Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion Talks About The Band’s Debut Album Meat And Candy, And Writing Their Songs

Old Dominion, Matthew Ramsey
OLD DOMINION (Matthew Ramsey, center)

Country group Old Dominion, which is comprised of Matthew Ramsey (lead singer), Trevor Rosen (keyboards & guitar), Brad Tursi (guitar), Geoff Sprung (bass), and Whit Sellers (drums), originally started playing together to showcase their songwriting—and to make a little bit of extra money. After many years of writing and performing and perfecting their craft, the band members started to have songwriting success, getting cuts with Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Dierks Bentley, Tyler Farr, The Band Perry, Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Craig Morgan, Dustin Lynch, Keith Urban, Sam Hunt and Jake Owen.

This year, their success belongs solely to them. And while 2016 will likely not go down in history books as “The Year of Old Dominion,” one could certainly make a case for it.

Meat and Candy, their gold debut album (which was produced by top Nashville songwriter Shane McAnally), was released in November 2015 and has enjoyed three Top 5 singles. The album’s first single, “Break Up with Him,” spent two weeks at #1 on Billboard country chart, and their follow-up single, “Snapback,” reached #2. The group’s current single, “Song for Another Time”—about a love affair coming to an end cleverly written by stringing together 20 song titles—has reached #1.

In April. Old Dominion took home the ACM award for New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year, and later in the year they received CMA nominations for New Artist of the Year and Vocal Group.

In addition to their chart success, Old Dominion has been touring steadily throughout the year, playing 177 shows. The band rejoined Kenny Chesney on the road for the Spread The Love Tour, along with Miranda Lambert and Sam Hunt. This is the second time they’ve been invited to tour with Chesney, having opened for him in the summer of 2015. Then in September, the group kicked off their first headlining tour.

Even though the band has released only one album so far, they’ve written more than enough songs cut by other artists to pull from and mix in: “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” cut by Tyler Farr, “Save it for a Rainy Day” cut by Kenny Chesney and a gritty version of “Chainsaw” cut by The Band Perry. They’ve also tried out new songs for their audience including “Be With Me” and “Not Everything’s” About You,” which are slated for their second album which will be released in 2017.

We caught up with Matthew Ramsey during a break for the holidays and we’re pleased to present this new Q&A interview, where Ramsey talks about songwriting, musical influences and how it feels to play to sold-out crowds.

CR: First, I want to congratulate you on the success of your album. You’ve had an amazing year.

Matthew Ramsey: Thank you, yes it has been quite a ride this year.

CR: In addition to your touring, have you also been working on a new album?

Here’s the video of Old Dominion’s hit single, “Song for Another Time.”

Ramsey: We’re still touring pretty hard. We [were off] for a week for Thanksgiving, and in those little trips home that we get, we are working on the next album. We’ve been to the studio for a couple sessions and we did about seven songs, so we’ve got a pretty good head start.

CR: Are you back in the studio, working with (writer/producer) Shane McAnally?

Ramsey: Yes. Shane is back in there with us.

CR: Have you written all the songs for the album, or are you still writing?

Ramsey: So far yes, we’re writing a bunch and we have a bunch of songs written too, so we haven’t quite picked them all. We have another session to do or maybe two more sessions left before we finish the album, and we aren’t quite sure what we’re going to record yet, but we’ve got a few in mind. The songs are there; it’s just a matter of deciding which ones we want on the album.

CR: You guys have been busy touring. I heard in an interview that you said that you almost attack songwriting like a 9 to 5 job, so how do you handle songwriting when you’re on tour?

Ramsey: Well it’s a little different than a 9 to 5 job, in that you’re always thinking about it and always looking for it and always listening for ideas or for things people say, or just any kind of thing that will spark a song. So it’s just a matter of sitting down to write the song. The road definitely changes how you can write. Luckily, three of us in the band (Ramsey, Rosen & Tursi) were already writing together a lot before [our band] ever happened—we were already working together and we already knew we were good with each other, so we have that benefit of knowing that anytime we want to, we have two co-writers there that are excellent and that we can always kind of lean on. But in the meantime, we also fly co-writers out and try to do that as much as we can.

CR: I read that you’re going on tour with Miranda Lambert next year. Do you think you might write songs with her in the future?

Ramsey: We would love to; we’ve never done that, but I’d jump at that chance.

CR: Are you mainly writing songs for yourselves these days, or are you still writing songs for other artists?

Ramsey: We have a few potential [cuts] out there that are with other artists, that haven’t quite been cut yet. Not every song can be an Old Dominion song that we write, but we are definitely taking a harder look at them before we turn them loose. We’re definitely taking more care and considering what we want to do with a song before we decide.

CR: I read that you have a Degree in Illustration. Did you originally want to be an artist?

Here’s the video of Old Dominion’s hit, “Snapback.”

Ramsey: Yeah, you know, I was always drawn to art and painting and drawing, all through school. I was in bands, and then I would find excuses to spend the rest of my day in the art room in high school. When it came time to go to college, I decided that art might be something I could do, but of course I was playing in bands and writing songs the whole time. And then when it came graduation time, I decided that I needed to put all my focus into one of those things in order to be good at one of them. So in the end I chose music.

CR: Who were some of your musical influences growing up?

Ramsey: Me personally, I’m a huge Springsteen fan, that’s my hero. I definitely studied his music and his performance a lot, so I got a lot from him. I was also a big grunge fan—a big Pearl Jam and Soundgarden fan. Also, there was a radio in our kitchen going on all that time that had country radio on, so I was always exposed to that. So I kind of had everything. My dad was real good at playing [different music]; he had a whole record collection where he would play one song from a Motown record and while that was playing he’d be picking out a Led Zeppelin record, and then he’d pick out a Waylon Jennings record. He just kept me exposed to everything, so I was really lucky in that respect.

CR: When you write songs, what comes first for you? Is it the music or lyrics, or is it a combination?

Ramsey: It’s kind of a combination. Lots of times a lyric idea will come first and then the music kind of comes. It’s funny…I was on a co-write the other day with Shane McAnally and (hit writer/producer) Luke Laird, and Luke said something I’d never really thought of. We were throwing around this lyrical idea and listening to lots of different music options and playing through things. He said, “Let’s work on the lyrics because we can write [the] music all day,” which is true. It seems much easier to just play something and have it go somewhere, than it does to just spit out a lyric. So it was definitely interesting to hear him say that, but usually they just all kind of fall together piece by piece, together.

CR: Which do you think is more important? Is it the music or the lyrics that makes a song great?

Ramsey: I think that depends on the song. I think there are songs that I love that half the time I don’t even know what they’re saying. It just doesn’t matter…it just feels so good. And then there are songs that might just be a completely generic melody that you’ve heard a million times, but the lyrics just hit you in a different way and they say something special. So I think you can have both types of songs. Speaking from our work, I think “Snapback,” which was a hit for us, is more about the feel than it is about the lyrical content. I mean, there’s some cool, catchy lines in there, but it’s not going to change the world—it just makes people feel good and want to sing along and dance, because of the way that song feels. I think that’s the most important thing about that song. And then there are other songs, like “Song for Another Time,” where I think maybe the lyrics are a little more important.

Here’s the video of Old Dominion’s first hit, “Break Up With Him.”

CR: My favorite quote about writing is from Mark Twain and it goes “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” How hard do you guys work to get the right words?

Ramsey: Wow. I think we work really hard at that. That’s something that I’m very proud of. Of our circle of writers and in this band, I think we work really hard to make sure every word is right. We don’t want there to be anything that’s throw-away. There’s a lot of songs out there that are full of that and they work for their own reasons, but I think we tend to not want to settle for that kind of thing; we don’t care about getting to lunch. We want to make sure that the word is right. I think we pay very close attention to that.

CR: Are there any places in particular that ideas just sort of come to you?

Ramsey: Sometimes in the shower they come to me for some reason. “Save it for a Rainy Day,” the song I wrote for Kenny Chesney, that came to me in the shower. I had one the other day that happened in the shopping mall. It can hit you anytime.

CR: And do you write it down right away or do you remember it?

Ramsey: No, I usually try to write it down as quick as I can, just in case. I’ve learned the hard way that you will not {always] remember that idea.

CR: Old Dominion has recently come off a big stadium tour with Kenny Chesney, and you’re on your first headlining tour. How do you like playing these smaller venues? Are they 2,000 seaters?

Ramsey: Yeah, they’re mostly around 1,500 – 2,000 seats. This tour has been incredible. The amount of shows that end up selling out…it’s crazy. We never [expected] that…these people are cramming in there and singing every word…it’s really been so much fun. It’s given us a lot of energy to finish out the year. We were already pretty tired, coming into this tour, but it’s really breathing new life into our set.

CR: Do you prefer doing the smaller clubs or the stadiums?

Ramsey: The stadiums are amazing—when we play the stadiums [we know] we’re the opening band, and it’s cool to look out there and see that kind of building. But when you’re the headliner for 2,000 people, it feels like a stadium when they’re screaming like they are and singing every word. There’s just no feeling like that. So, I can’t imagine what it feels like when you are in a stadium, to have that kind of energy like we saw Kenny (Chesney) do for the last two summers. But right now we’re having a blast, playing these clubs (as headliners).

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