Dawn Landes plays Headliners on Friday, Nov. 9. | Photo by Shervin Lainez

Dawn Landes, who spent her formative years at Louisville’s Ballard High School, returns home this weekend with a new album that explores her Southern roots and news that she’s completed a musical about famous Louisvillian (and current president of Spalding University) Tori Murden McClure.

Landes plays Headliners Music Hall on Friday, Nov. 9, with Chris Stills.

“Meet Me at the River,” Landes’ new “Nashville record,” as she describes it, features 10 songs written or co-written by the musician as well as two covers of folk singer Jimmy Driftwood songs — “My Church” and “What is the Color of the Soul of Man?” It was produced by Nashville legend Fred Foster, who was instrumental in the early careers of Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and Kris Kristofferson, to name a few.

The album is a nice mix of love-gone-wrong ballads and playful tunes like “Why They Name Whiskey After Men” and “I Don’t Dance” featuring old-school country icon Bobby Bare. In the former, Landes makes the connection between the lure of whiskey and bad boys: It comes on strong and keeps you warm before it starts to do you in/And in spite of the pain you go back again/Must be why they named whiskey after men.

Landes’ soft voice is perfect for the country genre — think Patty Loveless with a splash of Jenny Lewis.

Making the album was so transformative for Landes, she decided to relocate to Nashville after living in New York City for more than 15 years.

Insider caught up with Landes by phone as she and her crew were traveling from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia for the next show. During our conversation, the bus had been pulled over for speeding — she was not the one driving, she made it known — just another bump in the road for a touring musician.

And after the Philly gig on Wednesday, she heads to New York City on Thursday, Louisville on Friday, back to NYC to open for Mary Chapin Carpenter on Saturday, and then home to Nashville to play on Sunday. Whew!

“I go back (to Louisville) all the time — I have so many great friends there,” says Landes, whose father still lives in Kentucky as well. But unfortunately, she won’t have much time to catch up with friends this time since she booked a last-minute spot opening for Carpenter. “I think it’s a good opportunity, so I’m going to do it.”

“Meet Me at the River” is Landes’ fifth full-length album, and before writing or recording it, she found herself listening to classic country music from the ’50s and ’60s. It was a stripped-down, soulful sound she wanted to capture, and she went straight to the source — producer Fred Foster, who is now in his 80s. He’s quite selective with his workload, and his most recent credits were on albums by Willie Nelson, Ray Price and Merle Haggard.

But after talking with Landes and hearing some of her early work, he decided it was a project he wanted to be involved with. And for Landes, it was an opportunity to channel that sound she longed for and also learn from a true musical legend.

“I actually spoke to Will Oldham about it, because he had done a Nashville record, and he said he really enjoyed the process,” explains Landes. “There’s such a system in Nashville — they’ve got it down pat. When it comes to the studio, you’re in, you’re out and you’re done. I spent years working on albums before, so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be nice to just go in a studio and cut three songs in three hours?’”

Dawn Landes went to Ballard High School. | Photo by Shervin Lainez

“Meet Me at the River” was recorded in two series of sessions about six months apart. Landes was still living in New York, but the sparkle of Music City caught her eye.

“I had been wanting to leave New York for many years, I just couldn’t quite do it. It has this magnetism that’s really hard to leave,” she says. “Every time I wanted to go, I got pulled back by a project. I think this album helped me leave New York and pulled me to Nashville.”

Two years ago, Landes and her husband made the move to Nashville, where she transitioned somewhat smoothly despite a handful of epic life events.

“It was a little difficult because it was all at once,” she says. “I got married, we bought a house, we got two cars — we lived in New York so long, we didn’t need cars — we had a baby … so all of it happened at once.”

Now that her home base is in Nashville, Landes says she plans to continue to make music as she always has, and one new aspect she’s enjoyed is co-writing with other artists — which is what Nashville is built on.

“I’m definitely going to continue co-writing, she says. “That’s a cool thing I enjoy. It takes your brain to new places.”

A musical about a rower

Landes says she’s been inspired by Tori Murden McClure’s story ever since hearing about it while in high school in Louisville and reading her memoir.

Murden McClure was the first woman and first American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1999, and she lived (and still lives) in Louisville at the time. “A Pearl in the Storm” about her failed attempts and harrowing journey was published in 2009.

While living in New York City, Landes was approached by Broadway producer, writer and director Daniel Goldstein about working together on a musical. She suggested Murden McClure’s book, and Goldstein was immediately on board after reading it.

Landes recalls meeting Murden McClure for the first time.

“I had a show in Louisville, so I was in town. (The meeting) was in her office at Spalding, and I walk in with my guitar. Her personality — she’s so … what’s the word … she’s impressive. An impressive human being. I’m like, ‘Here I am, I’m a stranger who is going to sing you some songs about your life.’ It was all very surreal. And she cried at one of them, and by the end, she gave us her permission.”

The musical is complete and has been through several readings at various theater festivals in NYC. Her dream is to bring it to Louisville — “maybe Actors Theatre someday,” she adds.

In 2015, while Landes and Goldstein were creating the music and story, she recorded a Ted Talk about Murden McClure and revealed one of the songs that’ll be featured. It serves as a brief, nine-minute glimpse into an artist’s passion for a hero who never stops trying.

Catch Landes at Headliners on Friday, Nov. 9, with Chris Stills starting at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. She’ll also be featured on WFPK’s “Live Lunch” on Friday starting at noon. 

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Sara Havens
Sara Havens is the Culture Editor at Insider Louisville, known around town as the Bar Belle (barbelleblog.com). She's a former editor of LEO Weekly and has written for Playboy and The Alcohol Professor. Havens is the author of two books: "The Bar Belle" and "The Bar Belle Vol. 2."