On “So You Go,” a song on Virginia-based country band Old Dominion’s upcoming second album, lead singer Matthew Ramsey weaves an engaging tale about a couple caught in an on-again/off-again loop (“She tells you it’s over, this time she means it, she doesn’t love you, but you don’t believe it”) but with a surprise twist happy ending. Or is it? Ask the band members what the song is about and their response goes like this:
“There are a lot of relationships where you break up, get back together, break up, and then suddenly it works,” says Ramsey.
“It might not be a happy ending,” muses multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen. “She might just be getting a booty call.”
“Sounds like a happy ending to me, man,” Ramsey says.
“Or she might be like, ‘You want to come over? I’m going to tell you one more time, face to face, that you’re a fucking asshole,’” says guitarist Brad Tursi.
Concludes Ramsey with a comically sad sigh: “Clearly, we don’t know what the songs are about.”
The above exchange says a lot about the playful spirit that exists between the five friends in Old Dominion, two of whom have known each other since high school, Virginians Ramsey and drummer Whit Sellers, who met Tursi and bassist Geoff Sprung (also Virginians) in college, and rounded out by Detroit native Rosen, whom the others met in Nashville, where they each moved to pursue careers as songwriters (Ramsey, Rosen, Tursi) and session players (Sprung and Sellers). In Nashville, Ramsey, Rosen, and Tursi have enjoyed major success writing for other artists, collectively scoring an impressive string of hits (including seven No. 1’s) for such artists as Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Tyler Farr, Sam Hunt, and The Band Perry.
Initially, the members of Old Dominion got together to showcase the songs they had been writing for other acts, but they formalized their arrangement as a band in 2007 when they began to catch fire on the live circuit. “We already knew we were hit songwriters because people were recording our songs and making them hits,” Rosen says. “People were coming out to see us. We just couldn’t get a record deal. So we said, ‘Let’s go out and play a million shows and build it ourselves. Let’s keep writing and record something that we think is the album.’ Then a hit happened. And a hit changes everything.”
That hit was “Break Up With Him,” a sly, hip-hop-influenced toe-tapper that became the first single off Old Dominion’s 2015 debut album Meat and Candy. After going into heavy rotation on SiriusXM’s The Highway, “Break Up With Him” spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. One of the band’s favorite memories is performing it at the Boots and Hearts Festival in Ontario and having 20,000 people sing along. “We weren’t a big name, and we had never been to Canada,” Rosen recalls. “We were just looking at each other going, ‘What is happening? This is actually working.’”
With its offbeat charm, “Break Up With Him” signaled the band’s fresh approach to songwriting. Old Dominion are something of anomaly in Nashville in that they write and play their own songs, and, while Ramsey’s voice has an easy, companionable twang, there is nary a fiddle to be found. The band prefers to create inventive arrangements that are influenced as much by rock and pop as by country. Yet country radio and fans have embraced them. The gold-certified Meat and Candy climbed to No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart and spawned the gold-certified “Snapback” in addition to “Break Up With Him,” which has been certified Platinum. A third single, “Song For Another Time,” also reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. Old Dominion have been nominated for three ACM Awards (winning Best New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year in 2016), as well as two CMT Awards, an American Music Award, and a 2017 iHeart Radio Music Award.
Their success led to an insatiable demand for their live shows. Old Dominion were personally invited to open two stadium tours for Kenny Chesney. “That has definitely shaped who this band is,” Ramsey says of the experience. “We watched him and thought, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta step this up.’” This year, Old Dominion have been on the road with both Thomas Rhett and Miranda Lambert. “We try to learn something every time,” Sprung says. “I have been pulled to the side of the stage by someone in the band who says, ‘This is working right now. What part of this do we need to poach?’”
It was during their endless touring that Old Dominion began coming up with ideas for their second album, which was produced by Meat and Candy producer Shane McAnally. The as-yet-untitled album finds the band excavating lyrically driven, melodic gems with true emotional depth and a nostalgia-laden, happy-sad appeal. “We love feel-good songs,” Ramsey says. “Sometimes you just want to put on something that makes you smile. It’s a big part of who we are, but we definitely wanted to show that we were capable of writing more than just fun, party tunes. We think we have the potential to be around for a long time. To stick around you have to have meaningful songs.”
The album’s first single, “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart,” signifies the band’s desire to deliver songs with a message. With lyrics like, “You gotta love like there’s no such thing as a broken heart,” the song, which is climbing the Country Airplay chart, is a powerful directive to live fearlessly. “Shoe Shopping” puts a unique spin on an old pick-up line (“If you’re shoe shopping, try me on for size”), while “Written In The Sand” finds an unpredictable way to take a story about uncertainty in a relationship (“Are we names in a tattoo or just a number on a hand?”) to a clever, yet emotionally resonant place.
“I think the challenge for any songwriter is to say the same thing everyone has already said but in a different way,” Ramsey says. “Because there are only so many things that people want to hear about, so you have to find a new way to say it.” Adds Rosen: “A publisher in Nashville we knew used to say, ‘The last thing anybody needs is another decent song.’”
In the end, Ramsey says he wants the new album “to show everyone, as well as ourselves what we can do. We made a really great romantic comedy with Meat and Candy, but it was time to grow into making something more.”
“We don’t just do romantic comedies,” Rosen says.
“Yeah. We can make dramas,” Ramsey says. “Dramedies.”
“Horror films, sometimes,” deadpans Sprung. “That’s to come.”
Finishes Ramsey: “On social media, we see Snapchats of people on a boat listening to our songs. I just want more of that.”