Even before the reigning CMA vocal group of the year country quintet Old Dominion had inked its label deal with Sony Music Nashville in 2015, the group’s songwriting prowess and well-honed onstage showmanship had attracted the attention of country superstar Kenny Chesney.
Seated at Nashville’s Morris Higham Management, who manages both acts, Old Dominion lead vocalist/guitarist Matthew Ramsey recalls the first of the band’s career-elevating, stadium concert-opening stints for Chesney, not long after signing their label deal.
“San Francisco 49ers Stadium,” Ramsey says. “I remember I had my AC 15, playing a stadium stage with this little barely working, crappy amp that I had pretty much moved to Nashville with. We played the show and someone told our tour manager, ‘You need to get your crew to get your gear off the stage a little faster.’ And he’s like, ‘What crew? We don’t have anybody.’ And from that moment they were like, ‘We got you.’ The generosity of his whole team is incredible. And it became the beginning of this.”
‘This’ is more than a decade in which Old Dominion’s members have established themselves as hit writers behind hit songs for Chesney, Craig Morgan, Chris Young and other artists, but also as purveyors of their own hits, including their debut single “Break Up With Him,” the dreamy, romantic “One Man Band” and the liquor-fueled, post-breakup kiss-off “On a Boat that Day.” They’ve earned seven Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits, won five CMA vocal group of the year honors (they are the reigning winners in the category and up for the same honor this year) and six ACM group of the year statues, while also scoring a Grammy nomination and two Top Country Albums chart-toppers.
With the group’s new album, Memory Lane, out Friday (Oct. 6), band members Ramsey, Brad Tursi, Trevor Rosen, Geoff Sprung and Whit Sellers aim to add to their chart-topping status.
Along the way, Old Dominion has also painstakingly built a reputation as one of country music’s leading live acts. They’ve now joined Chesney’s tours five times — more than any other artist — and have long progressed from filling clubs to selling out arenas, including on the fall leg of their headlining No Bad Vibes 2023 tour, which includes stops at Grand Rapids, Michigan’s Van Andel Arena, Boston’s TD Garden, Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena and Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
Just weeks into the tour, the onstage spontaneity hammered out from years of road-dogging and playing gigs ranging from clubs to stadiums is readily apparent.
The band recently shared footage and photos of heart-tugging audience interactions from the tour on social media. During one show, Old Dominion aided in an audience member’s baby gender reveal, and later welcomed a woman who had been battling cancer to join them onstage to sing a song from their fan-favorite album Meow Mix. During another show, the group welcomed a young boy onstage to sing with the band.
“At the time, we didn’t realize his full story,” Ramsey says. “We found out later that he had some hearing impairment problems that he had overcome, and it was pretty cool to have him onstage. The same night as the gender reveal, was the night that the woman who was battling cancer just wanted to sing ‘Meow Mix’ with us, so we’re meowing and crying at the same time.”
“No matter what venue we are playing, we try to make it as intimate as possible,” says bassist/vocalist Sprung. “We just try to be authentically us, and when we see moments like that that show us our music is affecting somebody, it’s pretty great.”
Their approach to making albums has progressed, too. While their early albums were crafted piecemeal, slotting in recording sessions between tour dates, they took a different approach with their 2022 project Time, Tequila and Therapy, decamping to Asheville, North Carolina and steeping themselves in writing and recording.
They brought that same mindset into Memory Lane, including spending four days in Key West to focus on writing (which resulted in two of the album’s songs, “Ain’t Got a Worry” and “Easier Said With Rum”).
“We don’t have to feel like we have to make it sound like a radio hit,” Tursi says. “We can explore a lot of different things if we want to throw a steel guitar and we chase the song wherever it takes us and there’s just no worry about where it ends up.”
That ethos rings true on their new album. Sonically, Memory Lane ranges from the remorseful “Both Sides of the Bed,” to the vivid swirl of lyrics on “Different About You,” such as “Don’t nobody want to be the yellow Starburst/Everybody reaching for the cherry first.”
“I have a good friend who works with inner-city, underprivileged kids and she became attached to this one young girl, [who] was dating a guy who wasn’t abusing her or anything, but she wasn’t getting the love and affirmation she needed. And she had said, ‘I don’t want to be your yellow Starburst.’ I knew exactly what she meant, and I wrote it down. Sometimes a whole song just hinges on one line.”
Another album track, the free-spirited “Some Horses,” marks the first song Old Dominion has ever recorded that they didn’t have a hand in writing (the song comes courtesy of two of the band’s longtime musical collaborators, Matt Jenkins and writer-producer Shane McAnally). But the group has been familiar with the song for more than a decade.
“They wrote it back when we were just trying to all struggle and be successful songwriters, playing writer’s rounds and things,” Ramsey says. “It was written in third person, but one day, I was talking with Trevor about songs we loved and that song came up. Then I was at home the morning before we went into the studio to work on the album and I started playing the song and just changed it to first person, because I identified with it so much more. We talked to Shane and texted Matt and said, ‘Do you mind if we change the song a bit?’ They said ‘yes’ and we gave it a shot.”
Old Dominion has been judicious with its collaborations on record, featuring soul icon Gladys Knight on Time, Tequila & Therapy, and fellow country music group Little Big Town on the Happy Endings album. With Memory Lane, it enlists “Tennessee Orange” hitmaker and Sony labelmate Megan Moroney for “Can’t Break Up Now.” The tart ballad, the group’s new single, debuted at No. 54 on the Country Airplay chart. It follows the album’s first single, the title track, which peaked at No. 4 on Country Airplay.
“We had that song for probably three years now,” says Ramsey, who wrote “Can’t Break Up Now” with Rosen, Tofer Brown and Emily Weisband. “We talked about what kind of partner we would want in that — there was a million ideas and we never could quite land on one that we agreed on really. Then Megan shows up with ‘Tennessee Orange.’ She’s such a unique voice and so confident in who she is at this early stage in her career. It just seemed like the right fit. Luckily, she was interested in recording it.”
Elsewhere, Blake Shelton joins on “Ain’t Got a Worry.” “He’s been telling us that we’re his favorite band for years and years and years,” says lead guitarist/vocalist Tursi with a sly grin. “He finally was like, ‘You guys, let’s do a song together’ — so we sent him a few things and he liked that one. We happened to be in the same studio at Ocean Way [in Nashville], recording some other songs, so we hopped over and he sang the vocal.”
With the release of Memory Lane, the band is ready to introduce new songs into their live shows, bolstering their already deep catalog of hits with a new batch to further expand the ties between artist and audience.
“It’s like how Jimmy Buffett built his world and Kenny built his world,” says Ramsey. “We’re trying to build a whole culture when fans come to our shows.”
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