Old Dominion may be best known as a nickname for the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the moniker is set to become synonymous with great country music if the five members of Old Dominion have their way.
Tipped by Billboard, Rolling Stone and Huffington Post as a 2015 band to watch, Old Dominion brings their spirited take on modern country to their RCA Nashville debut, Meat and Candy. While undeniably country, the songs sparkle with clever lyrics, innovative instrumentation, genre-busting arrangements and finger-popping melodies. Even the album’s title alludes to the set’s versatility. “When we first sat down to pick songs for the album, we had a lot of sing-a-long, fun, ‘candy’ songs,” says lead singer Matthew Ramsey. “We decided we needed to show our more serious side a little too. We needed ‘meat’ songs. We needed meat AND candy. ”
The debut single/Top 10 hit, “Break up With Him,” features Ramsey’s seductive spoken verses bolstered by a spiky electric guitar line. Elsewhere on the diverse set, an early romance gets revisited on wistful, nostalgic “Nowhere Fast,” while on “’Til It’s Over,” an eager suitor is willing to go with the flow.
If fans aren’t yet familiar with the quintet’s vibrant sound, they have heard the members’ collective handiwork as songwriters on hits for Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, and The Band Perry, among others.
In today’s world of prefabricated bands put together by producers and acts discovered via reality TV, Old Dominion stands out as a group that formed authentically through the members’ shared love of music and songwriting. They paid their dues mile after mile; a band of brothers in the truest sense.
Even their name attests to their shared roots. Four of the five members have connections to Virginia: Ramsey and drummer Whit Sellers met in middle school around Roanoke. Sellers then became friends with guitarist Brad Tursi and bassist Geoff Sprung at Harrisonburg’s James Madison University. Separately, they wound their way to Nashville as songwriters, performers and/or sessions players, eventually meeting up with Detroit-raised multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen. As they continued pursuing their individual songwriting and session work, Tursi, Sprung, Rosen and Sellers served as Ramsey’s backing band.
“It was kind of this organic thing,” Sprung recalls. “The band was doing as much as we could while pursuing other stuff and it hit a point where things got busy enough that we said, ‘We have to give this an honest go.”
After toiling under various names, the band came up with Old Dominion in 2007. “It was a struggle to come up with a name that reflected our Virginia ties,” Sprung says. We tried state birds, state flowers, and every reference. We assumed there was already a band called Old Dominion, but when we Googled it, all we got was a vet service.”
Old Dominion became road warriors, playing close to 200 dates a year with the help and set-up of Morris Higham Management who manages and books the band. With the direction of Old Dominion’s new found partnership with their management company it wasn’t long until the band attracted the attention of John Marks, SiriusXM’s head of country music programming, who starting playing the band’s music on The Highway channel in 2013.
“He was a big supporter,” Ramsey says. “We were this little band handing out free EPs, playing in the south to nobody and then, suddenly, we had a national audience. We could go to the west coast and people would know our music.”
Old Dominion showcased for record labels, but the timing wasn’t yet right. That all changed with “Break Up With Him,” the one song on Meat and Candy written by all five members. The Highway began playing the song and then terrestrial radio stations also started to give it a spin—an almost unheard of feat for an unsigned band.
“The songwriting success started to fuel the band,” Rosen says. “That helped us get taken seriously. It all started to snowball together. People were paying attention.”
Word of Old Dominion’s growing popularity got back to RCA, who signed the group In March. “We were so busy on the road that we had to sign the deal at baggage claim at the Nashville airport,” Ramsey says. “We landed, signed the contract, and took off again.”
Their hectic tour schedule made finding time to write, much less record, challenging. They wrote with each other and then would bring other songwriters on the tour bus to collaborate as they moved from town to town.
In addition to headlining their own dates, Old Dominion were handpicked to open for Kenny Chesney on this summer’s blockbuster Big Revival Tour and have already been pegged for his 2016 outing. They learned from the superstar on and off stage. “We’re trying to figure out as we grow, how we can model after him,” Sprung say. “The energy level he delivers is phenomenal. We watched backstage every night. There’s no lull.”
Once in the studio, Old Dominion nabbed their pal Shane McAnally, best known for his work with Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt, to produce Meat and Candy since he had already worked on an EP they released through Nashville indie Thirty Tigers (Songs from that self-titled set have been streamed more than 24 million times on Spotify). They grabbed time whenever they could, including recording five songs in one day—a feat that might be daunting for other bands, but given their demo and session work experience, it was a snap. They have nothing but praise for McAnally. “Shane’s really able to hone in on what works for a song and by the end come out with this perfect mixture of the best of all of it,” Sellers says. “He also wasn’t afraid to propel the band to its absolute best or call them out,” Sellers adds. “He’d say, ‘This is good’ or ‘This is the worst thing. We’re never going to do it again.’ And we’d agree.”
That effort included re-working songs right in the studio and not being afraid to throw away the demo version. “There was one particular song, ‘Crazy, Beautiful, Sexy.’ Every time we’d record it, Shane would say, let’s forget about the demo and do something different. And it came out so cool,” says Tursi, of the up-tempo love song. “It would never have ever come out that way if he hadn’t pushed us.”
Unlike many Nashville artists who record with session players instead of their touring bands, Old Dominion played almost every note on Meat and Candy themselves. “That’s something we’re really proud of and want people to know,” Sellers says. “The only session musicians we brought in were for keyboard and an acoustic guitar player.”
The band strived for authenticity over perfection. “Whatever skills we have and any limitations we might have come together in this band,” Ramsey says. “If we’d brought in studio musicians, they’d do a fine job, but it wouldn’t sound like us. We have friendship, chemistry and history.” Pair those with undeniable songwriting chops and musicianship to spare, and prepare to watch Old Dominion bring a new excitement to country music.