How Old Dominion Became Country's Best Underdog Story

Old Dominion
Dove Shore

Old Dominion

After more than two decades together, the band is finally topping charts.

At a highly publicized, Bud Light-sponsored “dive bar” show in Chicago -- for which more than 7,000 fans tried to scoop up 250 available tickets -- Old Dominion frontman Matt Ramsey has to convince himself that people are actually going to show up.

Maybe it’s because the show is taking place at the same barbecue joint where Old Dominion played in 2013, back at a time when seemingly every record label was passing on the band. At that point, they’d cram into a cargo van several times a week to gun from one unremarkable gig to the next. Or perhaps it’s because the five men that comprise the country-rock band struggled for nearly two decades before finding commercial success.

“I was laughing at myself as I walked down that hallway to soundcheck earlier,” Ramsey says, “’cause I still have that uneasy feeling.”

The singer and the other four members of Old Dominion -- multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen, guitarist Brad Tursi, bassist Geoff Sprung and drummer Whit Sellers -- are seated in a private basement room in a tiki bar-themed restaurant adjacent to tonight’s show. It’s an hour before they’ll go onstage and only a few days before the release of their much-anticipated second album, Happy Endings. Their current single “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart” currently sits at No. 2 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. But right now, Old Dominion can’t help but dissect how the way they’ve exploded onto the mainstream country scene in the past two years following 2015’s breakout debut album Meat and Candy barely feels real.

Yes, Ramsey notes, when you tour with Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney while selling a sizable amount of your own album copies, you start to “take it all in and realize that those people at your show every night are there for us.” But still, as Tursi notes, “We’ve been successful for a few years but we were non-successful for 23.”

They’ve certainly put in the work: even before they saw their lives drastically change in 2015 in the wake of “Break Up With Him” skyrocketing to No. 1 on Country Airplay and then “Song for Another Time” doing the same, Old Dominion were on the grind. Nevermind the fact that they were time-tested Nashville songwriters having written for the likes of Chesney and Dierks Bentley; for much of the past decade, the group had been playing gigs wherever and whenever they could, from clubs to county fairs.

“We couldn’t get signed to save our lives,” Rosen recalls of the years-long struggle. “It was either quit, or just go build a following by ourselves, get some momentum and some traction and basically force a label to want to sign us.” That’s exactly what they did: Old Dominion were at last signed to RCA Nashville in early 2014, released their EP later that year produced by country hit-maker and longtime friend Shane McAnally, saw “Break Up With Him” explode and then, one year later, dropped the star-making Meat and Candy.

Now, with the McAnally-produced Happy Endings, the band aims to show they’re not just a flash in the pan. “You do recognize the weight of the second album,” Rosen admits. The band meticulously culled from more than 200 songs they’d written over the past few years in the studio and on the road. They aimed to make an album that showcased not only their songwriting ability, but also their diversity as a musical outfit.

Ramsey admits Meat and Candy was “precise and intentional in the song selection and production." He says, "It was very much ‘Look at us. Whatever song you want to put on the radio. Here’s 11 of them. Have at it.’” By comparison, Happy Endings, while still decidedly catchy, veers from funk (“Hotel Key”) to acoustic singer-songwriter fare (“Written in The Sand”) to a breezy, beautiful collaboration with Little Big Town (“Stars in the Sky”).

Old Dominion are the first to admit they’ll always be gunning for the charts -- it’s something they’re decidedly unashamed about and will tell you as much. “The truth is, that’s what we moved to Nashville to do -- to learn how to write hit songs,” Ramsey says. “We weren’t necessarily trying to get on college radio. We’re trying for mass appeal. We want to stay in that hit-song range. We love writing hit songs. That thrills us. So we’re going to always try.”

Given their history, however, the band remains humble, if not cautiously optimistic.

“We never want to get our hopes up,” Ramsey says. “It’s easy to get squashed down in this business, for sure. Nashville can definitely train you to not get too excited. If someone tapped us on the shoulder and said, 'You gotta get outta here now,’ I think we’d understand and we would be grateful for what we’ve had.”

“I mean, if they tapped us right now,” Rosen says with a laugh, “I think we’d probably be a little upset.”