Old Dominion used to look like they were sleepwalking through their live shows. The band’s “aggressively low-key style remains one of country’s great unexplained mysteries,” Rolling Stone said of the group’s 2019 CMA Awards performance of “One Man Band.” For whatever reason, the five members just didn’t seem excited to be onstage, or, at least, not comfortable.
But somewhere after their self-titled third album, Old Dominion loosened up. The band found its mojo and embraced the stage, maturing into one of mainstream country music’s most popular live groups. In November, they won their fourth consecutive CMA Award for Vocal Group of the Year. Next summer, they’ll reunite with early champion Kenny Chesney for another stadium tour together.
Scroll through clips of Old Dominion’s recent shows on Instagram and singer Matthew Ramsey is practically sitting atop fans in the front row. Guitarist Brad Tursi and drummer Whit Sellers are resurrecting pre-fame rarities like “Shut Me Up.” And bassist Geoff Sprung is trolling the crowd with an absurd amount of jacket changes. It’s an evolution of attitude — a relaxing of the shoulders — and one you can hear come to life on the band’s latest album Time, Tequila & Therapy, released in October.
“We definitely figured out how to be ourselves, and be a little bit more comfortable,” Ramsey tells Rolling Stone a few days after the band’s big CMA win. “I think it’s like anything else: You gotta learn how to put on a show and you gotta let go of yourself a little bit to learn how to do that. And then if you can meld the two, that’s when it really starts happening. The show part of it is ingrained in you and then you become your natural, authentic self. That’s when you really connect with people.”
Two weeks before the CMA Awards, the members of Old Dominion are rendezvousing with their tour bus in a corporate-center parking lot near the Nashville airport. It’s a Thursday and the group is about to roll out for a weekend of headlining shows in Connecticut and Virginia. Ramsey, in a baseball hat advertising Cantera Negra tequila (the band have a deal with the company), is milling around outside, puffing on a cigar. Trevor Rosen, the group’s he-can-play-anything-including-accordion guy, is already on the bus, along with Sprung. It’s cold and windy, and Ramsey stubs out his stogie and joins his bandmates onboard for a remarkably candid conversation.
In country music, especially these days, the tendency is to avoid talking about tough topics or share anything that may suggest a crack in the perma-smile. No one wants to be responsible for the record scratch that interrupts Nashville’s eternal party. But Old Dominion have always at least acknowledged the darker corners of life. While they make some undeniable party songs, there’s a distinct sadness lurking behind their brand of yacht-rock country. They allude to as much in the very title of Time, Tequila & Therapy, a record that Ramsey has said “saved us as a band.”
The title is not a metaphor. At least three members of the group are in regular therapy.
“Therapy is very literal,” Ramsey says. “Over the past three years, it’s been very important for me to keep my head straight.”
“This is not a normal life, and the things that come with it are sometimes difficult to wrap your head around,” Sprung says. “A lot of it is, ‘How do I adjust? How do you make the transition from being out here where it’s kind of one life and then you go home to another life?’ When I started [therapy], I was looking for someone that had experience working with people that do [what we do].”
“I called a friend and I was like, ‘I need some guidance here. There’s just too much going on.'” — Matthew Ramsey
Ramsey first sought the help of a therapist after writing “Some People Do,” Old Dominion’s 2019 ballad about absent apologies and forgiveness that may never come: “I know you’re hurt / I know it’s my fault / but I’ve kept ‘I’m sorry’ locked in a vault,” goes the first verse.
Looking inward left him rattled.
“I woke up the next morning and I called a friend and I was like, ‘I need some guidance here. There’s just too much going on, and I don’t feel like I’m necessarily the person that I know I can be. I need help with that,’” Ramsey says.
“So he guided me towards a therapist and I just dumped 40 years on her in the first session. It’s really helping me communicate better with myself, my family, and with these guys,” he continues, gesturing at Rosen and Sprung.
The pandemic didn’t just interrupt Old Dominion’s nonstop touring schedule; it also derailed the casual way the group communicates. Band decisions made each morning on the bus with mugs in hand became like “acts of Congress,” Ramsey says.
“It took away the communication style that we’re used to,” Sprung says. “You can’t sit and have coffee and say, ‘What do you think?’”
“There were two-day-long text threads,” says Ramsey, who admits tensions were high. “It was like, ‘Is this fun anymore?’ And it wasn’t.”
“It was all the work of being in a band,” Rosen says, “without any of the joy of being in a band.”
In an attempt to reconnect, Old Dominion took advantage of the pandemic time off in September 2020 to slowly and deliberately make an album. After three LPs briskly recorded on scant days off from tour, the group decamped to the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina, and Echo Mountain Recording studio, where bands like Turnpike Troubadours, the War on Drugs, and Zac Brown Band all cut records. The plan was to show up and write and record their fourth album uninterrupted, similar to how Red Hot Chili Peppers cut Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Sprung is a fan of that LP’s making-of doc, Funky Monks).
But even getting to the studio was fraught with anxiety and discord.
“The discussions leading up to Asheville were tense. Because, you know, what the fuck are we going to do? I remember Brad got all riled up one time over a Zoom, because we weren’t going to have any songs,” Ramsey says. “We’re like, ‘Look, we just have to go there. Something will happen.’ And it was true. Whenever we get on this bus, we are laughing and having a great time with each other because we’re good friends. The same thing happened. We got there and immediately started playing music together and remembering this is fun.”
Songs like “Why Are You Still Here,” “Something’s the Same About You,” and “No Hard Feelings” came pouring out over the three-week sessions. They allowed themselves creative departures too, writing about trips to the islands (“Hawaii”) and old denim (“Blue Jeans”). “There’s songs on this album that we would have never written in a writing appointment in Nashville,” Rosen says.
Many songs revealed a shared theme of moving on in peace — and with gratitude for the person who may have been left behind. The band leaned into that message.
“We kind of noticed it about halfway to two thirds through the album,” Sprung says. “We started going, ‘Is this another song where, like, everything’s OK?’”
But Old Dominion’s most important discovery was the confidence they found in themselves as musicians.
“The bands I used to play in in Michigan, I was the guitar player. But being in Nashville, that’s not the way it is,” Rosen says, referring to the prevalence of studio musicians in Music Row recording sessions. “It took a couple of records for me to go, ‘I’m not like a virtuoso piano player or guitar player, but I can come up with good parts and have the confidence to be the studio musician.’ And then we started to see the whole band that way.”
While Old Dominion always played their own instruments on their albums, they were viewed early on in their career as just a group of songwriters, more at home in writing rooms than in front of crowds.
“For the longest time, people wouldn’t sign us as a band because they just saw us that way,” Ramsey says. (The group signed with RCA Nashville in 2015.) “Like Trevor was saying, becoming confident in ourselves as musicians, it took a little while to feel like we actually are pretty good at this. But also realizing that nobody knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s a hack and we’re all out there just trying to figure it out.”
That they had this a-ha moment at this stage in the game — each member is in their 40s — isn’t lost on Old Dominion.
“We did it in a way that nobody does it in country music. We’re the band that is a real band that writes all the music and plays all the music. And our friendship, our rapport, it’s all so genuine,” Rosen says. “How did we get away with doing what nobody else does?”
For Ramsey, the answer lies in how he learned to perceive his job. Unsurprisingly, that realization came during therapy.
“Talking to my therapist, she made me see that this is a life of service — rather than feeling like people were taking from me or wanting things for me,” he says, as the bus gets ready to pull away. “I signed up for a life of service and now I’m getting to contribute.”
A few days later, the band is back onstage at the CMA Awards performing their current hit “I Was on a Boat That Day.” They’re lively, engaged, animated — it’s not the Old D from the 2019 show. Ramsey in particular is exuberant.
When he calls for a follow-up the next week, he sounds more upbeat than he did on the bus. The glow from the CMA victory is still fresh and the Chesney stadium tour was just announced, with Old Dominion’s name high up on the bill.
For a band that was once dismissed as just a bunch of songwriters, do they finally have validation?
“We definitely have a good feeling about where we are,” Ramsey says. “As long as we continue to do what we think is good and not chase after what we think people want to hear, that’s the winning plan.”