule of Americana, ‘70s and ‘80s memorabilia on the wall.
“Old photos, old dollar bills hanging, weird lighting, velvet Elvises,” he says. “A dive bar with a really good singer-songwriter, with a really good band, some pedal steel, acoustic guitars, harmonicas, good drums, good bass, no cover, no cover bands.”
Recently, the band has found a home that pretty much fits that description: The Jackson Inn, the well-known, cozy tavern on Lancaster Pike.
I adjust the settings on my camera. Norbut puts his hands in his pockets. “Just relax,” he says. “It’s hard to be authentic.”
Check out The Wasted Arrows on the band’s Facebook page.