Buyers cruising the CD bins at Target or the music section on Amazon in search of Old Dominion’s Happy Endings aren’t likely to see the faces of guitarist-keyboardist Trevor Rosen or bass player Geoff Sprung.
Instead, they’ll be met by a series of carefully threaded images — handguns, the Statue of Liberty, an acoustic guitar and a couple roses. In an industry that carefully builds its acts’ personas with glossy photo shoots and attention to hair and makeup, Old Dominion turned to needle and thread to construct an album jacket with a patchwork-summation of its contents.
“There’s no need to put a dumb picture of us on the album cover,” says lead singer Matthew Ramsey. “We always look at ourselves and think, ‘Wow, we look like idiots.’ We’d rather have a piece of art on there.”
The band’s first RCA album, the gold-certified Meat and Candy, was packaged with a cover photo of a full-lipped waitress overseeing a table covered in hams, cakes and shakes. Happy Endings took its cue from a cross-stitch that drummer Whit Sellers found of Breaking Bad character Walter White.
“We got into the cross-stitch idea and looking at samplers — which is cross-stitch lingo to kind of show off your skills and lettering — and we started pulling out images we’d written in the songs,” notes Ramsey. “The label found a woman on Etsy that would create an entire sampler of images from our songs, so the cover is an actual cross-stitch piece that exists.”
Those visuals are simple, sometimes-kitschy representations of the songs, and they form a counterpoint to the occasionally complex harmonies and chord formations inside Happy Endings. The previous project established Old Dominion’s sonic identity with three top five singles on Country Airplay: the hooky, syncopated “Break Up With Him” (No. 1); the wistful ballad “Song for Another Time” (No. 1); and the ultra-melodic “Snapback” (No. 2).
The band drives home its uniqueness on Happy Endings with an increased use of off-the-beat melodic rhythms. First single “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart” (which became its third No. 1 Country Airplay title Sept. 9) rubs triplets against a standard 4/4 time signature, “Hotel Key” mixes breezy phrasing with staggered passages, and the lead vocals practically float over the U2-style guitar shadings in “Be With Me.”
“We don’t do that stuff on purpose,” says Rosen with a figurative shrug. “It’s just a product of what you’re writing, and we write a lot of songs. These ended up being our favorites, and the ones we loved happened to double down on syncopation.”
“Turns out,” deadpans Ramsey, “we have a style.”
But it’s not static. The band takes some extra chances in Happy Endings, giving guitarist Brad Tursi a go as a lead singer on “New York at Night,” creating a lush pallet by teaming with Little Big Town on “Stars in the City,” employing a gnarly megaphone effect on the processed vocal commentaries on “A Girl Is a Gun” and embracing atypical chord progressions in “Shoe Shopping” and “Not Everything’s About You.”
“We definitely wanted to show we’re a band that can be around, and we have something to say other than the lighter, pickup line sort of songs,” says Ramsey. “We wanted to have something substantial, but for the most part it was just, ‘Let’s focus on the song.’ We didn’t look for like a bigger, broader statement or anything. We just wanted to make sure that the songs were solid and our performances were good.”
Songwriting was key to Old Dominion’s ascent. Even while the band was still struggling to find its place prior to its Meat and Candy breakout, members were supplying hits to some of their fellow acts, including Blake Shelton’s “Sangria,” Tyler Farr’s “A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” Kenny Chesney’s “Save It for a Rainy Day,” Craig Morgan’s “Wake Up Lovin’ You” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two.”
It put another song-centered guy in the producer’s seat: Shane McAnally is one of Music Row’s most-reliable hitmakers, fashioning such titles as Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road,” Thomas Rhett’s “Unforgettable” and Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem.” And the musicianship in Happy Endings invariably serves the songs’ needs for texture and storytelling instead of the players’ needs for attention.
Tursi’s role as lead guitarist, for example, is one that often has been used in popular music for strutting and pretense. His ability to change sounds and shades from song to song helps keep the atmosphere shifting throughout the album. He’s essential in shaping the sound, but he never upstages the material.
“He can be a flashy guitar player when he wants to be, but he’s also a songwriter, and I think everyone in the band wants to play the right part for the song,” says Ramsey. “It’s not about showing off your chops. It’s about serving the song and creating the emotion with a lyric or a guitar part, and Brad can speak volumes with a couple notes.”
It’s that willingness to downplay the individual for the good of the band that’s behind the faceless album covers. A dancing Dutch couple, a shiny diamond and an old-fashioned key are all clues to the emotional contents of Happy Endings, and some of those figures — particularly a cross-stitched Sasquatch — hint at the band’s ability to have a laugh with its work.
The Sasquatch was used from the outset to promote “No Such Thing As a Broken Heart.” Why?
“There’s no such thing as a broken heart, and there’s no such thing as a Sasquatch,” says Ramsey.
“Or,” adds Rosen, “a Sasquatch with a broken heart.”
That’s the key to understanding Old Dominion’s identity. The five songwriter-musicians are serious about the music, not so serious about themselves.