The title to Old Dominion’s debut album tells the story. In a genre where most projects are named after a key track, Meat and Candy is nowhere to be found in the 11-song list.
In fact, Meat and Candy sounds more like the name of a new wave album by such ’80s bands as Bow Wow Wow or Wall of Voodoo. Backing that up is the cover photo of a seductive waitress surrounded by sweets — a distinct departure from the artist-photo packaging that dominates country product.
“It’s kind of like an old Cars cover or something,” concedes Old Dominion lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey. “It’s definitely not the standard country.”
In that way, it captures the essence of Old Dominion, which is helping to usher in a new wave of country. The group’s ascent, including its use of house concerts in its tour approach and its introduction via SiriusXM, is still a new method of career-building. Its music blends rock, pop and reggae on top of country in a decidedly unorthodox sound.
However, it does overlap with the genre’s current tilt. Old Dominion’s first bona fide hit — “Break Up With Him,” which is No. 7 on the Country Airplay chart dated Oct. 17 — sounds a great deal like Sam Hunt’s multiweek No. 1 “Take Your Time,” thanks to its half-spoken verses, piano-grounded arrangement and light R&B feel.
“We can see the similarity,” allows Ramsey. “Sam and myself and [Old Dominion’s] Trevor [Rosen] were all writing in the same circles for years together. Two of the songs that are on Sam’s record, I wrote with him, so that’s the reason they sound similar. We’ve been working together for a long time, so it only makes sense that the styles are overlapping.”
Overlap is the key to understanding Old Dominion. The jumble of styles represented by that odd-for- country cover photo and the hodgepodge of influences in “Break Up With Him” and the rest of Meat and Candy (due Nov. 6) occur in part because Old Dominion is a band that never intended to be a band. The group’s original purpose was to provide a showcase for the songs that its various members — including bass player Geoff Sprung, drummer Whit Sellers and lead guitarist Brad Tursi — were creating. They all had intended to write country material when they first moved to Nashville, but their attempts at fitting in didn’t get much notice, so they pointedly decided to abandon the idea.
“We said, ‘We’re not getting hits anyway. Let’s not even care remotely about whether our songs sound country or whatever. Let’s just do what we do,’ ” recalls Rosen.
That’s when things began to click. “Wake Up Lovin’ You” and “Say You Do,” songs that Ramsey and Rosen wrote for the band, got covered by Craig Morgan and Dierks Bentley, respectively. Rosen co-wrote Blake Shelton’s “Sangria” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.” Ramsey penned TBP’s “Chainsaw” and created Kenny Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day” with Tursi, who’s also credited on Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into a Bar.”
At the same time, Old Dominion seemed to coalesce more as a band. Some of it was sheer growth from learning how to win over fans at club dates and the occasional house concert, where it performed at private residences for pocket cash and a meal. Those gigs — essentially a way to keep playing during off-days on the road — helped the act learn how to navigate the unexpected, beginning with that very first house party, where the audience was exactly two people: a recently divorced father and his 16-year-old daughter, celebrating her birthday.
“We walked in, and he’s like, ‘Well, my wife took all the furniture,’ ” recalls Ramsey. “There was still impressions in the carpet from where the couch was. He had made us all this food, and we sat there in his living room and played ’em six or seven songs, and we ended up watching videos of her marching band. And then we had to collect money from them. He wrote me a check and we left, and it was terribly awkward, but we still felt like we needed to do it again.”
The real linchpin, however, was the SiriusXM break. John Marks, who just ended his run as senior director of country programming, committed to Old Dominion when the act was still unsigned. A series of titles first received exposure on the Highway as the band signed with Thirty Tigers, then jumped to Sony Music Nashville’s RCA label. Now it’s in the envious position of owning a top 10 single in “Break Up With Him” on terrestrial radio while a different coming-of-age cut, “Nowhere Fast,” is in heavy rotation on satellite radio.
“It’s awesome,” says Ramsey of the band’s dual-track circulation. “That’s a whole separate group of people that’s going to know that song, and it works, because whenever Trevor launches into that acoustic part of ‘Nowhere Fast,’ people cheer. They know it.”
Meanwhile, Old Dominion is way past the house-concerts stage on the live circuit. The band filled the opening slot on Chesney’s stadium dates in 2015 and will return to the road with him in 2016. It’s plenty of exposure for a group that caught a wave when it committed to being different.
“Our motto until recently was ‘It’s never going to work anyway,’ ” says Rosen with a laugh. “Somehow it is working, maybe because that’s always been our motto. We never took it too seriously.”