How Old Dominion’s Feel-Good Songs Were Inspired by Tragedy [Interview]
The group's frontman checked the humble box by wondering how he and his bandmates were lucky enough to be lauded in a room that held legends including Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. Dolly Parton co-hosted that night, and legend-in-the-making Chris Stapleton would win Entertainer of the Year a few minutes later.
Then, instead of fumbling through a rolodex of names to thank like so many artists do, Ramsey turned the spotlight around.
"There are people obviously hurting in the world right now, trying to make sense of divisiveness and shootings and things like that," he said as his bandmates looked on and nodded. "And there are people that are really hurting right now, and we're so proud to be in a room of country music fans and make music for those people, but we're most proud to be able to make music for people that are hurting right now."
It's not the first time he — as the group's awards show representative — made the most of his 60 seconds on TV. At the CMAs in 2022, he took extra time to reflect on the loss of Alabama's Jeff Cook, who'd died just days prior. One year before that, he had a pointed message of hope for dreamers.
“I’m always sitting in my chair and I’m always looking at what’s happening and I’m always appreciative of being there," Ramsey tells Taste of Country, insisting he never prepares for the moment.
"Then, I can’t help but feel a little silly sometimes because everyone is dressed up and music is important, and it is. But it’s a luxury, and it’s an enhancement, and I feel sometimes that we take ourselves too seriously and we put too much weight on what we’re doing when there’s real things out there that people are dealing with."
The evolution of Old Dominion has been slow and purposeful. Nearly a decade ago, they broke with a song called "Shut Me Up" on satellite radio and followed that with their first of seven Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits, "Break Up With Him." A whimsical pop-country feeling called "Snapback" followed, and they were on their way as a cheeky, good time band with great hooks and killer melodies.
There's not anything like those songs on the new Memory Lane EP, released Friday (June 23), but there's not too much that's far away, either. "Ain't Got a Worry" and "Easier Said With Rum" come close with island vibes that were no doubt inspired by setting (they recorded the pair on the same day in Key West). Listen close and you hear a band relying on that feeling as a respite more than a group of young men living that lifestyle.
“It was a heavy day," Trevor Rosen shares. "Russia just invaded the Ukraine and we also had some personal things going on. So it was a real wide range of emotions to dive into recording a song called “Ain’t Got a Worry" (in the world) where it seemed totally absurd to be saying that, but here we were, in this little bubble of a studio going through this and it was a little bit of an escape.”
“It was absurd and it was healing.”
"Song for Another Time," the final single from the Meat and Candy album, might be the first Old Dominion radio hit to add a drop of bitter to their sweet, but the men truly began to look outward writing the Happy Endings album (2017). "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" is a song that was inspired by tragedy, even if it's not noticeably about tragedy.
“There was a shooting in a club in Orlando," Ramsey shares, referring to the Pulse Nightclub shooting of June 2016. "That’s what sparked that idea, because we were all just sort of heartbroken that something like that could happen. And then we all started talking about our lives and what do you tell your kids, and it becomes very personal all of a sudden.”
"What am I gonna tell my kids when they see / All of this bullshit that goes down on TV / When the whole world is down on its luck / I gotta make sure they keep their chin up."
In some ways, Rosen and Ramsey say they've recaptured a feeling of freedom that came with having no expectations when their songwriting side hustle took off in 2014. Success led to responsibility. That led to pressure, which, when mixed with a global pandemic, led to some deeper introspection. The new EP promises to feed the energy their crowd gives them each night, and modern distribution methods have created a schedule that is more spontaneous and fun.
Still, don't expect another "Snapback," even though Ramsey and company love that song and look forward to playing it live.
“We have a platform and a responsibility now to serve our audience,” he says. “It’s much more pleasurable for me to sit down with a guitar — even if it’s a fun, happy-go-lucky song — to sort of inject something emotionally into it. Otherwise, why am I doing this?”