“Let’s take a trip down memory lane.”
Few expressions are more clichéd. Different usages of “memory lane” or “memory’s lane” began showing up in the late 1800s, and the phrase has become a common way to think of nostalgia.
Old Dominion’s new single, which Arista Nashville released to country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 4, puts a fresh coat of paint on that time-worn “Memory Lane” idea. It exists because three band members — lead singer Matthew Ramsey and guitarists Brad Tursi and Trevor Rosen — were open to it when Jessie Jo Dillon (“Break Up in the End,” “10,000 Hours”) brought it up during a Jan. 24, 2022, appointment at Tursi’s house.
“Whenever you’re in a room full of very successful songwriters and someone throws out something that’s so clichéd, there’s a reason, and they may not even know it,” Ramsey says. “You definitely pay attention to it — because, of course, it’s clichéd. But why is that sticking out right now? So it makes us kind of all sit down and go, ‘All right, forget the clichéd. Why is this title here in this room with us?’”
Tursi actually started the creative chain before his co-writers arrived that day, building a short rhythmic track around an acoustic guitar and kick drum.
“After you write a million songs on the guitar, it starts to become hard to think of a different rhythm,” says Tursi. “I knew those guys — and girl — were coming to my house, and I tried to pull up a little drum program that has a different rhythm than you would play on a guitar. I just kind of found that little groove, that acoustic part in the intro. It was two chords and the loop, and that’s what I played them when they got there.”
It sounds vaguely similar in spirit to the rolling guitar in “Gentle on My Mind,” a song John Hartford wrote based on the traveling plot of the 1965 movie Dr. Zhivago. Dillon thought “Memory Lane,” logged in a page of titles on her phone, was an appropriate match.
“He had this beat that was real fast and kind of pulsing,” she says. “I wouldn’t really think to do that idea that way naturally, but it gave the song so much energy, and I think it feels driving — kind of like you’re driving down memory lane.”
Dillon originally generated the title during her own battle with nostalgia. She was getting over a relationship with another songwriter, and she still missed him significantly.
“When I hear that song, I picture exactly where it was — the house and the place, for me,” she recalls. “I think the guys had their own versions of that as well in their minds when we were writing it.”
One of the guys — likely Rosen — came up with the opening line, “If I could buy a house on Memory Lane,” and Ramsey chimed in with quick rhymes: “I’d put my money down, and I’d sign my name.” They envisioned a corner lot, but never identified the cross street. (It’s tempting to think it’s Lonely Street, which would put Memory Lane in the same neighborhood as Heartbreak Hotel.)
Since that “Memory Lane” title appears in the opening line, it made sense to repeat it in the first line of every successive verse. But that also posed a problem when they reached the chorus; it wouldn’t make sense to repeat the title at the end of the chorus and the beginning of the next verse. So they didn’t included the title in the song’s key stanza.
“It would have been corny to try to somehow wrap the chorus back up into that line,” explains Rosen. “It allows the chorus to just give the images, and it’s such a release when it falls back into that line [in the next verse]. There’s no need to say it in the chorus.”
In fact, they held out the tension at the end of the chorus, creating an extra line over an unresolved chord, while a fantasy from the past — “We’d never let go, and we’d never be over” — plays out in the story. Emphasizing that tension, staying locked in the memory, reminded Rosen of the movie Inception.
“It’s a really trippy sci-fi movie where they figure out how to go into other people’s dreams,” he says. “But sometimes when they’re in a dream, they don’t know [it]. It felt like being in that movie, where if I could just live in this [dream], I wouldn’t care if I came back to reality.”
Since the chorus is designed to circle back to the verse, they couldn’t end “Memory Lane” with the chorus. So they concluded by repeating the first verse and changing the lyrics in the back half of that section to “We’d never fade, never fade, never fade…”
Old Dominion, including bassist Geoff Sprung and drummer Whit Sellers, recorded “Memory Lane” with producer Shane McAnally (Sam Hunt, Midland) at Shrimpboat Sound Studio in Key West, Fla., a facility with an appropriately nostalgic atmosphere.
“It’s this little, unassuming cinder block building that no one knows what’s going on on the inside or pays any attention to, but it’s Jimmy Buffett’s studio,” says Ramsey. “You walk in there, and it’s like a time capsule of his career. There’s Jimmy Buffett memorabilia and all these old Polaroids everywhere. It’s like stepping back in time, and it’s a very creative little vortex.”
Instead of following the band’s typical recording process, in which it plays as much of the track as possible together, “Memory Lane” was built piece by piece over programmed percussion. Sellers replaced most of the synthetic rhythms with real drums after everyone else did their parts, a reversal of the typical order.
Ramsey was challenged by the lead vocal’s phrasing — “It’s really tough to find a place to take your breath and keep going,” he says — and Tursi developed a guitar solo that feels as much like a journey as the rest of the track. “What happens with me is one of those times when we’re running it down, I’ll just take a solo and then spend another 15 minutes trying to beat it,” Tursi says. “And then everyone goes, ‘The first one is the best one.’ I’m never satisfied with anything.”
When Old Dominion played it as a full band for the first time on Jan. 19 in Evansville, Ind., Tursi extended the performance with an adventurous 90-second closing solo after the “never fades” lyric ended. Meanwhile, “Memory Lane” travels to No. 33 on the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 4.
“It just felt like it was strong and artistic and commercial, and it had the right balance of everything,” Tursi says.
And it brings a fresh attitude to a very familiar phrase from the past.