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OLD DOMINION: BIG HOOKS AND HONEST MESSAGES

Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung and Brad Tursi were all dreamers who came to Nashville to write songs, play music and see where life might take them. While Ramsey, Rosen and Tursi had all written hits for others, they decided to start a band so that they could write stuff for themselves and have fun playing music. They didn’t expect much, but they found out they liked it.

Six years after releasing their first indie EP, touring in a van and enlisting the help of uber-writer/neophyte producer Shane McAnally, manager Clint Higham and a couple handfuls of great songs, Old Dominion went from being nice guys who could play to a major force in today’s country. Since signing with RCA Nashville in 2015, they’ve racked up #1s with “Break Up With Him,” “Written in the Sand,” “Song for Another Time” and “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” while putting out the gold-certified Meat & Candy and the current hit Happy Endings. And in April, OD won the ACM Vocal Group of the Year award. The fivesome are spending their summer on the road with Kenny Chesney, as well as playing fistfuls of their own dates.

With a propensity for big hooks and melodies that induce smiles, the men 
of OD have crafted a smarter form of pop—aimed squarely at the inter-section of getting real and getting lucky—for Country radio kind of people. 


What ran through your heads when you got called ACM’s Group of the Year?
Trevor Rosen: It was really weird. It was like a dream and felt like slow motion to me because I was not expecting that to come out of [the presenter’s] mouth. We’d been through it twice, where we felt we had a chance to win and started to get that nervous feeling. Then out came the words “Little Big Town.” So that’s kind of what I was expecting to hear. It just sounded weird to hear our name come out of his mouth.

Matthew Ramsey: We talked a lot about how that arena seemed huge all of a sudden. We’ve played awards shows a bunch, but to walk up the stairs, then turn around and look at this room full of people—it’s not a show like it normally is; now you have to speak and accept this award. It just seemed so big.

Geoff Sprung: I literally jumped and yelled ‘No!’ because I’d worked through all the potential outcomes of that moment, and none of them included hearing, “Old Dominion.” There was no slapping me out of slow-mo. 

Once you start to sober up from the adrenaline rush, then what hits you?  Relief? Freak out? Pressure? Terror?
MR: Yes, yes, yes. It’s all those things. The relief was definitely there, because we’d talked a lot about how cool it was to see the members of our team—record label, management company—how important it was to them and how excited they were. It made it mean more to us. There was a pressure that was taken off that we could feel from them, and within ourselves too. We were never super-focused on winning an award. But now that we have, we see its importance.
 

Can you expand on that?
MR: When we first formed the group, it was just about playing songs and making music. Getting famous and winning awards wasn’t something we were focused on. We recognized that it could probably do some good for our career, but we didn’t really consider the sense of validation that would come with getting it—until we got it. Then we went, “Whoa, wait a minute. There are so many people supporting us that we didn’t realize, and it does mean more than just a political award.” 

Songs are a big piece of why you’re all here. What makes a good song?
Brad Tursi: At the core, a great song is something that people can connect with. In country, it’s the lyrics a lot. I feel that’s one of the reasons that “Break Up With Him” did so well. It was an honest message about a situation that everyone has been through.

TR: To me, it’s if you crave hearing it again when its done. Its not always just the lyrics; sometimes it is the melodies. You may not even know what they’re talking about, but you feel it. I remember as a little kid hearing songs made me want to cry or gave me this buzz in my chest. I had no idea what the subject matter was. It’s the candy.

You have a very generous definition of candy.
GS: We like to joke about happy/sad songs in the band. 

What does that mean?
MR: In our happiest songs, somewhere there’s going to be a guitar part, a melody where you can feel sadness—or nostalgia. For me, that comes along with sadness. 

I bought Madonna’s first album and Paula Abdul was out there; people made fun of me. That was totally candy. Sometimes there’s no respect for fizzy-pop goodness. Do you feel any defensiveness about being fizzy-pop-goodness purveyors?
MR: Paula Abdul, right? “Straight up, now tell me/Do you really wanna love me forever/Or am I caught in a hit and run” is the same as our song “Written in the Sand.” That’s the same question: “Is this forever, or is this not forever?” That’s what it is: sadness delivered with candy.

TR: She’s asking, “Do you love me?” That’s a sad question to ask someone, but she’s doing it with a dah-do-do first.
 

It’s interesting how you got into the gist of what women want. Is that conscious?  Why are you guys so femme-savvy?
BT: We are? [laughter]

MR: Complete accident. We’ve had this success at an age that I think comes with a certain maturity. That helps. We’re grown men, and that allows us to be confident.

BT: You know how Ralph Murphy has the Murphy’s Law of Songwriting? Women listen to Country radio. Write a song women want to listen to. 
MR: We’ve been through a lot in our lives, and women respect that you’ve been there. We all have mothers, daughters, wives, girlfriends. We want to be respectful but also recognize the sexuality we all have.



So it’s a “men and women need each other” thing?
MR: Of course! Men—especially straight men—need that woman to allow them to be vulnerable. As humans, we all need that, and I think that’s where women really show their strength. They let you show your vulnerability—and make you feel safe while you’re doing it.

But it’s not always a heavy thing.
MR: Our first single was such a silly little song—we wrote it to amuse ourselves. But it’s a very real moment, and everyone’s been there. We noticed that every time we played it, all these women would just giggle when I’d do the opening line—“Hey, girl, what’s up?”—because that drunken sloppiness and vulnerability is so real. Or in “Be With Me,” there’s a line, “Like your daddy told you when you were a little girl/You could be anything,” that all women remember hearing. It’s so real to them, and real to the guy who’s trying to get with her. It says, “I respect you and your daddy, and c’mon, be with me.”



And then there’s the actual sex.
MR: I think a lot of it is about sex. Whether people like to admit it or not, it’s on people’s minds. Sex is fun; writing about it is fun. Maybe you’re reliving a moment—or a moment you wish you had—because if you write about it personally, people relate. Take what you like, what turns you on, and put it in a song. And be honest.



That’s almost revolutionary.
MR: I don’t know why in our culture it’s almost taboo, but it is. Look at Conway Twitty. There’s nothing wrong with being that guy, putting yourself out there—and telling some woman what you’re thinking. A woman has to know what you want, just like a man has to know what the woman’s thinking.

And your current single, “Hotel Key”?
MR: That is definitely a sex song. It’s about a one-night stand. But the truth is, it could just be one night where you get crazy, and it’ll never be like that again. You got drunk together, laughed together, talked and talked together, and you were all there was in the world. Sure, you had sex together, and it was this amazing thing. But there’s so much more to it than just the sex. It was everything. That line, “We danced by the TV we never turned on”—that line is the whole song.

You guys are all really good musicians, and I’m not sure anyone talks about that. Interesting choices, very melodic as the way you’re moving the beat.  How important is your musicianship to what you do?
TR: It’s something that gets glossed over with the fun candy. We put a lot of years and time and effort into being as good at our craft as we possibly can be. Sometimes when it comes out sounding fun, that doesn’t always show through.

MR:  It does feel good to hear you say that. Because there is also that not-so-confident-in-what-you’re-doing artist thing. We’re out there some nights, and it’s feeling like chaos, feeling like “Maybe we don’t know what we’re doing.” We talk about our limitations lending to our success as much as our abilities do. I think those limitations play just as much of a role in what we sound like. Maybe because we can’t play this crazy lead, we’re forced to go into it more melodically. Whatever that is, it’s part of the chemistry of what we’re doing.


Tell me about your chemistry. You’re truly a band, even though you came together out of the writing community, right?
MR: As songwriters, I think we all look up to those bands who wrote songs and played them. When you’re the person onstage delivering the song, there’s no middle man, and I think that has its own power.


TR: We’re all misfits who found each other. [laughter] We all liked the same stuff. Nobody was cutting our songs anyway, so we figured, “Why not?” If nothing else, it was something we could jam on, or if we wanted to throw in a weird post-chorus or a rap in the verse, it would be OK.


MR:  Nashville can trick you into chasing what’s on the radio, what people wanna hear. You get nowhere doing that. We learned the hard way, even when we were writing hits for other people.

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