Two roads converge: Academic and musician Florence Dore mines connections between her passions

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-23-2023 7:36 PM

Who says you can’t merge a Ph.D. and rock and roll?

    As Florence Dore explains, she spent a long time traveling on seemingly disparate tracks. On one hand she was the professor who’d devoted years to studying American literature and teaching writing, in settings from New York City to Ohio to North Carolina.

Then there was Dore’s nighttime persona, the one that loved popular music, played in bands and recorded an album, and developed close ties to rootsy musicians including Steve Earle.

But these days, Dore, who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has found a way to merge her interests, and she’ll be in the Valley this month to showcase that work, with a March 28 show at The Drake in Amherst with her band and then a March 29 discussion at Amherst College.

Dore, who grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, has been riding a wave of solid reviews for her 2022 album, “Highways and Rocketships,” an Americana-flavored disc built around bright acoustic and electric guitars and a mix of rock, pop, country and a bit of R&B.

In a recent phone call, Dore said a few stars had to align for her to find her way back to music, years after she’s released her first album, “Perfect City,” in 2001, and received some strong reviews for the record.

For one thing, she spent time as a mom raising her daughter, Georgie, who’s now college age. That’s allowed her to pivot back to music, something she’s done alongside her husband, Will Rigby, the drummer in her band and previously a drummer for New Wave rockers the dB’s, Steve Earle and others.

But another entry point for her return to music, Dore says, came about five years ago when she published her book “Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll.”

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“Novel Sounds,” which the éminence grise of rock journalism, Greil Marcus, calls “an original and subtle book, with punk-rock ricochets,” examines the work of writers such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor alongside musicians from Lead Belly to Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, drawing links between rock and blues and Southern literature.

Dore’s contention, basically, was that the old barriers separating high art from the low variety pretty much broke down when rock ‘n’ roll exploded on the national scene, beginning in the 1950s.

“I had been looking for ways to try and bring these two parts of my life together, and this [book] was kind of a culmination of that,” Dore said. “Music is a great way to connect ideas from the academy with people who are outside that kind of ivory tower, and that’s been a really satisfying line of study for me.”

Last year, Dore also published “Ink in the Grooves: Conversations on Literature and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” for which she served as editor and a contributor. It’s a collection of essays by writers including Roddy Doyle, Rick Moody and Colson Whitehead, and by musicians who reflect on the connections between the two worlds and their own inspirations.

The book also features interviews, several conducted by Dore, of musicians including Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle on their literary influences.

“It was just a great project to work on,” she said.

Roots in the ’60s

Musically, Dore says her earliest influences were the bands and artists from the 1960s and early 1970s — The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Band — that her parents played when she was growing up in Nashville.

“I remember seeing Joan Baez in concert when I was 8 or 9 and shaking her hand after the show,” she said with a laugh. “And I wrote her a fan letter.”

It was a turbulent time: Her mother, raised as a classic Southern belle, turned into a “pot-smoking civil rights activist,” Dore relates, a subject she tackles in one of the songs, “Rebel Debutante,” on her new album. The tune also touches on her mother playing a bit part in the 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville.”

She taught herself to play guitar, and in college — she got her bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University in Connecticut — she played in bands. She continued to play music in Boston, where she went to graduate school for a year before moving to California to finish her doctorate at Berkeley, in 1998.

A few years later, she recorded “Perfect City,” produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a guitarist who’s worked with artists such as Steve Earle and the Bottle Rockets. The album earned Dore some comparisons to a younger Lucinda Williams, with her mix of sassy and vulnerable lyrics and a sound that embraced rock and country.

Williams, it turns out, was an important influence on Dore.

“I remember hearing her sing ‘Something About What Happens When We Talk’ on one of her earlier records when I was driving,” Dore said. “I had to pull the car over — it was that powerful. It was like rock and roll in spirit but with a country/folk inflection.”

Dore finally got back into the studio a few years ago to record mostly new songs for “Highways and Rocketships.” There are a number of rockers, like “Thundercloud,” a warning from one woman to another that her new boyfriend “seems to be (bleeping) with your heart,” and the title song, a plea for a couple to find a way to stay together.

Dore explores family connections on the anthemic “Sweet to Me,” a song about her grandmother, while “And the Lady Goes” is an upbeat pop song about menopause. “End of the World,” meanwhile, adds punchy horns to a wry R&B number about climate change: “Two tsunamis and a hurricane and rip tides / Yeah the weather’s been a little insane / Evacuate with me, we can take my car.”

The album, which features backing by Rigby and other former members of the dB’s, was voted the best Americana album of 2022 by Lonesome Highway magazine.

“I got a lot of support from some really talented people to make this happen,” Dore said, pointing in particular to Jefferson Holt, the former manager of REM, who organized the recording sessions. “Everyone helped bring these songs to life.”

During the pandemic, Dore also co-produced “Cover Charge,” an album of North Carolina musicians doing cover songs — she and her band did a version of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Somewhere Down the Line” — to benefit a Chapel Hill music club.

And let’s not forget her academic side: Last year Dore launched “Ink in the Grooves Live,” a traveling public humanities program in which she performs and gives talks on vernacular music and civic belonging.

She’ll give a presentation at Amherst College’s Frost Library on March 29 at 4:30 p.m. with her touring guitarist, Mark Spencer (Son Volt, Laura Cantrell) in collaboration with Daryl Harper, chair of Amherst’s music department and director of the school’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

Dore said she’ll also speak with students from a class of Geoffrey Sanborn, who teaches English at Amherst.

“I feel like I finally found that sweet spot where I can put all these things together,” said Dore, who’s working on songs for her next album. “It’s a great place to be.”

More information about Florence Dore’s music and work can be found at florencedoremusic.com.

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