Florence Dore: Highways & Rocketships release show

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

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

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

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

The INDY recently spoke with Dore via video chat to learn more about her long hiatus from, and timely return to, recorded music; how her Marshall Crenshaw cover led to the Cat’s Cradle benefit album Cover Charge; her first general-interest rather than academic book (The Ink in the Grooves, forthcoming from Cornell University Press); and the vanishing line between music and literature.

INDY WEEK: Which came first, literature or music?

FLORENCE DORE: Music. I’ve got a book coming out in October, The Ink in the Grooves. In the intro, I talk about when I was four or five, hearing The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and being mesmerized by it. But my previous book, Novel Sounds, is about how literature and rock music are the same. The eureka moment was when Steve Earle recommended I read this Leadbelly biography. He attended the Modern Language Association meeting in 1934 with John Lomax, where he was on a panel called “Popular Literature.” So, Leadbelly was literature.

How did you wind up in Chapel Hill?

My parents split up when I was in fifth grade, and we went back and forth between Nashville and D.C. for years. Then I went off to college, and I lived in Boston for a few years, playing punk-rock-slash-country music there. It must have been, like, 1987 to 1991, because I remember hearing Lucinda Williams on the radio before the first Rough Trade album came out and just pulling the car over.

From my point of view, she gave aspiring female musicians in the rock world a model of being honest and made it badass to play folk music again. Then it was grad school in San Francisco, teaching at Kent State in Ohio, and a postdoc at NYU. That’s when I made my first record, Perfect City.

That was in 2001. What were your aspirations then, before you veered off on the academic track?

Well, I was really happy to do both. I made that record myself, but it got picked up by a label in Missouri called Slewfoot. That gave it a new life, and everything was cooking along. It was through making the record that I met my husband, Will Rigby. We had a baby. He was on tour with Steve Earle, so a lot of the time, I was doing it on my own and also had a job. The music stuff all kind of came to a halt. The last gig I had, opening for Jason Ringenberg at the Cleveland Public Library, Will brought the baby in the stroller, and she had to be taken out screaming. Why wasn’t I paying attention to her? I was like, OK, this isn’t gonna work for a while. I didn’t want to be a mom who toured; I wanted to be there with my daughter while she was growing up.

You’ve been teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2010. What are your areas of interest?

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

What inspired the renewed spate of songwriting?

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

This was right before COVID.

It was like, yay, I’ve got my GarageBand versions, I’ve got interest from a label. We did a tour in March 2020. We went into the Fidelitorium to do the first single, and then, everything fucking shut down. But I wasn’t discouraged. It still had this momentum. For the tour, Peter Holsapple had suggested doing Marshall Crenshaw’s “Somewhere Down the Line,” and I said, nah, I wanna do something faster.

But all of a sudden, it seemed like a really good song to cover—so beautiful and comforting. We recorded it remotely, and Don [Dixon] mixed it. I got in touch with Steve Balcom and Lane Wurster, who brought in Shawn Nolan, and that’s how Cover Charge happened. That took up all of my time until it came out. We were going to record the album remotely, but then, vaccines started happening, and we got back into the studio. I’m so glad. It’s like teaching: there’s just no substitute for being in the room.

You lined up a very pedigreed band through personal connections.

The thing is, I never stopped being involved with music. There are the conferences I’ve put on, Will has been playing, and all our friends are musicians. Through the songwriting process, Peter Holsapple was advising me and cheering me on; he’s a great supporter. Mark Spencer is one of the guitarists from Son Volt, and Jeremy Chatzky, the bassist, he’s 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 that’s coming up now?

Maybe it’s partly because I’m middle-aged, and you do think about your life and genealogy at that point. The final song, “And the Lady Goes”—that’s a pop song about menopause. As you kind of go down the mountain [laughs], you start to think about what was on the other side. And “Sweet to Me” is told from my grandmother’s perspective as an elegy to her.

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

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

Circling back to The Ink in the Grooves, did you conduct all the interviews?

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

Fewer people than one would think both perform and write about music. Why do you think that’s so?

While I was writing my last book and editing this one, I wasn’t writing songs—it’s two different kinds of work, a different headspace. Songwriting is sort of an altered state, a bit like meditation. You have to make not just physical space but a certain kind of mental space. People talk about songwriting in mystical terms for a reason. It does sometimes feel like you have to ready yourself to be visited.

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