Country

Makin' Tracks: Lee Brice Uses Throwback Sound, Story In 'Memory I Don't Mess With'

Lee Brice
Ryan "Spidy" Smith

Lee Brice

From Lee Brice's hometown of Sumter, S.C., it's a short, uneventful drive to the Grand Strand along the Atlantic Ocean.

The bars in that area gave rise to a regional genre, beach music, that centers on R&B and pop from the '50s and '60s. It's a happy, nostalgic sound that embraces the good times and youthful memories associated with spring break and sandy vacations.

Thanks to the spiky guitar chords, the nostalgic soul and Brice's liquid vocal performance, "Memory I Don't Mess With" — which Curb released to country radio via PlayMPE on Oct. 15 as the follow-up to his chart-topping "One of Them Girls" — has just enough of a beach music imprint to feel like the singer is digging into his regional roots. Pulled from the album Hey World (due Nov. 20), it's hardly an homage to the beach-music genre (Brice was a tad surprised to hear the comparison), though the song's journey to a bittersweet past would naturally trigger that sonic approach.

"The label really loved this song, and they were like, 'This is quintessential Lee Brice,' " he notes. "This song is the most Lee Brice song, probably, on the whole record — it's not like I disagreed with them at all. In fact, this song was 100% in my mind going to be a single. I just wasn't necessarily thinking it was going to be the single after 'One of Them Girls.'"

The bones of "Memory I Don't Mess With" hail not from the beach, but from a studio in Brice's Middle Tennessee farmhouse with a panoramic view of a cornfield. He had finished writing another song, likely in 2018, and as he and co-writer Brian Davis ("One Hell of an Amen") packed up,  Davis dropped an undeveloped idea on Brice. In just a few minutes, they expanded that basic hook into a whole chorus with an easy-going rhyme scheme.

"He didn't tell me the title," recalls Brice. "He just [sang], 'A memory I don't mess with,' and that's all he had. I [added], 'Obsessed with,' you know, 'the best with.' I mean, it was really that quickly the chorus came together."

They made a work tape that captured the chorus and created a musical bed for potential verses, using the same chord structure. Then it sat for roughly a year, though Brice kept gravitating toward it. When he listened to new songs, particularly on airplane flights, he invariably played "Memory" again, even though it was incomplete.

"It was just a broke-down, kind of crap work tape, but it had the groove and it had that melody and it had that chorus," he says.

In September 2019, Brice brought Davis and songwriter Billy Montana ("Night Shift," "Suds in the Bucket") along to do some writing on a weekend tour. After they finished a couple of other songs, Brice played the "Memory" chorus for Montana and asked if he wanted to help finish it. Montana agreed, though he felt some pressure about crashing the party.

"I like to feel like I contributed in a write," he says. "And so I said to myself, 'Man, you better bring it, because this one's on the rails and we don't want it to come off the rails.' "

Montana offered a few poetic images for the first verse — "Red leaves on the river/Footprints in the sand" — creating a serene, cinematic setting. A "sun up by the lake" reference gave that opening stanza a daytime vibe, while "moonlight on the back seat" moved the memories into the evening in the second verse. They dropped a Bruce Springsteen radio reference — "Girl, I'm on fire" — into that frame and concluded it with an oblique nod to one of Brice's biggest singles: "I still can't dance around." The pictures didn't say much on their own, though they all built toward the hook.

"We intended to be a little elusive and have the chorus make the point," says Montana. "When it got to the hook, we wanted a dagger to be sunk in the heart of the listener, like we were feeling. And so we just did this laundry list of images with the assumption that they were together, and these are places that [the singer] can't go in his mind anymore. The irony of it is that he's going there in his mind."

That was the song's biggest issue: Why was he strolling down a memory lane that he didn't feel safe to visit? They decided to answer that question in a two-line bridge: "It's good running into you like this/But, girl, I'm close as I can get."

"The memory that I don't mess with, to me, was this abstract thing," explains Brice. "It needed a tangible, like you can reach-out-and-touch-it, moment."

Once Brice and his band developed a demo, co-producers Kyle Jacobs and Ben Glover recognized "Memory" as an ideal song for him, though that initial version was more aggressive than necessary.

"It's just quintessential Lee Brice," says Jacobs. "He loves singing about heartbreak. There's something about him that likes to go back into the past and remember and reminisce about those feelings, even though he's a happily married man."

One tack they took to soften "Memory" played on the "Red leaves on the river" opening line: Brice sat in a lawn chair in the middle of a creek on his property and played a 12-note riff on a Resonator guitar. They recorded that gurgling water — it runs beneath the entire song, though it's only apparent in the unedited album version — then designed the rest of the production around it.

Some of Brice's original, self-made demo, the ambient river and the instruments from a tracking session all formed the foundation for "Memory I Don't Mess With," though they messed with it a bit even after COVID-19 forced them to work in self-isolation. They shipped the track off to drummer Aaron Sterling, who made some minor adjustments in the groove. And they sent it off to guitarist Jerry McFadden, who added the spiky chords into the mix.

"We wanted this modern thing, but we also wanted to have a little throwback, a little bit of the retro, almost-Motown thing with the electric guitar chopping through the verses," says Glover. "It's like a melting pot of a bunch of different styles that sort of all work together."

That's almost a description of beach music, and it's likewise a summation of Brice's own background: a mix of country, rock, R&B and gospel, each of which gets its expression in "Memory I Don't Mess With."

"He can do anything," says Jacobs of Brice. "He can rock it out; he can do some ballads. He can do Memphis, he can do so much stuff. And this song just feels like it's an emulsion of everything that Lee is."

"Memory" was the Hot Shot Debut on the Country Airplay chart dated Nov. 14, launching at No. 37. It hangs in at No. 52 in its second week after its grand strand of sound beat out several other Hey World titles to emerge as the single.

"Everybody has a different favorite song on this record," says Brice. "I asked the head of Spotify or iTunes or radio, and they all had a different song that was their favorite. But I will say there was a consensus: Everybody loved this song."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.