By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
They're crawling out of Dixie like the zombied remains of long-dead Confederate soldiers. Legions of third-generation, Deep South/Gulf Coast pop bands such as Cowboy Mouth, Sister Hazel, Memory Dean, and Better Than Ezra have been slowly infiltrating American radio with a twisted optimism that could come, really, from no place else. Think Midnight in the Garden of FM Radio.
In a strictly provincial sense, Memory Dean is perhaps the most Southern of these bands--which doesn't mean they're a traditional "Southern rock" act. Though based in Atlanta and signed to Macon, Georgia's renowned Capricorn label, Memory Dean's first CD, Shake It Up, avoids the blues-boogie feel associated with a Capricorn legacy that stretches from the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker to Govt. Mule and Ian Moore.
Rather, Memory Dean's music is an intriguing collision of spring-break choruses, beer-fueled rhythm, and a lightly twisted lyrical sense--all of which bring to mind Flannery O'Connor and Brian Wilson harmonizing on a cypress-cloaked veranda over their morning grits.
Within that Deep South context, it's hard to pigeonhole Memory Dean's sound. More than just snappy choruses--there are millions of those floating around, seeking to light in listeners' brains--the band's songs are, on first listen, anchored in the instinctively unique vocal harmonies of co-founding guitarist-singer-songwriters Jay Memory and Bubba Dean. With naturally occurring parts that recall the low harmonies and counter-melodies of the Indigo Girls or, perhaps, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon after a night of tequila, the fluent vocal blend lures you in just long enough for the words to hit you over the head.
And though Shake It Up seems anchored in a typical I-Was-in-College-So-I-Dated-Babes sort of mentality, repeated study reveals something darker going on. To counteract the to-be-expected relationship analysis (as on "Screaming From the Towers," "I Should've Known," and "Pain"), the creepy, funeral flowers and arms of nightmares allusions of "Dying to Live" bespeak a maturity well beyond frat-party keggers.
"When we first started writing, we were in college, so that's what we wrote about," says Jay Memory. He and Dean are calling from their Atlanta headquarters before the band heads back out on a Southwestern tour. "But Bubba's 29, and I just turned 30, and with age comes a sense of clarity and simplicity. The later songs reflect that. It's only natural that, on our first major-label album, this new maturity mingles with the older stuff. The next CD will be all mature stuff, if you want to call it that."
In the meantime, Shake It Up is doing fine. Touring incessantly since the album's release early last summer, Memory Dean has released two singles: "So Complicated" and "I Should've Known," both of which have wriggled onto alternative rock and Triple-A formats with the sort of rising-tide implications that greeted Sister Hazel's "All For You" and Cowboy Mouth's "Jenny Says."
Maybe not coincidentally, Memory Dean has played extensively with both Cowboy Mouth and Sister Hazel. The whole area thinks in terms of brotherhood and unity.
"There's a definite sense of place and philosophy to being a Southern band," Memory says. "There are so many bands in the southeast, so much competition, and a terrific sense of history. You start working, you hone your skills and stage show, and pretty soon you're not only good, you're also pals with a lot of your competition. But everybody starts out on the bottom."
Indeed, it was nine years ago that Jay Memory and Bubba Dean got together as an acoustic duo while students in Athens at the University of Georgia. Originally rivals in street-corner minstrelsy, they hooked up and began writing the sort of songs borne of two things: 1) the innate tradition of a town that gave birth to REM, the B-52s, and several other seminal '80s "modern rock" bands, and 2) the sure knowledge that through music came liquor and sorority girls.
Eventually, the two joined forces and, along the way, realized they were writing songs that people were actually listening to. As such, they began to make immediate inroads in an Athens music scene stuffed with talent. But far from feeling pressure, Memory Dean bellied up to the bar, so to speak. The two reminisce about the early days of their partnership--a time when local bands knew that it was entirely possible for REM's Michael Stipe or Peter Buck to wander into a club they were playing. They also knew better than to expect anything from such occasions.
"If you're from Atlanta, you speak of Greenwich Village or New York City with admiration and awe," Memory says. "But if you live there, it's not such a big deal. It was that way when we were starting in Athens. We had respect, but we weren't intimidated."
Dean adds, "We knew that if someone like Stipe walked in, he just wanted a beer, not to discover talent."
As it turns out, Stipe did walk into an early Memory Dean show. Rather than ignore him and act cool, or get freaked out by his presence, Memory says he simply started into an Indigo Girls song on which he knew Stipe had contributed guest vocals.
"I had the balls to ask him to come up and sing his part," Memory says. "Of course, he said no, but what did it hurt to try?"
That sort of aggression--and no small amount of talent--quickly paid off. From 1992 to '95, the folk-pop duo put out three successful indie CDs, Highway 29, Memory Dean, and Stomp. But as their sound evolved and the songs began to segue from acoustic flavorings to a more driving direction, Memory and Dean decided to add bassist Mark "The Shadow" Ross and drummer Larry Ross. It was anything but a case of two honchos adding some underlings.
"We never wanted to hire a quote-unquote rhythm section," Dean says. "We were writing band-oriented material all along, and we wanted a band. The sort of thing where the four of you walk into a convenience store and people go, 'Whoa...'"
It wasn't long before the new quartet scored the deal with Capricorn; the label had long been aware of Memory Dean and the increasing success of their three indie CDs. The fleshed-out unit's rockier sound and energized live shows convinced them to sign the band.
With producer Jeff Tomei (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul), the band cut Shake It Up in a relatively short period in their native Georgia. Then they hit the road, where, despite the giddiness that comes with a major-label deal and radio-bound singles, the boys in MD are trying to keep everything in perspective.
"We wish we were still young, and we wish it was still like the '70s, with all the excess," Dean says with a laugh. "But to be honest, rock and roll today is about being efficient. We've talked about it. As soon as we can afford the bail money, we're going to trash a hotel room."
Only Memory Dean would orchestrate such things. It reeks of proper Southern decadence.
Memory Dean plays the Copper Tank Brewing Company on Saturday, March 21.