Originally published in the November 9, 2015 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
As country music splits into a rainbow of subcategories to accommodate option-hungry listeners, artists are given fresh leeway to experiment and, with luck, elicit a reaction. In the midst of this momentum, one new band has discovered an intriguing niche.
With “Break Up With Him”—a grooving, half-serious attempt at winning back an already-gone ex-girlfriend—and a new debut album, Meat and Candy, Old Dominion is combining the dial-up-connected diversity of ’90s pop culture with undeniable musical talent and a smirking sense of sarcasm.
On a rain-soaked fall afternoon in Nashville, the band is seated around a massive conference table near Music Row. The meeting should be all business for singer Matthew Ramsey, lead guitarist Brad Tursi, keyboardist/guitarist Trevor Rosen, bassist Geoff Sprung and drummer Whit Sellers, but they can’t help cracking jokes. “Break Up With Him,” the band’s first major-label single, has just entered the Top 10 on Billboard’s country airplay chart, they just wrapped a summer’s worth of stadium gigs with Kenny Chesney and the very name of their crowning achievement so far—their first full-length effort, Meat and Candy—is a never-ending source of wisecracks.
Over the course of an exclusive interview with Nash Country Weekly, one thing becomes crystal clear: Old Dominion is a different breed of country band.
For starters, the songwriting is kept in-house, since members have written No. 1 hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney (“Save It for a Rainy Day”), Tyler Farr (“A Guy Walks Into a Bar”) and The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”). They play on all their own recordings, too, giving each song a distinct blend of alternative-rock swagger and down-to-earth country realism that’s all their own.
But add in a penchant for laughing at the world around them (and at themselves) and the vibe starts to resemble the country equivalent of a teenaged-pop-punk band. According to Matthew, the band’s friendship is the nonstop-razzing kind, and that helps lead to songs with a true-to-life blend of heartache and comedy.
“I don’t know why it would work for us as opposed to another band,” he says. “But that’s a big part of why it does work for us.”
On Nov. 6, the picture comes into full view with the release of their debut album, Meat and Candy. Featuring infectious, radio-friendly hooks, quirky turns of phrase and an anything-and-everything approach to country’s new soundscape, the entire 11-track album was co-written by members of the band.
“At this point, we’re not necessarily interested in doing what we’re doing if it’s not something we created,” Matthew explains. “That’s not to say it’s the wrong thing to do, it’s just that we’ve spent a lot of time developing our songwriting, we do really care about it and we are obviously saying something that is different.”
Old Dominion borrows its name from the nickname for Virginia, where four members have family ties. They first formed in Nashville in 2007, but the lineup wasn’t complete until lead guitarist Brad came on board in 2012. Before that, each member was songwriting or playing in other bands, but suddenly a just-for-fun side project looked like it had a shot at the big time.
“None of us sat down and said ‘We’re gonna make a run at this,’” Geoff explains. “It was this process where it was something we did for our own enjoyment, and then it was something we did because we could make some money on the side, and then slowly it just started to consume all of our time.”
Their first EP, released independently, featured the clever come-on “Shut Me Up,” but it was “Break Up With Him” that struck a chord and led to a deal with RCA Nashville. The song eventually spent six weeks at No. 1 on XM’s The Highway Hot 45 Countdown, introducing fans across the nation to a group ready to challenge the boundaries of country lyrics.
“A lot of times when we’re writing a song, we’re just trying to make each other laugh,” Matthew says. “Sometimes things like ‘Break Up With Him’ come out and it’s like ‘Why not say that? Who says you can’t?’”
“We’re not serious about our dirt roads,” Brad says, laughing.
“I mean, we’re sarcastic jerks,” clarifies Matthew. “That’s just all there is to it.”
The song’s success led to the band earning a coveted opening spot on Kenny Chesney’s The Big Revival Tour this summer, testing their mettle in football stadiums all across the country. Impressed, Kenny has invited them back for next summer, too, all stemming from a witty tune written in the back seat of a van.
“It started at a soundcheck,” says Trevor. “A lot of times at soundcheck when you’re getting your instrument plugged in, you start noodling around. Whit starts playing a beat, Brad starts playing a riff, and usually one of us will have a phone nearby [to record on] just in case. I remember lifting up the phone and being like, ‘That’s cool.’
“I don’t know if it was that night or a couple of nights later, but I was on the back bench of the van still awake, and Matt popped his head up and was like ‘Hey man, I was thinking about that groove we had,’” Trevor continues. “He had the idea for a one-sided phone conversation. We didn’t want to wake anyone up, so he was whispering into the phone, like ‘hey girl, what’s up?’”
“Sometimes one just falls out,” says Matthew. “I went ‘I know you ain’t in love with him, break up with him,’ and we kind of looked at each other like ‘I think that’s it.’”
In the song, a character calls his ex-girlfriend and, after admitting to being a bit buzzed, tells her flat-out to ditch her new man. Despite the blunt message, it’s not aggressive in the slightest—more like comic, as the plan is obviously a long shot and probably won’t fly. It’s all backed by a woozy, easygoing sound that completes the scene: a tin-can piano, throaty vocals and a guitar that slumps in mock defeat.
So far, it’s the only time all five members of the band have written something together, and, like the rest of the album, it was produced by Shane McAnally, one of Nashville’s most adventurous songwriter/producers. Shane’s current credits range from the Texas twang of Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material to the urban flow of Sam Hunt’s Montevallo.
“We all listen to everything, we’re not just country fans or rock fans,” Matthew says. “And I think you ultimately just become a product of that. I’m still a huge fan of Pearl Jam. I feel like artists are listening to everything now, but more importantly, everyone is.”
Almost all of the tracks on Meat and Candy seem influenced by genres that played a big part in the ’90s music scene, from the industrial-rock underbelly of “Wrong Turns” and the adult-contemporary feel of “Crazy Beautiful Sexy” to the Caribbean-inflected, island-pop breeze blowing behind “Said Nobody.”
Another clever concept based on a wisecrack between friends, the song features a rundown of mood-killers like I just want to turn in early, I don’t want to see where this goes, before bursting wide open with the punchline: said nobody! It’s just another example of the band members trying to make each other laugh and ending up with something special.
“Brad was driving the van and I was in the passenger seat,” says Matthew (they’ve since upgraded to a tour bus). “Trevor was between us with a little guitar we have, and Brad was just being funny, making up stuff as he was driving and trying not to be bored. I think he actually said the first couple lines of the song and went, ‘Said nobody!’ expecting us to be like ‘That’s the dumbest thing ever,’ but we were like ‘That’s pretty cool, man.’”
That was also the case with their
album title. Meat and Candy was never RCA’s first choice, once again full of sarcasm and a “That’s what she said” level of seriousness. With a suggestively posed woman on the cover surrounded by odd combinations of savory and sweet, it might remind some fans of the ’90s—this time, perhaps, Blink 182’s sexy/strange Enema of the State artwork.
“It definitely has that vibe to it, but it really is about the songs that are on there,” Matthew says with a grin. “When we sat down to pick songs for the album, we were talking about what else we wanted, and said, ‘It looks like we’ve got a lot of ear candy, we need some meat in there, too.’ Shane McAnally just threw it out there, like ‘You should call it Meat and Candy.’ And we all got wide-eyed and were like ‘That’s exactly what we’re gonna call it.’
“Shane said somebody from the label texted him one day and said ‘Meat and Candy, really?’” Matthew continues proudly. “And he said, ‘That’s exactly the reaction they want.’”
SIDEBAR: A Gig Like No Other
Kenny Chesney spotted the talent in Old Dominion early on, so the country superstar gave the fledgling group a big boost by inviting them on his massive 2015 stadium run, The Big Revival Tour. The band ended up opening 18 shows over the course of the summer and came away with some important lessons for next year, when they’ll join Chesney’s traveling circus once again.
“Wear shoes with treads on the bottom,” jokes singer Matthew Ramsey.
“He landed on his head one show. It was rough,” keyboardist/guitarist Trevor Rosen explains.
All jesting aside, it turns out performing in a stadium full of country fans is every bit as exhilarating and terrifying as you’d expect.
“A stadium is a lot different than a club,” says Trevor, “so you learn a lot about song choice. You watch somebody like Chesney and all the songs he plays, and how they just resonate in a stadium. The other thing we learned is just how to be a professional. The way Kenny treats every individual on his team and crew—from top to bottom—everyone is well respected and taken care of.”
“You can just tell that he does that because of the way they treat us,” Matthew adds. “We’re just this rinky-dink little band that gets to play for 20 minutes. We’re the first of five opening acts, but you couldn’t drop something without somebody running over and picking it up for you.”
Matthew and lead guitarist Brad Tursi (along with Andrew Dorff) co-wrote Kenny’s latest No. 1, “Save It for a Rainy Day,” so Kenny started bringing the Old Dominion guys onstage for unbelievable, stadium-wide singalongs as the tour wound down. But the band didn’t truly realize what they had been a part of until they got home.
“Now, here we are watching football,” Matthew says with a laugh, “and every time we’re going, ‘Yup, played that stadium.’”