It’s a cold, grey day in Nashville when Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion joins our meeting. He is not at his home, or even in a studio – he’s settled in a cabin, north of Nashville. Where exactly is a mystery, but the scene looks rustic. The prominent wood plank walls have a distinct mortar chinking between them, giving it the feel of a cabin built in the 1950s. A huge painting hangs on the wall, a forest scene with a tranquil river running through it. It makes the cabin the type of hideout that has seen a lot of years and a lot of life. Maybe some hit songs have been written at this cabin, or maybe it’s a place for quiet reflection. Either way, Ramsey looks extremely at ease in the space. It’s where he is writing songs these days.
Ramsey is just one of the prolific songwriters in Old Dominion. When you add to the mix fellow songwriters and band-mates Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi, the number of hits between them is staggering; Kenny Chesney’s ‘Save it for a Rainy Day’, Sam Hunt’s ‘Make you Miss Me’, The Band Perry’s ‘Chainsaw’, Kelsea Ballerini’s ‘I Hate Love Songs’, Blake Shelton’s ‘Sangria’, Dierks Bentley's ‘Say You Do’ and so many more, alongside all of their own releases. With so much talent in one band, it is no wonder they were voted ACM and CMA group of the year in 2020. The band have even received a Grammy nomination for Country Duo/Group Performance for ‘Some People Do’, which is also nominated for Best Country Song. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s the song from their most recent self-titled album that didn’t do all that well at country radio - peaking at no.28; to compare, the six songs the band released before that went to no.1. But what country radio would count as a “miss” might be the song that means the most to Ramsey. As he tells Holler, it’s the song that changed his life.
So you like to hide out and write in a cabin? This is becoming a theme for you guys! I hear you took a little trip?
Yes! We took a trip to Asheville, North Carolina. It's something we talked about doing for our whole career. Spending a little extra time somewhere outside of Nashville, away from distractions, where we can really focus on our music and see what comes out of it. So with all the touring being shut down, it was the perfect time to go experiment a little. We took a three-week trip out there, hung out and lived in a little house. We wrote songs every day, recorded every day and ended up making an album. It was really exciting. It was like summer camp, a band camp!
When you guys were all together in the cabin, did you realize that you were writing an album or did it simply happen naturally?
We had the idea that, if we went out there and got three or four songs out of it, that would be cool. We didn't want to put that whole album kind of pressure on ourselves. We had a couple of songs that we had written beforehand that we really loved in the back of our minds, just in case we got stuck or weren't writing anything good. But I think, just because we had been shut down for so long and hadn't seen each other in a while, we got there and immediately started writing - we didn't even think about those other songs. We just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, and it was awesome. I can't wait for you to hear it.
Had you guys had much time together during quarantine, before you decided to take the road trip?
Not much. We still haven't really seen each other over the past year, literally only a handful of times. You know, we’ll have to get together to film something; like we just did for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. Things like that will come up, but we hadn't really hung out much otherwise. It’s super weird. We spent seven or eight years of almost every day together, then all of a sudden, we’re just not seeing each other.
Do you guys write together over Zoom? I imagine that would be difficult to do?
I don’t. There's a lot of people that are having success with that, Brad and Trevor are two of them. They're writing over Zoom, but I just can’t. There’s a little lag in the timing of things, it becomes awkward and you can't really feed off of each other, not like you can when you are in the room. I'm fortunate enough that I've gotten to a place in my career that I don't necessarily need to write another song, so I just write when and how I want to. I’ve been writing by myself a lot.
Wait, are you telling me you're a one-man-band right now?
Oddly yes, a one-man-band. But I don’t wanna be!
Okay that’s good, I’m glad to know the band is secure, because you guys were killing it in 2020, without even being on the road. You won ACM, CMT and CMA Awards, and now you have Grammy nominations, how did that feel?
Strange, because typically the way we celebrate those things is with our fans. We make a big deal of it and have fun with them, because they are the only reason that we have all this stuff. We gauge our success by our shows usually, how we can see our music living and breathing in towns all over the world, and all that was taken away. So, this was a nice supplement of like, “Hey, you guys are still doing a good job.”
So bringing it to the present day, tell me the backstory of ‘Some People Do’. How did that song come to life?
That was the second song that we wrote on that day. It was Shane McAnally, Jesse Frasure and Thomas Rhett and myself. We wrote a song and were starting to pack up our stuff to go, when we started talking about touring, all of the County fairs that you have to play and all the stuff you have to go through to make it. Someone said, “Does anybody really like playing those fairs and festivals?” I said, “Well, some people do”. Thomas then goes “That's a cool title!”, sits down at the piano, plays a chord and sang, “Some people quit drinking too much”. We all went, “Oh my God”. Even now, I get like chills thinking about how those words hit me and the emotions that it opened up inside me. We proceeded to write and cry for an hour and a half. When that song came out of us, we knew it was special. Thomas and I both thought, “One of us has to put this out. Whoever is going to record first has first crack at it”. He was going to record it and I was super happy with that - then it fell off of his project, so we recorded it.
“I said I need some help, because it really opened up a lot of things for me that I needed to work through. I had never been in therapy before.”
What was it about that song that hit you, spoke to who you are and what was happening with you?
Honestly, there is the alcoholism part of it that runs in my family that I can certainly identify with. On a bigger level, I think at that time I was not living up to the person that I wanted to be. I was certainly making choices that I didn't like; I felt like I was maybe disappointing the people that love me. I really wanted to change that, and the very next day, after we wrote that song, I texted a friend and said I need a therapist. I said I need some help, because it really opened up a lot of things for me that I needed to work through. I had never been in therapy before. That song kicked me into this gear where I needed to discover and work on some things, and I'm thankful for that. It's a heavy song for me and also a hopeful one at the same time.
I think that is why it resonates so well with so many people, because you can hear the vulnerability in your voice. You can hear it in your performance.
I think sometimes you get a little scared to put yourself out there, because it feels like you are alone in some of your feelings. Once you do put it out there, you immediately get that feedback of people that say, “Oh my God, me too!” All the stories that we've been told because of that song, have been just really a huge blessing and helpful for me.
Isn't it cool how the song always finds its way? That was supposed to be your song.
Totally. We put that song out as a single and we had a pretty good track record of big radio hits. We knew that song was a risk, and it did not become a big radio hit. As a songwriter, you start to go, “Maybe it wasn't what I thought it was?”So when the Grammy nominations come through, it was like “I knew it!”.
Old Dominion's latest self-titled album is out now via Sony Music Entertainment.