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Laurelyn Dossett's songs are born of a purpose

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A young musician scrawls songs on the back of every used envelope at hand, hoping one in 10 is worth singing. She opens her mouth and just lets her voice flow out.

Laurelyn Dossett still has the clear, honeyed voice she's always had, but now she writes every song for a reason.

"Whether I'm just writing one song—something I have an idea for, or I notice something and that's the whole idea—or I'm writing a bunch of songs, I always make a lot of decisions before I start writing," she explains.

"What am I trying to say? Why do we need another song about longing, or whatever it is? Or I don't do it, you know? So there's a lot of editing before I even start. I'm not one of those people who just writes a bunch of songs and only uses 10 percent of them. I really am compelled to write them."

The Greensboro musician and a crowd of friends and collaborators will take the stage at Haw River Ballroom on Friday. This week, the "And Friends" after Dossett's name on the bill includes bassist Jason Sypher, guitarist and banjo player Scott Manring, drummer Eddie Walker and mandolinist Eric Robertson. Molly McGinn lends her voice to a few songs, too.

Sometimes "And Friends" means the North Carolina Symphony, genre-bending violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain or Preston Lane, playwright and artistic director at Greensboro's Triad Stage. Dossett works with a startling variety of people, and she does it well.

A couple of Mondays ago, her collaborators numbered in the hundreds. She sang the new song "My Beloved Enemy" to the throngs of Moral Monday protestors in Raleigh and at a rally in Greensboro. The song will appear on the forthcoming N.C. Music Love Army recording of musicians writing for the growing North Carolina progressive movement.

"My Beloved Enemy"—a direct address to the present slate of ultraconservative state legislators—isn't Dossett's first political song. Last year's "Vote Against Amendment 1" was a call to the polls that many musician friends lent their voices to. The song's video became a kind of public service announcement before the statewide vote in May 2012, with politicians and private citizens repeating the title in a litany to the camera.

"I kind of have a fear of mixing music and politics, but I do it anyway," Dossett laughs. "It comes from a core belief that there isn't an 'us and them,' and that we're all connected. That belief has come out in everything I've written all along."

The amendment, which forbids and refuses to recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions in North Carolina, passed handily in a vote that split largely upon rural and urban lines.

"After the Amendment 1 debacle, it was so heartbreaking for me how much more separated we were," Dossett recalls. "It showed that divide: rural-urban, what might be perceived as educated-uneducated, religious-nonreligious ... and I hate that."

"I live in rural North Carolina. I come from rural people. I worked the polls that day and I would see people come in, and I'd look at them and go, 'Of course they're voting for Amendment 1.' A lot of good people voted badly that day. But that doesn't mean they're stupid or evil."

Dossett's song "Leaving Eden" was written after the textile giant Pillowtex closed up shop in 2003, laying off 4,800 largely rural workers throughout the state, almost a tenth of them at a plant in tiny Eden in Rockingham County. Pillowtex remains the largest single job loss in the state's history.

When Preston Lane heard that song, it was one of those "we have to work together" moments. He approached Dossett, and now they're working on their fifth musical theater piece. Two more plays are in early stages.

Snow Queen, an Appalachian retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, will premiere at Triad Stage in December. Similar to their first work together, a roots music rendition of Beowulf titled Brother Wolf, the seasonal tale is more deeply collaborative than normal musical theater.

"We work together from the beginning, so it's not like he hands me a script and a bunch of lyrics and I write music," Dossett says. "He writes a draft, and we start talking about where music would be helpful and where maybe some scenes could be a song instead of a scene, and just kind of sketch it out."

In Dossett and Lane's works, actors don't typically break into song. A band plays a role like a chorus, coming onstage for songs and playing offstage behind dialogue and action. This deeper integration of book and music speaks to their process. Sometimes the two just get in the car and start driving. Conversation during the road trip turns into scenes and songs as they wander from town to town.

"We both like authentic Mexican food and bad antique stores," Dossett quips.

Writing for the theater makes as much sense to Dossett as writing for a cause. She has a target audience. She has some story or argument to communicate. And she knows what characteristics a song needs to meet those goals.

"OK, here's this song. It needs to be upbeat," she muses, acting out the work. "It needs to feel like this, or evoke this emotion. It needs to move the story along in this way. Those are all great tools to have for any song. You can set yourself up ahead of time—what do I want this to feel like? OK, then, let's start with rhythm or chord structure or something like that."

She even brings this deductive premeditation to the process of inspiration itself. Unable to connect with the wintry tone she wanted for Snow Queen early this year during one of the warmest North Carolina winters in recent memory, Dossett hopped in the car again and drove to the Blackwater River in the mountains of West Virginia.

"I wanted to get in some snow," she says. "I wanted to be able to talk about snow and to experience cold and all that. I got myself up in the mountains and the fog and I was suddenly writing all these images. Everything is white. The trees are white and the sky is white. And then I thought, when you have the color red in the middle of that, what does that mean?"

Dossett didn't start her musical career until she was almost 40. Though she sang in a band in college, she didn't have the example of any female friends blazing a musical path. She didn't think her family would have approved of that direction at that time, either.

She got married—to journalist Justin Catanoso—and they started having children. Dossett got a counseling degree at UNC-Greensboro and worked in public mental health. She'd play the guitar on the porch as her kids got home from school and sing them to sleep at night.

Eventually she started playing for fun with some friends, and they were good enough to get some local gigs. It turned into the band Polecat Creek, which put out its first record, Salt Sea Bound, in 2002. Dossett remembers the thrill of a friend saying, "Hey, I heard you on [WUNC radio program] 'Back Porch Music' last night." She took the band more seriously after that.

She won a songwriting award at Merlefest in 2004, and Polecat Creek won the neotraditional contest at the 2006 Appalachian String Band Festival. Still, she didn't switch to music full-time until, ironically, President Bush took a hatchet to public mental health funding. Rather than start a private practice, Dossett picked up the guitar for good.

She hasn't looked back, and she hasn't had to. Things Dossett touches seem to turn to gold with some frequency. Her song "Anna Lee," written originally for Brother Wolf, is a perfect example: Levon Helm made it a centerpiece of his Grammy-winning album, Dirt Farmer.

Dossett started writing the tune while waiting in the car outside her daughter's middle school. A deadline loomed. Brother Wolf was on the verge of production, and she and Lane had decided they needed one more song to beef up a character's backstory.

With just one afternoon to work with, Dossett sang some ideas into a recorder while the engine idled. Then, in the scrap of time before she had to fetch her older daughter from high school, Dossett picked the tune out on a guitar at home. It was a total rush job.

Later, during staged readings of Brother Wolf in New York, Dossett hoped to create an opportunity for her songs outside of the dramatic realm. She wondered who from the music industry might be handy to scoot down to the theater on short notice.

"I kept trying to think: As T Bone Burnett is to film, is there someone like that to musical theater, someone in New York who's into traditional music?"

Dossett told the story in the form of an Indy Week remembrance written upon Levon's death in the spring of 2012. Through a musician friend in common, Dossett asked Levon's daughter Amy if she knew anyone like that. Amy suggested Larry Campbell, Helm's producer and a former guitarist for Bob Dylan. Dossett emailed Campbell, expecting nothing. Then he walked through the theater door.

"It wasn't total chance that Larry Campbell was there, but it's still shocking to me. He heard 'Anna Lee,' he found us in a stairwell and asked, 'Who wrote "Anna Lee?" Can I take it to Levon?'"

It wasn't the first time Levon worked on a song with that name. The Anna Lee in The Band's song "The Weight" was a childhood friend of his from Arkansas. Dossett eventually got to meet the real Anna Lee, who complained good-naturedly that she didn't appreciate being drowned in Dossett's song.

Helm appreciated it, however, marveling that the song sounded like it was 300 years old. Dossett is predictably matter-of-fact about it, though.

"It had to sound that old for where it was in the play," she explains. "It was harkening back to the 1870s. But then anything when you just have a fiddle and a voice is going to take you somewhere that nothing else does. That modal tuning of the fiddle, and that modal melody, definitely evokes that age."

All good songwriters intuitively connect a song's characteristics to its emotion and message, but rarely as literally as Dossett does. It's the common thread running through her song cycles for theater, one-off tunes for albums and occasional anthems for the politically fervent. It's what makes Dossett both really enjoyable and really relevant.

"Music has an important role to play in social movements," she says. "There's so much emotion swirling around now, a lot of jabs and phrases being thrown around, and it helps us organize those things and wrap our thoughts around them."

"The goal is still the beloved community, whether we're all in agreement or not."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Rhyme and reason."

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