From Flatbed Trucks To Arenas: Old Dominion Soars

Old Dominion
Mason Allen
– Old Dominion
Virginia Gentlemen (from left:) Old Dominion’s Geoff Sprung, Brad Tursi, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Whit Sellers (not pictured, on drums behind Sprung)
There was a girl at the publishing company I was at, an intern, and she knew this bar owner,” says Old Dominion lead singer/guitarist Matthew Ramsey in what sounds like the perfect set-up for a joke. But the ASCAP 2017 Artist/Songwriter of the Year isn’t kidding; he’s talking about the moment he realized the band he’d formed with friends and fellow songwriters Trevor Rosen, Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung and Brad Tursi was a for-real band.
A rare thing in country music, where vocal groups are the rule, that a bunch of musicians came together, hit the road and built the base. For the Virginia-rooted friends, their get-togethers – to create and play what they loved beyond Nashville’s standard songwriting appointments – were turning into an actual touring enterprise. 
Renting their own vans … booking their own shows … being their own tour manager … screening their own T-shirts … and budgeting everything down to the last tolls to come home and at least breaking even; but they were taking their music, done without compromise, out to the world.
For a bunch of guys who grew up in garage bands, that was sweet. But like all musicians, ultimately they wanted more.
“When a good night is going from one room to two rooms,” says Sony Nashville head Randy Goodman with a laugh, “you know it’s about playing the music. These guys put the band first, instead of their individual songwriting careers. It wasn’t a casual thing; they were driven, and in turn, they’re better songwriters for it.”
Goodman, who played in a band with Kim Richey and Bill Lloyd before coming to Nashville to work as a product manager at RCA, understands the difference. Before moving into the top slot at Sony Nashville, he’d recognized that spark – and tried to sign Old Dominion when he was managing Rascal Flatts with Clarence Spalding at Maverick Management.
Ultimately, OD signed with Clint Higham and Will Hitchcock at Morris Higham Management. Having written hits for Luke Bryan (“Light It Up”), Sam Hunt (“Make You Miss Me”), Dierks Bentley (“Say You Do”), The Band Perry (“Better Dig Two”) and Kenny Chesney (“Save It For A Rainy Day”), SiriusXM recognized the band’s ability to yield hooks that embed – and began playing OD long before a major label got involved.
“We knew how strong the songwriting and their ability to deliver the music was,” Higham explained. “They wanted to work, and they had the drive, which makes a difference. You can’t want it more than the act. And they were such great guys you want to work for them.”
 Though “Dirt On A Road,” “Wake Up Loving You,” “Shut Me Up,” “Beer Can In A Truck Bed” and the breakthrough “Break Up With Him” had given the five friends momentum and enough visibility to tour around the country, “every label in town had passed twice,” marvels day-to-day manager Will Hitchcock. Still with in-house promotion spearheaded by Buffy Cooper, Morris Higham soldiered on, working terrestrial radio and watching the band continue developing, working and writing.
“The guys tour so much,” Hitchcock continues, “they built (their success) on the road. To them, a great day is a day playing a show – and they live to play.”
For in-house agent Nate Ritches, the organic build the band has enjoyed creates a solid foundation for their emergence as a full-fledged arena headliner with their 2018-19 Make It Sweet Tour, announced here. 
Looking at the 2018 Academy of Country Music’s Vocal Group of the Year, he sees not a tipping point, but a convergence of moments that added up to critical mass.
“No one saw it coming but the underground,” Ritches begins. “We had three pillars in the fair and festival business: Fran Romeo, Gil Cunningham and Variety Attractions, who were watching the socials, following what was happening on SiriusXM and honoring the long-running relationship with our company that goes back to Alabama. Between that, and the club business the guys were doing, you could feel something was going on.”
“Then we got the call Kenny was going to put them on his 2015 tour, it felt like all the building was falling into place. The guys literally went from a flatbed truck at a county fair one night to a stadium the next.”
“People know Kenny is very serious about who he takes out, and that spoke pretty loudly, because bands without major label deals don’t get those slots.”
The gap between sold-out clubs and major NFL stadiums wasn’t lost on Old Dominion. Shortly before the Big Revival Tour, the magnitude of what had happened struck Ramsey. As the singer/guitarist recalls, “We were at the Tortuga Music Festival, which was the first time we heard ‘Save It For A Rainy Day,’ and Kenny was onstage. I remember texting Clint, ‘We’re not ready for this.,’ and Clint texted back, ‘Yes, You Are.’ Then Trevor was like, ‘Hey, he’s about to play your song…’”
And that’s how the fairy tale began. Old Dominion is the only act to have appeared on three Chesney stadium tours, in addition to being direct support on this year’s record-setting Trip Around the Sun Tour.
“They write great pop-leaning songs,” Chesney says of the band. “And they love to play; they literally live for that. To me, when I’m looking for artists to share the stage with, I always want to give No Shoes Nation the very best music, but also artists who are going to really bring it when they hit that stage.”
Goodman, who’d come onboard at Sony as OD’s debut Meat & Candy was being readied for release, remembers seeing the band perform. “The one thing you can’t pirate is live. Even with social media and engagement, there are ways to excite them that don’t require you to deliver on a stage, where there are no second chances.
“It was early in their time on the tour, and they were having to figure out how to present themselves on a stage with a 40-foot thrust to a massive stadium. But those songs reach to the back, and make people really happy, so they had that (connection) until they had the rest.”
As Chesney says of their first stadium tour, “They were on for 20 minutes before the show even started. But by (tour closer) Boston, people were showing up early to see them.”
Having aggressively supplemented their Chesney dates with an aggressive schedule of their own – 237 shows the first year, opening stints for Miranda Lambert and Thomas Rhett, Old Dominion’s been sharply focused on making the transition to hard-ticket headliner. 
Old Dominion
Mason Allen
– Old Dominion
Old Dominion’s Geoff Sprung, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi play a sold-out show at L.A.’s Microsoft Theater on March 8, 2018, as part their Happy Endings World Tour.
In 2015, they made it a priority to return to markets on Chesney’s tour to solidify the fans who’d seen them.
“Every Saturday on the Kenny stadiums, it’s better than most major festivals,” says Hitchcock, “because you have not just people from all over, but a widespread group of music lovers. They’re not just country fans, and this band reaches beyond expectations, so those fans really get Old Dominion.”
So much so, as Ritches was finalizing 2016, he got the call from Kenny, “Come on out.” And as their agent, he sees the impact. “This year was the biggest scan counts ever that early in the day. It was 90-92 percent in most cities, and almost completely full by their set’s end.”
Having been the launch band for Stagecoach’s Discovery Tour, playing 34 sold-out club dates around the country, OD is also casting its eye overseas. When their Make It Sweet Tour kicks in, they are slated to make their fourth and second trips to Europe and Australia, respectively.
“The guys had a vision, and a direction,” Ritches offers of their old school model. “They wrote for tomorrow, and for themselves. They didn’t worry about ‘the business,’ or chasing trends, and it stands out. It’s easy for people to get behind when they hear it, and come out, because it’s always fun.”
It’s almost as much fun as OD’s team is having. As Hitchcock explains, “We’re in smaller arenas this fall to get ready for 2019. We’re kicking off in Chicago at All-State Arena with larger production in a major market, because now we don’t have to worry about radius clauses for Kenny’s shows. They’re doing things like Halsey’s ‘Bad At Love’ for Spotify’s Singles Sessions, and really showing their versatility.
“The guys just had their sixth straight No. 1 with ‘Hotel Key,’ and winning ACM Top Vocal Group has opened the door, or some doors, outside the team. People like these guys, they’re rooting for them. Now it’s like graduation: they got their college education doing their own tours, a master’s degree from the time they’ve spent with Kenny. Now they get to put it all into play just the way they want to, and they’ve earned the knowledge to do it well.”
“We kept losing money,” Ramsey acknowledges, “but we kept hitting those little towns, giving our music away to anyone who came so they’d listen and come back. There’s nothing like the feeling of people singing your songs back to you. We drove three or four vans into the ground, and the first Kenny tour forced us into a bus… from dumping a bottle of water on your head in the parking lot for a shower, maybe putting 40 bucks in your pocket at the end of the weekend, the music has brought us a long, long way.
“This [Make It Sweet] tour feels like we’re not a bar band any more. We’re here to stay, and play arenas. The rooms we went to growing up, we’re headlining now. The Bergland Center in Roanoke is where I saw Garth Brooks, Pearl Jam, grunge bands. Who’d ever think I’d be headlining there with my band?” s