Brandy Clark remembers what it’s like to be one of the guys in Old Dominion. It was less than a year ago that she was a behind-the-scenes songwriter responsible for some of the biggest hits on country radio, including Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” and Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow.” Now she’s a household name in country music, topping critics’ lists with her own album, the stellar 12 Stories, and opening shows for Jennifer Nettles.
Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung and Brad Tursi are quietly successful in their own right, and hoping to change the amplification with their upcoming debut album. Ramsey is one of the lyrical masterminds behind the Band Perry’s “Chainsaw” and Luke Bryan’s “Goodbye Girl,” while he and Rosen collaborated on Craig Morgan’s “Wake Up Loving You.” Tursi has written songs for Kenny Chesney, the Randy Rogers Band and for the ABC musical drama, Nashville. Rosen was Clark’s co-writer, along with Shane McAnally, on “Better Dig Two.” And all five have been hitting the songwriting pavement for years, writing for other artists as well as for their own LP, which will include their breakout song, “Dirt on a Road,” and new single, “Shut Me Up.”
Clark and Old Dominion met up one recent morning near Nashville’s Music Row to play journalist for one laughter-packed hour. Making our jobs pretty easy here at Rolling Stone Country, they decided to interview each other, and we just sat back and enjoyed the show.
Clark: Where’d the name Old Dominion come from?
Ramsey: Old Dominion is the nickname for the state of Virginia, and four of us have ties to Virginia.
Tursi: Where’d the name Brandy Clark come from?
Clark: My dad had a tattoo on his arm that said “Karen.” He’d had three girlfriends named Karen. He wanted to name me Karen so that tattoo would mean something else, but my mom said no.
Ramsey: That’s a way better story than ours!
Rosen: Was your mom’s name Karen?
Clark: No. Sally! [Laughs] He had that tattoo until he died, and I think he thought naming me Karen would be the big fix. Okay, back to y’all. Did the writing come first or the band?
Ramsey: I moved here for the writing. I started writing songs because I wanted to perform them, but I didn’t come here with that as the goal. I came here to learn to write better songs.
Clark: So you guys first got together as songwriters?
Rosen: Yes. I moved here for the same reasons. So we wrote a lot of songs together. Matt had the band together, and at some point we had been writing so much together that I just said, “I’m joining the band. You need me on harmony.”
Clark: I got to see y’all play last week, and you have such great energy. You’re one of my favorite live bands out there. What’s your favorite gig you’ve ever played?
Tursi: We have a little following down in Rome, Georgia, that’s really connected with the music. Everyone down there is singing along to every word. There’s a song we have called “Day One,” and it has a lot of words, so see the crowd know every word…
Ramsey: It’s a commitment to know those words, because even I don’t know them every night! [Laughs] But everyone was singing louder than us.
Tursi: So Brandy, you’re going on tour with Eric Church. That has to be exciting.
Clark: I’m thrilled.
Ramsey: Are you taking a band?
Clark: I am taking a band! Come on, we’re playing Madison Square Garden!
Rosen: So how did that come about?
Clark: I think it was because he’s a fan of my album, 12 Stories. I’ve been really lucky, not having a major label deal, to have press and to have other artists take notice. People like Eric, Kacey Musgraves, Jennifer Nettles… Jennifer gave me 51 dates this year. That’s such a gift. It’s one thing to say in an interview, ‘I really love that person’s music,’ which she has a lot, but to really put your money where your mouth is and introduce that person to fans, that’s huge.
Sprung: So you did the whole album without a label. What do you think would’ve been different if you’d had a big label on board?
Clark: Creatively, we were just told to make the record we wanted to make. And I think that would’ve been different. I do have a label now, Slate Creek Records, but they’re small and have that independent spirit of, ‘Make the music you want to make, and we’ll figure out what to do with it.’ But honestly, I don’t think my record would’ve been as successful with a major label involved.
Ramsey: Was there one song that you built the album around?
Clark: Yes, “Pray to Jesus.” But then as we were making the album, it became “Take a Little Pill,” which leads nicely into [current single] “Hungover.” What about y’all? Is there one song you all agree is Old Dominion?
Ramsey: As writers, you spend so long trying to build your cred as a writer, and then everything comes together at the same time: your artist career happens when your songwriter career is, too. So you have a song you love, but someone else wants to cut it, and you have to let it go. “Wake Up Loving You” was our flag for a while, but then Craig Morgan wanted to cut it. It was a big decision and, ultimately, we said, ‘That’s not the last Craig Morgan song we can write.’
Tursi: The songs that we do keep have a certain swagger. We know if a song is a band song.
Clark: Like “Dirt on a Road.”
Rosen: When do you know that a song you’ve written is a Brandy Clark song?
Clark: Usually when no one else will cut it!
Clark: It’s my job to cut the songs that other people are too scared to cut. Songs like “Take a Little Pill.” There are songs I’m hanging onto right now, because I’m working on another project. But most of the time, it just doesn’t work for anyone else. If a song is going to work for Miranda [Lambert], like “Mama’s Broken Heart,” I would have never cut that. If that works for her, it doesn’t work for me. We already have Miranda. I can’t compete with her!
Clark: So, you guys have told me before about haters, and I think it’s great that you laugh at them. I can’t do that.
Ramsey: Because you don’t have any!
Clark: No, I do! And the ones I have are pretty strong. Some guy posted the other day, “Country radio, please play Brandy Clark. She’s the savior of country music.” And another guy wrote, “Your savior is my Satan.” So yeah, I have haters.
Clark: “Dirt on a Road” is a huge hit on [Sirius XM’s] the Highway. I’d love to hear what that did in terms of ticket sales, and also in terms of the haters y’all have told me about.
Ramsey: It did a lot; no one knew who we were before that song. It’s a polarizing song, so we knew that — out of the gate — a song like that would stir attention. So, we welcome the haters because it means people are talking about us! And it didn’t hurt our feelings at all. Berate it all you want, you’re still putting our name out there. We’d been playing for a long time for empty rooms. Then that song became a hit on the Highway, and that helped our shows.
Clark: You guys are doing all these shows traveling in a van. What’s that like?
Rosen: Not as glamorous as you’d think! [Laughs] It’s dirty. Stuff’s everywhere, and we step on each other.
Ramsey: I can’t imagine being a girl out there on the road. We can throw a hat on and stink. Girls have to do their hair. Well, Trevor does, too. But…
Clark: That is true! I’ve recently discovered hot rollers. I’d been on this planet a long time and did not know about hot rollers.
Rosen: That sounds like a good band name, Brandy and the Hot Rollers.
Clark: Y’all are playing with a lot of big names this summer. Who are you most excited about?
Tursi: We have a show with Alabama…. I mean, we’re not on the bill or anything, but… [laughter]
Ramsey: We’re the opening band, and a lot of times no one cares. But we have some shows with Jake Owen and Eli Young Band, and those fans will care. By the time we get about three songs into our set, those are the people who always realize we’re not a crappy band. We’re real. I get excited about a crowd that likes our kind of music.
Clark: And you are a real band. You actually play on your record.
Sprung: We’ve had people tell us, “I really liked your show. You guys sound like a band.” In Nashville, that’s not a given.
Ramsey: It’s five personalities working together, and the more we play together, the more that grows.
Tursi: And sometimes being not as good [as studio musicians] is actually better!
Clark: I envy what y’all have, because you’re a team. I’m sure there are times when you get on each other’s nerves, but there’s a lot of time when I’m sitting alone in my dressing room thinking how nice it would be to have someone doing this with me.
Ramsey: How come you wrote “Better Dig Two” with Trevor, and where were you when I was single?
Clark: It was the first time I met Trevor. He started playing the opening to it, and we wrote it from the top down.
Rosen: We didn’t finish the song that day. It was a year later at a writing trip, and we pulled it back up and realized we needed to finish it.
Ramsey: We were at a cabin at Center Hill Lake, and they went upstairs to write their song and me and Josh Osborne and Matt Jenkins wrote another song. At the end of the day, we were like, “We just wrote an awesome song.” And we played it for y’all and you were like, “Yeah, that’s awesome but…” And then you played “Better Dig Two.”
Clark: Believe me, I understand! Luke Laird and I wrote a song called “I Drink to Get Drunk” on the same day “Merry Go Round” was written, so I’ve had my moments!
Rosen: And now we have another song by Craig Morgan coming out.
Ramsey: So together, we are simultaneously saving country music and killing country music!
Clark: Well, in your defense, one man’s savior is another man’s Satan.