Recently, when Old Dominion stepped onstage at its live shows, something unusual happened. “It was a whole different feeling!” says the country rock outfit’s frontman and lead singer Matthew Ramsey, excitedly relaying how audience members at the five-piece band’s gigs are now belting their lyrics back at him. Sure, this might have regularly happened in the past when the red-hot band comprised of seasoned Nashville songwriters and pro-musicians performed songs they’d written for other high-profile artists, including The Band Perry, Keith Urban and Luke Bryan. But hearing their own music getting so much love? Well, that was something different entirely. “To hear that and to feel that interaction it takes it to a completely different level,” Ramsey explains. “It’s a breath of fresh air to play for a crowd of people that knows your music.”
Playing for an unconditioned crowd is looking to be a thing of the past. Blending old-fashioned country charm, lyrical wit and rock n’ roll grit into radio-friendly hook-heavy pop nuggets — traits best exemplified on their gut-punch of a new self-titled EP — Old Dominion have emerged as one of the hottest breaking bands in country music. “It’s kind of the classic, seven-year overnight success story,” lead guitarist Brad Tursi says with a laugh, reflecting on the longtime friends and collaborators slow-burning rise to recognition. “I think we’re all lucky enough to really love what we do and in that respect we were gonna just keep doing it no matter what.”
A band stocked with time-tested song craftsmen, Old Dominion, which includes lead singer Matthew Ramsey, multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen, bassist Geoff Sprung, drummer Whit Sellers, and lead guitarist Brad Tursi, write nearly every day. It’s a custom ingrained within them. So when piecing together their EP, which addresses road-tripping reflection, long-night love affairs and boozy bad decisions at every turn, it wasn’t so much a matter of writing catchy songs but instead choosing from their well of stellar material. The five resulting tracks speak as much to their pristine decision-making skills as their musical chops. “We just try to find a groove or a hook or something that catches our ear, follow that rabbit trail and try to chase down a good song,” says Rosen, and the proof lies in the foot-stomping whiplash of their new single “Break Up With Him,” the hard-charging rock riot “Shut Me Up” (“We wanted to really put across what our live show was like,” Ramsey says. “It’s an energetic song and we’re an energetic band.”) and the slow strutting “Nowhere Fast” (“That one was a bear to wrestle into what it is now,” the singer offers).
“Break Up With Him” evolved from a loose pre-show jam session into the earworm of a single it is today. “The groove was the fist thing that happened,” Tursi recalls. “We started singing some little melody. And then I think Matt and Trevor worked on it in the van another day.”
Adds Ramsey: “It was like two in the morning and we were headed to Myrtle Beach to do a show and we were sitting in the back of the van just working on it. The one thing that makes that song special to us is that’s the first song that all five of us have written together.”
If Old Dominion’s songs seem tailor made for the radio it’s due in large part to its band members spending years polishing their songwriting skills on the Nashville circuit.
“Having success as songwriters has definitely helped the band,” Rosen says. “It helped snowball the process and get us a lot of attention as a band. Because then we could go out on the road and play for crowds that didn’t know us and say, ‘Here’s a song we wrote.’ They’d go ‘Oh, these guys wrote this song.’ It makes people pay attention.”
Still, frustration, as is the case for even the most talented of musical acts, set in at times over the band’s multi-year journey to success. The fact that they were longtime friends — Ramsey and Sellers grew up together in Virginia; Sellers met Rosen and Sprung in college; Rosen and Ramsey linked up in Nashville — though helped alleviate the struggle. “It’s been a lot of years of meeting people that say, ‘Why aren’t you guys bigger? Why aren’t you guys huge?’ and not having a good answer,” Sprung admits.
“Everybody gets that at some point in their musical career though,” Tursi chimes in, “whether it’s your mom telling you you’re great or whatever. But I think that it’s just all about the belief in yourself and the band as a unit. That’s a big thing. It’s an underlying driving force.”
They survived because behind it all the five guys are super-tight friends. “It helps when you like your bandmates,” Ramsey concurs laughing. “Because as long as we’ve been doing this for nobody and for no gain we must like each other because we’d have killed each other if we didn’t.”
Hitting the stage and tearing through their soon-to-be-household tracks, all big-man-on-campus swagger and polished musicianship, is at the end of the day what brings it home for Old Dominion. “The live show, it’s very important to us,” Ramsey says. “There’s a lot of meetings and things these days that we’re in, so it’s those times onstage when we get to do what we do that are most fulfilling.” “That’s one of the things that sets us apart out there: we are a band,” Tursi says. “A lot of these country artist it’s this one guy and then the band is kind of in the background, almost interchangeable. Immediately that gives us a different sound.”
With a slew of upcoming gigs at top-notch venues and mega-tours supporting the likes of Kenny Chesney, and Eli Young Band, the members of Old Dominion are undoubtedly excited about the future. And yet these country music lifers remain nothing if not extremely humble. Rosen adds, “Every time we achieve a new level we go ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe we made it to this level!’ And plus,” he adds with a chuckle, “now our wives’ parents no longer think we don’t have jobs.”