Makin' Tracks: Old Dominion Strikes a Chord as 'One Man Band' Evolves From Reggae Groover to Country Love Song

Mason Allen
Old Dominion

Old Dominion may be the reigning vocal group of the year for both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, but the five-man band’s road has been a long one, beginning with van tours and house parties in 2007, on the way to headlining arenas.

The group’s evolution informally influences “One Man Band,” a single that uses the arc of a music career as a metaphor for a long-term relationship.

“In this band, we are trying to do something that lasts,” says lead singer Matthew Ramsey. “We’re not trying to be something like a flash in the pan. We’re trying to set ourselves up to have longevity. And in a relationship -- in this song in particular, too -- it’s the same mindset.”

Ramsey had the initial idea for the song after a radio programmer casually dropped the phrase “one man band” during a conversation on the group’s bus before a show last summer. The idea stuck with him as showtime drew closer, and when he sang the basic hook to bandmates Brad Tursi and Trevor Rosen, they huddled around Ramsey’s phone at the side of the stage before walking on to record that snippet while it was fresh.

Weeks later, songwriter Josh Osborne (“Kiss Somebody,” “Body Like a Back Road”) met them on a Mountain Time Zone run. They hammered out “One Man Band” in a dressing room at the USANA Amphitheatre near Salt Lake City on June 28, 2018, originally employing a pop/reggae groove similar to the 2013 Magic! hit “Rude” (which reached No. 1 on four different Billboard charts, including the Hot 100).

The “One Man Band” melody was bouncy, the chord changes fairly sporadic and the imagery -- particularly references to driving a run-down van, getting tattoos and trashing hotel rooms -- incorporated rebellious rock’n’roll attitudes.

“I don’t think we would’ve written the song the way we wrote it if we hadn’t been writing it over the reggae beat,” says Osborne.

The opening verse reveals the singer as a lonely guy flying solo -- “no bass, no guitar, no tambourine” -- who finds someone “singing in the same key as me.” The relationship is described in musical terms through most of its three-minute duration, with Old Dominion’s history giving the writers plenty of musical symbols to draw from.

“The real challenge is to not be cheesy with something like that, because you’re using metaphors and things,” says Ramsey. “You can go too far sometimes, and you kind of have to dial it back and figure out when you want to talk about reality and when you want to draw comparison.”

A “Rolling Stone alone” reference became a key part of the chorus. “That’s obviously one of the most iconic bands,” says Tursi, also making note of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” “Those words are synonymous with rock’n’roll.”

The second verse addresses the seduction of fame, but hints that a deep relationship to one woman is more significant than one with an entire fan base: “We got our own little groove,” the verse concludes.

“That’s the line we probably argued the longest about in the song,” says Osborne. “We didn’t know if it said enough because it’s in that short little spot where it needs to say something quick and then bounce to the chorus. Finally, Ramsey was like, ‘Let’s just put it in for now, sing it down and then see what it sounds like.’ Once we heard it in context, we all liked it.”

They did a work tape and moved on, but two days later before a show at the Denver Broncos’ stadium, Tursi brought up a new concept in the dressing room. He played it as a spare ballad over a finger-picked guitar. “Now, instead of feeling like fun and almost goofy, it’s kind of like, hitting me in the heart,” recalls Osborne. “It feels like something deeper.”

The “One Man Band” title played a role in carving out the arrangement when the band recorded it at Back Stage in Black River’s Nashville studio compound. Tursi plays a complicated Stratocaster riff through the intro and first verse, as bare as John Frusciante’s opening notes in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge.” It comes across like a solo musician at a Holiday Inn lounge.

“That’s also the way it feels like with Matt’s vocal,” says producer Shane McAnally (Midland, Sam Hunt). “It just feels beautifully sad. You are singing along, but there is this sort of loneliness to it, even though it’s a love song.”

Geoff Sprung arrives on stand-up bass at the chorus, and Whit Sellers brings a subtle assortment of percussion, including a tambourine. Still, a light shaker dominates the sound as the arrangement approximates a one man band. “We tracked the tambourine to be more of the prominent percussion, but it felt too cheesy with the lyrics,” says McAnally. “I thought it should feel like one of those guys in Central Park that’s kind of playing multiple things, and it’s like he’s hitting the tambourine with his foot as the song moves on. That’s sort of the idea for the way that unfolds.”

Ramsey’s scratch vocal from that tracking session was so appropriately intimate that it became the final. And Tursi’s first crack at a twisty guitar solo also stayed put for the song’s completion. “It’s maybe not what you expect the solo to be,” says Tursi. “It’s what flopped out that one time. I always wanted to fix it, and they’re like, ‘No, no, no. Don’t fix it.’”

Keeping it spare was a challenge. They put an accordion on it beginning in the second chorus, but softened it with some filters to keep it from becoming overpowering. Tursi picked a few choice spots for spiky guitar chords that pay tribute to the track’s reggae origins.

“There’s not a lot of frill here,” says McAnally. “The biggest decision made on making this track was where Brad Tursi’s harmony part would come in. And that became a big conversation because it’s ‘One Man Band.’ If there was going to be harmony on it, we wanted it to sneak up on you.”

SiriusXM played it early, and when Old Dominion performed it live for the first time at Chicago’s Allstate Arena on Jan. 18, the group was shocked that the crowd sung along as intensely as with some of its established hits.

“One Man Band” officially became a single when RCA released it to country radio through PlayMPE on June 3. It is No. 32 in its fifth week on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart dated July 20, and No. 28 on the multiple-source Hot Country Songs, where it has logged 15 weeks, thanks to early streaming numbers.

Fans are presumably picking up on the sentiment that wraps in the bridge, where the curtain goes down but the act is still around. “We’re going to go on these amazing adventures and experiences together,” says Ramsey. “When we’re old and it’s not as flashy anymore, we’re still going to be here, together.”

It’s an attractive idea, whether applied to a five-man band or an old-fashioned couple.

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