Old Dominion's Big Year: Matthew Ramsey Explains Why 2018 Helped Them 'Come Into Our Own'

Old Dominion
Mason Allen

Old Dominion

As 2018 winds down, Billboard is asking some of the artists who helped define the year in music to look back on their accomplishments, favorite memories and pop-culture obsessions from the past 12 months. Check out other interviews with St. VincentAnne-MarieKali UchisDan + ShaySwae Lee and Lauv.

The last few years have been a bit of a whirlwind for Old Dominion. Since signing to RCA Nashville in 2015, the country group has landed five singles atop on the Country Airplay chart, toured with Kenny Chesney (twice) and released two albums, with their latest set, Happy Endings, hitting No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart. Yet 2018 was the first year they felt like their success wasn't just temporary.

"It felt like the year that we sort of come into our own a little," frontman Matthew Ramsey says. "We're no longer the new guys and don't have to prove ourselves that much anymore. People are waiting to hear what we do next ... It's really undeniable at this point."

Another thing that made Ramsey and his four bandmates (Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung and Brad Tursi) feel confident? Their recent win for vocal group of the year at the CMA Awards. "It's just amazing how much that kind of thing changes people's perception," Ramsey adds. "You're just on a much bigger stage all of a sudden."

As 2018 comes to a close, Ramsey looks back on Old Dominion's career-changing year, from awards-show wins to touring overseas to the best show they played this year (and possibly ever).

You guys told us at the CMAs that you've seen some pretty big growth in your audiences this year. Is there a show that was kind of a "this is really growing" moment for you?

Even as recent as last week, [we were in] St. Augustine, and I had this moment where I walked off the bus and [saw this] mat outside the door that has our logo on it. Its been there for a year, but for whatever reason, I looked down and was like, "Man, this logo is everywhere." It's on cases and floor mats and shirts, and I'm just like, "Wow, this has really grown into quite a big organization now."

Why do you think it's still only really setting in?

We spent so long working on this. Getting told "No" and turned down, we had built up this self-defense-type of attitude. Things started happening, and we started being like, "Yeah, that's cool. It's cool for now, but it's never going to last." Now we can't really deny this anymore. We're winning big awards. We have a bunch of hit songs. Our crowds are amazing. 

What did that CMA win mean to you as band? 

Shane [McAnally], our producer, sat me down and was like, "You'll never get this again. You're going to win this award again, but you'll never get that first one again. It's that one where it's not a guarantee, but you feel like you have a good shot. You never get that rush again." It put it in perspective for me -- it causes you to sit back and take a deep breath. We don't get into it for awards, but when you win them, it's really a special thing.

Does it mean anything special to you personally?

People ask me all the time, "What does it feel like when they announce your name?" And it's hard to give an answer, because the easy answer is, "It feels great." For me, I feel everything. I feel the past 15 years of grinding it out -- all of van trips, all of the hardships that we went through -- as well as some of the amazing things that we've experienced. So it's this crazy swirl of emotions for me to hear our name announced like that. It means a lot and it's very validating. It's also just a crazy, emotional roller coaster.

You also won the ACM Award for vocal group of the year. Would you say that those two awards are the biggest accomplishments of your year, or does something else stands out?

It's our shows and our ability to be a true headlining act. I'll walk around backstage at arenas sometimes and forget that it's for our show. I just realize that that many fans are coming to see us play. Three years ago, we were playing little thousand-seat clubs. 

There are little kids that know all of the words. There are older people that are in their 60s or 70s that are coming to the shows and everything in between. To me, that's a very proud thing. It's music that people want to share with their families. That's important to me.

What else are you proud of doing in 2018?

One of the awards that's not as publicized is an award that's voted on by songwriters, "Songs I Wish I'd Written." [The Nashville Songwriters Association International] takes 10 songs from the year, and "Written In The Sand" was honored as one of the songs that other songwriters wish they had written. That was an important award for us, because we were songwriters first.

The songwriting community is extremely important to us. When we started to grow into artists, that was a hard thing for us to let go of, because we started to feel out of the loop a little bit. We'd worked so hard to make a mark on the songwriting community. We’ve got all of these friends that we saw everyday, and then all of a sudden we're out on the road and don't seem them anymore. We're like, "Don't forget about us! We're still songwriters!"

We worked really hard to make sure that was a part of the narrative, and that's something we were afraid of losing. I feel like now we have established that -- we're not going to lose that.

What's a song by another artist that you could not get out of your head this year?

That Imagine Dragons song "Thunder" -- my kids listen to that over and over and over again. I can't get that out of my head. That one and Maroon 5's "Girls Like You" are always stuck in my head.

That song is probably playing in every single place you go. What's the funniest place that you've heard one of your own songs this year?

I pulled up next to this girl at a stoplight not too long ago who was just jamming to “Said Nobody.” It wasn't a single, so she was listening to the album and had no clue that I was sitting right next to her. She couldn't see me, she was just going to town. Like, the car was shaking she was singing so hard!

Well, Old Dominion fans don't mess around. Besides that one, what was your most memorable fan interaction this year?

When we go overseas and play in Europe, to see that we have fans over there is pretty crazy. Not only that, we had fans that we recognize from the States come over there too and follow us through Europe. We have truly rabid fans who really invest in our shows. It's like, "Okay, we've got to change up the show a little bit, because they've seen like 20 of them now!" It's pretty crazy to look down and see that somebody you saw in Tulsa now is in Dublin, Ireland.

What was your favorite show you played this year?

The Ryman Auditorium show here in Nashville was one of the best shows that I think we will ever get to do, because first of all, it was at the Ryman, and that's legendary. And then we had all of our friends come out -- Kelsea Ballerini, Sam Hunt, Michael Ray. And then Kenny surprised us and came out onstage. That was a really special night. We wanted to make sure that it was not just a bunch of industry people too. We were like, "If you want tickets, buy your tickets."

What about your favorite city that visited this year?

I always love when we get to go to Seattle. It's like walking around in my 17-year-old brain, because I grew up listening to Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I just fantasized about Seattle so much. For my music to bring me there, there's something just really full-circle and magical about it.

What was your most memorable Uber, Lyft or taxi ride of 2018?

I had a guy show up in a Tesla when I Ubered to the airport one morning from my house. It was pretty sweet. This guy was very proud of it, and it was also, like, 5 in the morning -- I didn't really feel like talking to him that much, but he told me all about this Tesla.

If you could travel back in time 11 months to January of this year, what advice would you give yourself about 2018?

Sleep whenever you can. Just lay down, man.

Good call. Whom did you text the most this year?

Probably my band. We have a running text thread that is just nonstop. Never music related. It's always a joke about something.

Which artist would you want to invite to a holiday dinner with your family?

I think Brothers Osborne are pretty jovial guys. We're good friends with them, so it'd be fun to just hang and have drinks with them.

T.J. [Osborne] is funny. He and I met each other probably like 15 years ago. We were both working with this country artist Phil Vassar. That's how we both met each other, and that's how we both met my tour manager now. We've known each other forever. To see them rise through the ranks with us, it's been really fun.

Going into 2019, what's a musical trend that you'd like to see go away in the new year?

Nothing really bothers me, as far as that kind of thing goes. I can recognize them pretty quick as trends. They just make me laugh, and then they go away. For whoever that person is, good for you. You broke through. Awesome. Eat it up.