WILL OLD DOMINION’S SUCCESS USHER IN A NEW ERA OF COUNTRY BANDS?
Has a new era of bands dawned on country music? Actually, considering how few groups — as opposed to solo stars or duos — like Alabama have ever made a mark on the genre, one could ask whether this is the first era of country bands.
Either way, a niche was clearly ready to be filled when Old Dominion signed with Sony Nashville in 2015 and immediately proceeded to No. 1 on both the Billboard Country Airplay and Country Aircheck/Mediabase charts with their debut major-label single, “Break Up With Him.” This month, they hit No. 1 for the third time in less than two years, with “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart,” the leadoff single from their just-released sophomore album, “Happy Endings.” What’s even more intriguing, for country trend-watchers, is that “No Such Things” immediately succeeded Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” at the top of the country airplay charts — the first time in recent history, and maybe ever, that there’ve been back-to-back “band” No. 1s in the format.
Most of today’s country musicians grew up listening to at least as much rock and roll as country, so to the members of Old Dominion, it only makes sense that the camaraderie of rock groupthink would spill into country in a big way — especially in the way that it literalizes the boys-out-on-the-town ethos of so many modern country hits.
“I think it’s natural for people to see a band and imagine themselves as part of that,” says singer Matthew Ramsey. “That’s what I grew up fantasizing about, looking at posters of bands on my wall. There is an allure to a band. When you go out for the night with your buddies, it feels like you’re in a band, and I think everybody can relate to that.”
Another situation that replicates the feeling of being in a band is somewhat more unique to Nashville, and that’s the experience of being in the writers’ room; most modern country hits come out of that environment, where three or four song crafters come together to generate material. Old Dominion has its roots in that writing fraternity. Ramsey already had an enviable track record as a tunesmith before the band broke out, having co-written No. 1s for Sam Hunt (“Make You Miss Me”) and Kenny Chesney (“Save It for a Rainy Day”). Similarly, guitarist/keyboard player Trevor Rosen was a co-writer on No. 1 hits by the Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”) and Blake Shelton (“Sangria”). Together, these two worked on Dierks Bentley’s chart-topping “Say You Do” — along with Music Row songwriting kingpin Shane McAnally, who ended up slipping into the producer’s chair to helm both of Old Dominion’s albums to date.
The round robins of songwriters in Nashville “can make it look like a formulaic thing,” Ramsey admits, “but the truth is, it’s chemistry and it’s fun.” Taking the loose mirth of a writer’s room into a band setting was a natural next step. But they’re not ashamed to say that coming up with commercial, relatable songs comes before any attempts to perpetuate a band vibe on record.
“In the end, it’s all about the song,” Ramsey says. “It’s hard to have a fingerprint these days. I think we’re fortunate enough that we’re friends, we write the songs together, play on the record and play the songs live, so we end up sounding like us, with all the different genres that find their way in. For us the whole album sounds like Old Dominion. But there are certain songs we could have given to another artist” — among them, the next single, “Written in the Sand,” which “has got the elements that made a great country song and that make a great pop song,” Rosen adds. “And then there are others that sound ‘band-y,’ like a band that’s been on the road for two or three years, or like guys got in a room and decided to throw back to some ‘70s (rock), not like a song that was written to be pitched to anybody.”
In Shane McAnally, Old Dominion just happen to have a producer who is arguably the hottest songwriter in Nashville right now. So it’s a surprise that McAnally’s name appears as a co-writer on only three out of the 12 tracks on “Happy Endings.” It wasn’t that they didn’t write a lot more with McAnally that didn’t make the cut, band members say. “A lot of guys in his position will say, ‘My songs are the best songs out there and you’re gonna cut all these’,” notes Ramsey. “But Shane respects who we are as writers and as a band, and he’s after what we‘re after. If that means not cutting any of his songs, we’ll hear about that,” he laughs, “but he’ll cut the shit out of them. That’s who he is as a person and a producer; he’s going to contribute in the best way he can.”
Old Dominion may appear to be more of a democracy than most star-driven country acts, but, as Rosen points out, “I grew up watching bands and knew the guitar player and knew the drummer, but every band has a frontman that will be the most recognizable. We’re the same way.” The bearded, affable Ramsey has a more humble charisma than the typical braggadocio-driven bro-country solo artist, but he’s not unconscious of being in the limelight. That comes out more than anything in his fashion sense; the singer recently did an interview with WWD in which the publication marveled at his suitcase full of Gucci, Givenchi, and Saint Laurent. “It also helps you on stage to feel like you belong there,” he told the fashion publication.
But no one will accuse Old Dominion of getting too far above their raisin’… not when the big initial promotional tie-in for the “Happy Endings” is with Singer Sewing Machines, hardly a rock-and-roll branding move.
Even the very mention of the Singer sponsorship cracks the band up, still. “The m.o. of the band is that we’ve never taken ourselves too seriously, and this seemed to fall in line with that m.o.,” Ramsey explains. “It’s so funny that this came up. The more successful we get, the more opportunities come our way. We turned down so many beer and liquor sponsorships because it was not the right fit. This one came up because we did cross-stitch cover art for the new album. A band going with Singer seemed so mismatched and hilarious that we just had to do it.”
Within days of reaching No. 1 with “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart” and releasing “Happy Endings” into the marketplace, Old Dominion got nominated for two CMA Awards, for best new artist and best vocal group — a nice single-week triple-play if you can get it.
In the two months leading up to the CMAs, they’ll be focused on opening an arena and amphitheater tour for Thomas Rhett, whose music “has similar through-lines, with a lot of soul elements,” Rosen says.
“That pairing makes sense,” adds Ramsey, “being two acts that are firing on all cylinders right now. You watch (Rhett) on stage and he’s having a blast, and that’s what we do, too. Music should be fun.”