Country

Old Dominion's Matthew Ramsey Talks Heading East For New Album: 'It’s Great to Take That Energy Directly Into the Studio'

Old Dominion
Mason Allen*

Old Dominion

Old Dominion may be known for crafting upbeat, country radio-friendly hits such as their ACM Award-winning 2019 smash “One Man Band,” but according to the group’s lead singer Matthew Ramsey, Old Dominion took inspiration for their new album from a 1991 Red Hot Chili Peppers documentary.

That documentary, Funky Monks, chronicled the creation of the blockbuster Red Hot Chili Peppers album Blood Sugar Sex Magik at Rick Rubin’s California studio The Mansion studio.

“We talk about it a lot -- they are all in the house together, just creating everything right there with Rick,” Ramsey tells Billboard. “That’s the way we grew up thinking about bands and making music in general.”

For their new album, Time, Tequila & Therapy, out Friday (Oct. 8), Old Dominion's members -- Ramsey, guitarist/keyboardist Trevor Rosen, guitarist Brad Tursi, drummer Whit Sellers, and bassist Geoff Sprung --took a similar route, decamping from Nashville to Echo Mountain Recording Studios in Asheville, N.C., for nearly three weeks in late September 2020. Instead of entering the studio with songs already conceived, each day they woke up, wrote a song in the morning, recorded the song in the afternoon and repeated the process the following day.

“It’s always been a dream of ours to make an album that way, but we never had the time,” Ramsey says.

That changed last year due to pandemic shutdown, and Old Dominion took advantage of the downtime. The band considered a few studios in places such as Joshua Tree, Calif., before engineer Justin Niebank suggested Echo Mountain.

“It was everything we were looking for -- close enough that we could drive, but far enough away that we didn’t feel pulled into our other responsibilities,” Ramsey says. “It’s this beautiful church and you feel creative there."

“Sometimes, tracking sessions are so fast. You’re like, ‘Brad, play a guitar line.' He plays it and it’s like, ‘Good enough, let’s move on,’” Ramsey adds. “But here, the tracking was an extension of the writing session. It’s great to take that energy directly into the studio and capture it right there. Plus, we have this confidence that we’ve grown into over the years."

Indeed, the past decade has seen several of the group's members first find success in Nashville songwriting circles, penning hits for artists including Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Sam Hunt. Soon, they melded their creative talents into their first album, 2015's Meat and Candy, which yielded Billboard Country Airplay chart-toppers including "Break Up With Him." On Time, Tequila & Therapy, as with their previous three albums, the group collaborated with longtime writer/producer Shane McAnally (known for his work with Kacey Musgraves, Hunt and more).

“We were all just broke songwriters,” Ramsey recalls of their early days working with McAnally. “But we found new creative avenues and that got us excited. That’s when we started making music we liked instead of chasing after what we thought radio wanted.”

That creative synergy and urge to experiment has earned Old Dominion and their collaborators a string of No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, including “Hotel Key,” and “Make It Sweet,” as well as their current hit, the breezy “I Was on a Boat That Day.” The group is signed with Morris Higham Management and with Wasserman Music for booking.

The quintet’s already well-honed jam-band vibe and hook-filled songwriting get an extra luster this time around, as they detail stories of love, loss and ultimately contentment with the whole process. There’s more space for creative risk and exploration, as they intertwine country song structures, churning R&B, island influences, and coolly thick harmonies across the project’s 13 tracks.

A long-running inside joke became “Something’s the Same About You,” a tale of two ex-lovers meeting up after so many years apart. In the track, Ramsey marvels that though his ex’s hair, clothes and marital status may have changed, “something’s the same about you.”

“Whit throws out joke titles all the time, and he used to say that line,” Ramsey says. “But when you’re in this super-creative mode every day, everything becomes a possibility. It became this trippy, weird little story song. Maybe it isn’t your traditional radio hit, but it’s fun to take a throwaway phrase and turn it into an actual song.”

Another track, “Blue Jeans,” stemmed from another jam session.

“I had written down the line, ‘I need you like music,’ and somebody said, ‘What about, "I feel you like music?"’ the frontman recalls. "And we just started singing all these little phrases -- 'I lost you like car keys, tripping like shoestrings’ -- with no idea where the song was going. Then it lands on ‘You fit me like blue jeans,’ and everyone’s eyes just lit up. It’s a new way to spin a country song, and that’s what you are always looking for as a songwriter -- how to say something that’s been said a million times, but in a different way.”

Another moment of meant-to-be spontaneousness resulted in soul music icon Gladys Knight joining them on “Lonely Side of Town.”

“It was so serendipitous that she became part of that," Ramsey says. "As we were writing this song, it became this mix of Motown and maybe the Eagles. Then as we’re listening down to the track, it was just screaming for some collaboration. We thought about Gladys, and then we found out she actually lives in Asheville. We asked the studio manager [Jessica Tomasin] if they knew her, and she was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re great friends.’ So she called her and Gladys agreed to do it.”

Knight was not in town during the time of Old Dominion's marathon recording sessions, so Ramsey and McAnally returned to Echo Mountain to record with Knight last December. “She was so gracious," Ramsey says. "She talked about how much she loves country music, and she made us see that most of her biggest songs are really country songs at heart. And there was no producing Gladys Knight -- we just let her sing and do her thing. It was amazing to watch.”

Even with so many perfectly-timed moments, Ramsey says when he and his Old Dominion bandmates first entered the studio, they weren’t certain they would end up with a full album. “We had never made a project this way. We thought we would spend three weeks there and maybe get four or five great songs,” he says. “But we ended up with only one song that didn’t make the album."

After months of being forced from the road due to the pandemic, 2021 marked the band’s full-fledged return to concert stages, tour buses and hearing fans singing along with their music. Though Ramsey says he’s not sure how often the band will again get the chance to craft an album in the same way as their latest, he’s excited by the outcome of the new project.

“I think we certainly broke into something different,” Ramsey says. “I don't know if we're going to make every album like this, but it certainly is a part of our arsenal now. I think we will plan on going into the studio sometimes without any songs and see what we create, but we also have had a pretty good track record as songwriters. I think what we're looking at is a hybrid between the two.”