Making it in the country music game is not for the weak of heart and mind: There you are in Nashville, hundreds of songwriters, jam-packed into nondescript offices on Music Row, each trying their damnedest to write that one hit song an ear-wormy hook and just enough sentiment to pluck them from obscurity to CMA stardom. The dudes in Old Dominion know this world well—these five country lifers grinded it out for over a decade on the country songwriting circuit. And sure, they were talented enough to pen a cadre of hits songs for big-time country acts like Kenny Chesney, The Band Perry, and Dierks Bentley but now, unlike many others in their position, Old Dominion find themselves on the cusp of superstardom.
Yes, over the past 12 months, with the release of their self-titled EP and, most notably, its smash-hit single “Break Up with Him,” Old Dominion have emerged as one of the hottest new acts on the country scene. With their debut album, Meat and Candy, out on November 6, the five-piece band blends its well-oiled country songwriting chops with a rowdy rock aesthetic honed via a rollicking live show.
As the release of their debut album nears, we chatted with lead singer Matthew Ramsey, guitarist Brad Tursi, and multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen about finally breaking out of the songwriting shuffle, opening for Kenny Chesney, and why Old Dominion like to refer to themselves as the “Grown-Ass Man Band.”
Noisey: It’s been quite the quick ascent for Old Dominion this past year.
Matthew Ramsey: The last six months were interesting. "Break Up with Him" started taking on a life and that’s when we started the [Kenny] Chesney tour. At the beginning of it not that many people knew the song—some of them did—but you could tell by the end the crowds were responding a lot more. We were in this weird position of playing these stadiums on Saturday with Chesney and then going and playing these little country fair and small clubs. Towards the end of that tour we would get to these two-o-clock county-fair gigs and there would be 3,000 people that would show up. It was kind of crazy.
Brad Tursi: We would just be like, “Oh, no one is going to be here today.” And then all these people would be there.
Did it ever begin to feel normal playing those stadium gigs with Chesney—even if just as an opening act?
Ramsey: There were parts of it that did. But the actual playing part of it never seemed normal. We definitely got comfortable in knowing that every Saturday we could show up and we knew what the schedule was and we knew all the people and it was very familiar. and we knew how our day was going to go. But every time you walk out onstage and take a second to look up at the stadium you are playing it never seems normal [laughs].
Constantly on the road, have you guys been able to gauge your growing fanbase?
Ramsey: Just because we’ve been behind the scenes and in the songwriting business we do pay attention to the charts and how things are doing and spin counts and all that stuff. So we do look at that and can tell that the song is moving up the charts. But that’s just looking at a computer screen and words. That’s great, but it doesn’t really give you that direct feedback like the crowds do. Or maybe our record label or our manager will call us and say “Guys, you’re selling this much. We’ve never seen this kind of response.” Again, it’s cool to hear, but you don’t really get the sense until we’re on the stage and I say, “This song is called ‘Break Up with Him’” and suddenly there’s this roar of people and phones come out. That’s really the best indicator for us.
Does the fact that you guys have been around the industry so long before breaking out as a band make you appreciate the success even more?
Tursi: I think it does. We’ve had a lot of long nights in small vehicles and late hours and crazy places and years and years of just trying and trying. I think a certain amount of that helps you navigate the success when it dose come: whether it be making the right decisions with who you pick as your team or just being able to go, ‘I really appreciate every moment that’s happening.’
Ramsey: Our whole team knows our background. Just in the discussions it feels like they’re treating us with a little bit of a different way than they would with another artists who didn’t have our experience. They can be honest with us and they know who we are. We call ourselves the Grown-Ass Man Band. We don’t need anybody to tiptoe around us. We need the truth. It really makes for a relaxed process.
With the massive success of your 2014 EP, how then did you decide what was worthy of inclusion for Meat and Candy?
Ramsey: We write constantly so we never felt like we were having to write for an album. We were just continuing to write like we normally do. With the EP, it was a great little introduction. We just felt like we could expand on that. Obviously this time we had a little bit more time and money to get in the studio. And then it was just a matter of picking the right songs. It came down to looking at this huge list of songs that we have and figuring out how they fit in with the EP and how we can move forward from there.
Take me through the genesis of the album title, Meat and Candy, as well as the memorable cover art.
Ramsey: That was all part of that process of picking the songs. The first song meeting that we had we were figuring out what we were going to go in and record. We were sitting around the table and we had a list of songs and we realized that the first initial list was a lot of ear-candy songs. They were catchy and fun little songs. We said, “Man, there’s a lot of candy on this list. We’re capable of some meat too. We need to throw a little meat and candy in there.” And Shane McAnally, the producer, was there and he was joking and said, “You should just call the album Meat and Candy.” And we all just said, “Yes! That’s exactly what we’re going to call it.” And we never really questioned it from there. We wrote down Meat and Candy and that was it from that day on. And then the cover just came from the discussion. We started having all these ideas of different combinations of meat and candy that could be on the album cover and how we could make it something different and not just have our faces on there. Make it something that people want to look at [laughs].
I think you definitely achieved that goal.
Tursi: Yeah, she’s not bad! I’m looking at it right now.
With your recent success, does the attitude towards your career change at all? Does it remain about simply pounding the pavement?
Ramsey: It’s in the back of our minds that ‘Holy crap! We’re about to release an album and it’s going to be everywhere.’ So that’s crazy. But for the most part it’s just a lot of shows. We just need to make sure we know how to play the songs to best of our ability. Once the album comes out we need to able to represent it right. I don’t know that we’re changing our mindset all that much.
Tursi: I’m excited to just put it out and have our fans have all these new songs. I want to experience whatever reaction they have and see where it takes us.
Ramsey: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome to see online and on social media that people are waiting for the album and they’re pre-ordering it and they’re excited about it. That first day is going to be a lot of fun.
How do you guys feel Old Dominion fits into the larger country-music landscape? I feel like you’re a bit outside the boundaries.
Tursi: We just do what we do and don’t really think about whether it happens to fit into a particular genre. I don’t really think of us as fitting in. Or I should say, we’re not consciously trying to fit into what’s happening in country music.
Trevor Rosen: I’ll tell you this too: Even before the band, when we were working as songwriters we make a conscious decision that we didn’t care about what’s on the radio or trying to write for the radio. ‘Let’s just write cool music that we like and want to listen to.’ And that’s really what started opening doors for us. If you try to chase what’s on the radio and try to chase what’s current you’re probably two years behind. We just try to make something new and fresh. And that way you carve your own path.
Tursi: Also, there are a lot of things that are out of hands. There are so many variables that are working that are out of your control that seem to be working for us right now. People are relating to what we’re doing and it seems to be working.
As songwriters did you feel the same sense of success being out of your hands?
Ramsey: I think it’s always a surprise when a song connects both as a songwriter and a band. It’s always a surprise to us when we see it working. It’s so impossible to get a song through to an artist. And then on top of that, it’s impossible to get them to record it. And then it’s impossible for it to be the single. And it’s impossible for it to work. It’s such a hard road to go down and for a song to make it through, it’s always a complete surprise and very exciting.
What’s the best part right now about being in Old Dominion?
Ramsey: There’s nothing like being in a band. We’re writing songs that we love and we’re playing music that we love and we’re doing it with our friends. It’s really an unbelievable thing. We have so much fun together on and offstage. Every day is a blast. Nobody wants to sleep in because you can hear everybody else laughing and you’re afraid you’re gonna miss something.
Dan Hyman just wants her to break up with him. Follow him on Twitter.