Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey on Why It’s Hard to Write a Song About America

Old Dominion and Brothers Osborne had a running joke on Twitter for a while about being mistaken for the other. Apparently it’s easy to confuse bands with duos in country music — even if their sounds couldn’t be more different.

“It still happens,” says Old Dominion’s singer Matthew Ramsey, calling from Glasgow, where the reigning ACM Group of the Year are in the midst of a U.K. tour.  “I think people want to gravitate toward a person or a face. It didn’t used to be that way. Bands used to be a little bit bigger of a deal. But for the most part, people just know if they like the song or not and ultimately that’s all we care about.”

Like their current single “One Man Band,” Old Dominion stack the deck with likable songs on their new album, the self-titled Old Dominion, out on Friday. It’s the group’s third LP and the first they co-produced, alongside frequent collaborator and confidant Shane McAnally. It’s also the first album cover on which Ramsey and his bandmates Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung, and Brad Tursi appear — which should help with any future issues of mistaken identity.

We talked to Ramsey about Old Dominion‘s disco-inflected sound, how their lyrics lean toward the bittersweet, and why the band resisted writing songs about America, until now.

The guitar sound on this album, especially in the song “Never Be Sorry,” can call to mind Nile Rodgers and Chic. Was that a conscious step in a new direction?
“Never Be Sorry” was one of the hardest songs to wrangle into what it became. We worked for weeks and weeks, figuring out how to approach that song. Sometimes it’d be this more heavy sound, with a more angsty tone to the guitars. That’s the great thing about Brad Tursi, he’s such a versatile guitar player. You can say, “That sounds so angry,” and then he’ll try something else. It’s this poppy, disco sound that was a good launching point.

There’s often an underlying level of angst to Old Dominion songs. Is that a defining trait of this record?
We don’t sit down to write an Old Dominion song or a song for anyone else. We’re just trying to write a great song. You can’t help but think about your live show and the body of work you’ve already created to progress to what’s next as a songwriter. What’s next for us is to not hide behind catchiness as much, and not hide behind the hook as much as we had. We allowed ourselves to wear our emotions a little more out in the open and not disguise them in such a catchy little ditty.

The track “My Heart Is a Bar” has more going on beneath the melody.
That’s one of my favorites. It has that thing that I love so much: a happiness and a sadness mixed in. There is some heartbreaking lines in there, but it’s delivered in this freeing way. It’s a liberating song, this person going, “Screw this. I’m done with this.” And that’s a terrible place to be, but it’s also a freeing choice to make. People can miss that these are actually sad songs when you look at the lyric.

You’re in Glasgow right now. How is a country band from Nashville received there?
We talk about that nightly over here. We try to figure out what we’re doing over here. Is it good? Or are we doing this to serve ourselves? But night after night, the fans are incredible. There are country music fans over here, and they may not have been as exposed as we would like them to be, but the ones who have been exposed really dig into it. There is a lot of influences in this band, and some are country. But the majority of them are not country. It’s an equal palette that we draw from, as far as rock or hip-hop or pop. I think that’s what works over here: [the fans] can hear all of those things in our music. It’s not just a twang.

You liven up one of country’s tired formats, the list song, with the track “American Style.” It’s a list song, but one with a fresh energy.
We are extremely careful with anything that is quote America-based. Because it can be pandering, and we definitely don’t want to do that. There are buzz words, and for lack of a better term, it could be considered “red meat” to throw [them] out there. So it kind of surprised me that we wrote that song. If that title was brought up to me, nine days out of 10, I’d be like, “No way, I don’t want to touch that.” But for whatever reason, that day, we thought “we’re never going to go out of American style” was an uplifting thing, without being political.

Is it more difficult to write those types of songs now?
It is. I think country music in the past has been leaning sort of in one direction as far as politics goes, and it’s opening up a lot more now. We certainly don’t want to repeat like “a boot in your ass song” like Toby Keith’s [“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”]. That was his perspective and that spoke to a lot of people. That may not be what our attitude is, so how do we write what ours is?

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