Academia and rock ’n’ roll live in harmony for this Carolina professor

It’s late September, and Florence Dore is taking an afternoon break (and drinking lots of water) before her show in Athens, Georgia. She is a little over halfway through a tour with her band, clocking 4,000 miles so far on the family’s Toyota Sienna minivan.

Dore has a new album out, Highways and Rocketships, but this is not your typical music tour. The Nashville-born singer-songwriter is also a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of English and comparative literature, and her latest book, The Ink in the Grooves: Conversations on Literature and Rock ’n’ Roll, is hot off the press, too.

Dore opens the book (published by Cornell University Press) with the words: “Drop the record needle. Drop it on any piece of vinyl in your collection, then go crack open that novel you’ve been meaning to read. Can you feel the reverberations? Do the lines in the song merge with the sentences on the page? For me, when things settle just right, the world goes away, and I am suspended in a cloud of something bigger than the music or the prose alone.”

Dore teaches courses at Carolina in songwriting, contemporary fiction and the American novel, and it’s not the first time she has made the connection between rock music and literature; her 2018 book was Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll. This past spring, she got the crazy idea of taking both her prose and her songs on the road; the tour kicked off Sept. 8 at a Carolina Public Humanities event at Peel Gallery in Carrboro.

“Music provides an avenue for connection. The most obvious places to play are in music clubs, but I thought, ‘There are other places we could go.’ We played with R.B. Morris, the poet laureate of Knoxville, Tennessee, for instance,” she said. “There’s so much polarization across the country right now. I believe in civil discourse and in connecting with people.”

Her husband, Will Rigby, a long-time drummer with the dB’s, is in Dore’s band and on the public humanities tour with her, which has been both fun and helpful given his background in the music industry.

“He’s been very supportive, along with all of the band members. We get to a club after driving so many hours, unpack our equipment, sell some books, play our set, then we pack up and go back to the hotel and get ready for the next day,” said Dore, who had played in Denton, Texas, several nights before the Athens gig. “I’m able to have these great conversations because they are loading up the van and taking care of those things.”

On writing and teaching

The dialogue with the audience in the impromptu “classrooms” on the road tour feels very familiar to Dore, who has been teaching at Carolina since 2010; she received her doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1999.

She said Carolina students are “incredible,” and she enjoys chatting with them about the craft of songwriting. She told writer Brian Howe in a June 8 INDY Week piece that “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 [for it].”

Many of the songs on “Highways”and “Rocketships” have an autobiographical thread running through them, like the title track itself.

“It’s about journeys and where we land and where we’re going,” Dore said. “Highways are earthly, and rocket ships take you into outer space. It’s a song about the different trials and tribulations we go through in life. It’s about the twists and turns of being human.”

The song “Sweet to Me” is an elegy to her late grandmother, Mary Fuqua, who grew up in Hickman County, Tennessee. The recording of it was all the more special because Dore’s teenage daughter joined her in the studio; she and Dore’s sister sang the outro on the song.

Dore wrote in a post on her website: “These are kisses for my grandmother; hers kept me whole in my childhood.”

She said she doesn’t believe in writer’s block: The “block” part of that phrase implies that writers just sit there and are “visited — or not — with great ideas.”

“I think it’s more a matter of rolling up your sleeves and putting pen to paper for whatever time block you have and just doing it,” Dore said. “You’re going to hate some of it and come to love some of it. It’s a matter of sitting there for the duration; then you revise and make it better.”

Collaboration for Cat’s Cradle

The time between her first LP, “Perfect City,” in 2001 and the second was long and winding — spent raising her daughter, getting academic tenure and joining her husband, who was on tour with Steve Earle. She was just starting to get back into her recording career and touring again when the pandemic hit.

As everything started to shut down, Dore and the band remotely recorded their version of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Somewhere Down the Line,” a song whose words seemed particularly fitting for turbulent times.

But what to do with that single track? Dore started thinking about Cat’s Cradle and whether the beloved Carrboro music venue would survive the pandemic.

The result was the Billboard-charting album, “Cover Charge: N.C. Musicians Go Under Cover to Benefit Cat’s Cradle,” featuring 25 songs by different Triangle musicians. Dore came up with the idea for the project and acted as co-executive producer with some locals: Steve Balcom and Lane Wurster of the ad agency The Splinter Group, as well as entertainment lawyer Shawn Nolan. Two of her former Carolina English students — Libby Rodenbough of Mipso and Faith Jones — are part of the album. Rodenbough also plays on Highways and “Rocketships.”

Parallel lives

In some ways, Dore said, her love of music probably came first, but her dad was an academic, and she always loved literature. As she made her way through college, “I had both things going on,” she said.

Dore had a eureka moment when she learned that blues singer Huddie William Ledbetter, better known by the stage name “Lead Belly,” had played guitar and sung at the 1934 Modern Language Association convention. He was on a panel with folklorist John Lomax that focused on popular literature.

In “The Ink in the Grooves,” Dore expands upon those intersections through interviews with various artists as well as essays from novelists, musicians and more. She chatted with John Prine’s band members after the artist died and with Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and others. There are some Carolina connections, too, including essays from fellow creative writing faculty members Daniel Wallace and the late Randall Kenan; history professor emeritus Bill Ferris writes the afterword.

The book “brings two parts of me together — the me studying rock in underground spaces over the years and the me who is a close reader of difficult literature,” she writes in the introduction.

Dore has hosted public conferences on rock and literature at the National Humanities Center and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and she sits on the advisory board for the Institute for Bob Dylan Studies at the University of Tulsa.

“Songwriting and literature are both explorations of the human condition,” she said, adding that the two art forms create a kind of “cultural togetherness.”

Dore will discuss “The Ink in the Grooves” and share some songs onOct. 27 at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The book signing line begins at 5:30 p.m., with the talk at 6. She’ll be back out on the road in December, with stops in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.

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