Country

Makin' Tracks: Acoustic Party Song Slaps Fresh New Paint On Old Dominion

Old Dominion "I Was On a Boat That Day"
Courtesy Photo

Old Dominion "I Was On a Boat That Day"

It’s entirely acoustic, threads an accordion across its three-minute run and features harmony vocals that are as ragged as a 1928 dish towel.

"I Was on a Boat That Day" sounds like Old Dominion, but only if the band is playing somewhere out in left field. It’s an assessment the group expects with nearly every single, but rarely receives.

"Everyone’s always like, 'Oh, it sounds exactly like Old Dominion,' and we’re like, 'Oh, it does? We thought it was different,'" says guitarist Brad Tursi. "This one, we knew it wasn’t right on brand, but I don’t think we were expecting a lot of people saying, ‘It doesn’t really sound like it’s something you guys do.’ It’s interesting to hear the world’s opinion."

If Tursi and his four bandmates operated in the mindset of the "Boat" protagonist, they wouldn’t give a flip about anyone’s opinion. The singer broke up with his girlfriend, tossed his cellphone in the water, set out to sea and dug into the cooler. If yogis are trying to convince their followers to live in the moment, this guy has reached nirvana.

The thing is, it required an eight-year journey.

Old Dominion first addressed the title, "I Was on a Boat That Day," in the same general time frame in which the band wrote "Break Up With Him," its inaugural 2015 hit.

"We didn’t set out to write a beach song or a water song," lead singer Matthew Ramsey says. "That was just a title and an idea that we had. We never wrote it, but it’s come up a lot throughout the years until, finally, this go-around."

Old Dominion had harbored "I Was on a Boat That Day" for so long that no one remembers quite where it came from. The members do recall it originated with a reggae groove (coincidentally, their 2019 single "One Man Band" also started with a Bob Marley flavor before morphing into something else), though the original storyline bore little resemblance to the final version, except for its sense of freedom.

"It wasn’t centered around a broken relationship," says Tursi. "It was just like, ‘I was out there and a lot of people were trying to reach me, and I couldn’t hear the ringtone over the waves.’ We didn’t end up keeping any of the lines."

Tursi continued to bring up the title over the years, but it wasn’t taken seriously again until 2020, when the band holed up at the Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, N.C. — the same site where Dierks Bentley cut "Am I the Only One" — to write and record its next album in three compact weeks. Unlike previous times that Tursi had floated "Boat," this writing session included songwriter/producers Shane McAnally ("Half of My Hometown," "Marry Me") and Josh Osborne ("Body Like a Back Road," "Happy Anywhere"), and they heard the title through fresh ears.

They insisted on pursuing it, and the entire seven-man ensemble sailed through "Boat" with ease.

"Matt was joking one time," recalls guitarist Trevor Rosen. "He’s like, ‘Yeah, I went to the bathroom for a second, and I came out and everyone’s going, "I was getting my float on." ’ And I was like, ‘Wait a second. I missed something.’ "

Simplicity was key. Each verse used two basic ideas, changed scenes with a pre-chorus, rolled into a singalong chorus and kept the energy up with a snappy post-chorus. And most of the song veers between two chords, a pattern that changes only during the pre-chorus when it eases into a three-minor chord, a triad that’s only one note different than the song’s root.

The lyrics were invariably light and carefree, peaking in the second verse with an ultimately odd image: "I was drunk as a skunk eating lunch with a cross-eyed bear."

"It was funny when Matt said that because he was trying to fit that line, and he was just doing it for the cadence," recalls Rosen. "We were cracking up, and Shane’s like, ‘I know you’re kidding. But that’s definitely the line.’ You know what it means — it’s like ‘I was just hammered,’ and it’s just a quirky way to say it."

Since the entire band had a hand in writing it, the Echo Mountain session was a snap, too. Drummer Whit Sellers applied a slappy rhythmic undercurrent, and Geoff Sprung opted for a standup bass as the band cut it with an all-acoustic arrangement.

"It has so much low end, and it’s so punchy," notes Tursi. "It’s such a big-sounding instrument. You would think that the electric bass would be like a more powerful sound, but sometimes the acoustic one really is stronger."

Studio player Dave Cohen chipped in a Mexicali-tinged accordion, and the group found multiple ways to recycle the primary melody, using it as a main riff on acoustic guitar, switching to a unison match of Tursi’s guitar with Ramsey’s vocal and shifting throughout the recording to several different vocal alignments. It works much like a Jeff Lynne production of ELO, deftly counter-balancing its repetition with ever-changing sonics.

They cut it out without the requisite click track, which meant the tempo was a little more free-flowing than usual. And when they debated for a time just what that tempo might be, Ramsey kicked into a drunken-tourist countdown — "One, two, one, two, three, four" — that sounds much like an English translation of Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs’ Spanish kickoff to the goofy 1965 pop hit "Wooly Bully."

"It’s very ‘Wooly Bully,’ " says Ramsey. "That was just the tequila talking at that point. The funny thing was we wanted that song to sound loose and like a party. We were like, ‘Look, if we want it to sound like a party, let’s have a party. Let’s break out the tequila and drink.’ And then we went in there to track it. Everybody’s talking, and I finally literally yelled that into the microphone, and — total Pavlovian response — everyone just launched into the song, and that was the take."

With its resulting "Wagon Wheel" simplicity, "Boat" was RCA Nashville’s pick for a single to start off the summer, released to radio via PlayMPE on May 20. It rides at No. 18 on the Country Airplay chart dated July 3, wrapping the usually exacting group in an uncharacteristically loose framework that sounds quite different than the typical Old Dominion track.

"That’s not always a bad thing," says Rosen. "We have tried to stretch the limits of what it means to be an Old Dominion song, and the more we do things a little differently, the more it kind of spreads what we can do and still sound like us."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.