Florence Dore’s Parallel Lives in Southern Literature and American Rock Curve Together in New Album “Highways & Rocketships”

Florence Dore: Highways and Rockets exit show

Saturday, June 11, 8 p.m., $15 | Cat’s Cradle Back Room, Carboro

Florence Dore, who teaches contemporary fiction, American novel and songwriting at UNC-Chapel Hill, will release his second album, Highways and Rocketsvia Propeller Sound Recordings on June 10.

A demure and tender collection of rock, folk and vintage Southern power-pop, it’s unusual for only a second album in that it took two decades to follow Dore’s first.

But she never strayed too far from the music, as evidenced by album staffers (including Will Rigby and Peter Holsapple of The dB, Mary Huff of Southern Culture on the Skids, Libby Rodenbough of Mipso and famed REM producers Don Dixon and Mitch Easter) or special guests on the June 11 show at Cat’s Cradle Back Room (including Django Haskins, Daniel Wallace, The Connells and Robert Sledge).

The INDIA recently spoke with Dore via video chat to learn more about his long hiatus from recorded music and his quick return to recorded music; how his Marshall Crenshaw cover led to the Cat’s Cradle benefit album Covered; his first general rather than academic book (Ink in the grooves, forthcoming from Cornell University Press); and the line of flight between music and literature.

INDY WEEK: Which came first, literature or music?

FLORENCE DORE: Music. I have a book coming out in October, Ink in the grooves. In the intro, I talk about when I was four or five years old, when I heard the band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and was mesmerized by it. But my previous book, New sounds, talks about how literature and rock music are identical. The eureka moment was when Steve Earle recommended that I read this biography of Leadbelly. He attended the Modern Language Association meeting in 1934 with John Lomax, where he was on a panel titled “Popular Literature”. So, Leadbelly was literature.

How did you end up in Chapel Hill?

My parents separated when I was in fifth grade, and we moved back and forth between Nashville and DC for years. Then I went to college and lived in Boston for a few years, where I played punk-rock-slash-country music. It must have been between 1987 and 1991, because I remember hearing Lucinda Williams on the radio before the release of the first Rough Trade album and stopping the car.

In my view, she gave aspiring female rock musicians a model of honesty and made it hard to play folk music again. Then I went to graduate school in San Francisco, taught at Kent State in Ohio, and did a postdoc at NYU. This is where I made my first record, perfect city.

That was in 2001. What were your aspirations then, before embarking on the academic path?

Well, I was really happy to do both. I made this record myself, but it got picked up by a Missouri label called Slewfoot. It gave it new life, and everything was cooking at the same time. It was while making the record that I met my husband, Will Rigby. We had a baby. He was on tour with Steve Earle, so most of the time I was doing it myself and also had a job. The musical stuff kind of stopped. The last gig I had, opening for Jason Ringenberg at the Cleveland Public Library, Will brought the baby in the stroller, and she must have been screaming out. Why wasn’t I paying attention to her? I thought to myself, OK, this won’t work for a while. I didn’t want to be a touring mum; I wanted to be there with my daughter as she grew up.

You have been teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2010. What are your interests?

I do American fiction with a penchant for Southern fiction. A few years ago, when I started writing songs again, Bland Simpson, my colleague in the creative writing program, said to me, “Oh, maybe you should teach the songwriting class . I said, “And this fall?”

What inspired the upsurge in songwriting?

I finished my second book, got full professor status; my daughter is a teenager, so she doesn’t care what I do anymore. Usually college guys spend the summer writing academic stuff, but I was like, I’m gonna carve this out for creative time, and I came up with about 20 songs.

It was just before COVID.

It was like, yay, I got my GarageBand releases, got a label interested. We did a tour in March 2020. We went to Fidelitorium to do the first single and then everything stopped. But I was not discouraged. He still had that momentum. For the tour, Peter Holsapple had suggested we do Marshall Crenshaw’s “Somewhere Down the Line”, and I said, no, I want to do something faster.

But all of a sudden it seemed like a really good song to cover, so beautiful and heartwarming. We recorded it remotely, and Don [Dixon] mix. I contacted Steve Balcom and Lane Wurster, who brought in Shawn Nolan, and that’s it. Covered past. It took me all my time until it came out. We were going to record the album remotely, but then the vaccines started coming in and we went back to the studio. I’m so glad. It’s like teaching: there’s no substitute for being in the room.

You have formed a very pedigree band through personal connections.

The thing is, I never stopped being involved in music. There are the lectures I gave, Will performed, and all of our friends are musicians. Throughout the writing process, Peter Holsapple advised and encouraged me; he’s a big supporter. Mark Spencer is one of the guitarists of Son Volt, and Jeremy Chatzky, the bassist, he played with Ronnie Spector and Bruce Springsteen.

Family ties seem to be less the theme than the foundation of the songs. Why do you think this is happening now?

Maybe it’s partly because I’m middle-aged and you’re thinking about your life and your genealogy at that time. The last song, “And the Lady Goes”, is a pop song about menopause. As you descend the mountain [laughs], you start thinking about what was on the other side. And “Sweet to Me” is told from my grandmother’s perspective as an elegy for her.

For songwriters who put out a record every few years, there’s this almost formal pressure for each record to last a few years. Did you feel the pressure to put everything in, to catch up?

That’s a smart point, and I hadn’t thought of it that way. Because of course, while I’m sitting here writing, I’m thinking, Jesus! You have a lot of ground to cover. [Laughs.]

Returning to Ink in the groovesdid you conduct all the interviews?

Most of them. This is my first foray into a trading book; it is not academic or scholarly. These are interviews with people like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Dom Flemons. Scott Timberg, who is unfortunately no longer with us, did the one with Rhiannon Giddens. There’s also some fictional rock ‘n’ roll stuff. It’s about what has become my life’s work: how literature and music intersect.

Fewer people perform and write about music than you might think. Why do you think this is so?

While I was writing my last book and editing this one, I wasn’t writing songs – it’s two different types of work, different headspace. Songwriting is kind of an altered state, much like meditation. You have to create not just physical space, but some type of mental space. People talk about songwriting in mystical terms for a reason. We sometimes have the impression of having to prepare to be visited.

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About Joan J. Hernandez

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