Skip to main content

Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey on His Band’s Rise and Tattoos of Carrots and Carats

By Jon Chattman, Inked Entertainment Director

Remember how The Real World intro went on MTV: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house…” It went something like that. Well, if the band Old Dominion had a reality show and they went with a painful opening like that reality series that overstayed its welcome, it’d probably say, “this is the true story of five friends who played music together, started writing songs for famous people, and then became famous themselves.”

The series would start out telling us how two band members (lead singer Matthew Ramsey and drummer Whit Sellers) met in middle school, then eventually caught up with guitarist Brad Tursi and bassist Geoff Spring in college (all in Virginia mind you), and ultimately the four befriended multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rosen in Nashville in songwriting circles and formed a friendship, a band, and became a songwriting force. Oh, and then a band again. I’ll quit The Real World sh*t now.

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

It essentially took two decades for Old Dominion to become overnight successes. That sentence isn't entirely true, but it’s a solid sentence so we’ll run with it. Plus, it’s subjectively true. After a string of writing killer songs for country royalty like Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, and The Band Perry, the band found themselves unexpectedly in the spotlight with their debut album Meat and Candy, which they released in 2015. The album’s single “Break Up With Him” spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, and led to massive success. Let’s list some before we get to the reason I’m writing about them in Inked, shall we?

The band, who Billboard have dubbed the “champs at making earworms,” are having essentially the best year ever thanks to their second album Happy Endings, which came out this year, spawned massive hits of the platinum and gold variety, and thankfully has nothing to do with spa treatment finishers. The quintet’s first single “No Such Thing As A Broken Heart” was a smash. Their album hit number one on the charts. They’ve won awards, and are selling out arenas.

Ramsay, like his bandmates, can’t believe it and talked with us about it. In the midst of reflecting on the past year, he fittingly talked to us about the ink that covers his body.

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Q. What’s up, man? As the year draws to a close, can you allow yourself to reflect on how crazy 2017 has been for you guys?

​A. We’ll work ’til Christmas, and have a month off to reflect on how big it’s getting. I’m kind of allowing myself to soak it all in and really what’s happening.

Q. The success this year has just been insane, but you’ve felt the success before as songwriters. Can you describe how different it feels to experience the success firsthand as songwriters versus as performers who write songs?

A. We always say we’re the luckiest bunch of guys to double dip into both worlds. As a songwriter living in Nashville, life doesn't change as drastically. Yes, you can make lots of money, and that can change your life. But, when you’re in the band and you’re the songwriter, it’s like now I’m the vessel for that song as well. We go out on stage and we see first hand that these people are making our music part of their lives. You can’t see it as a songwriter that much. You can’t feel that energy. They just kind of explode with excitement. It’s the best validation you can get as a songwriter. We didn't move to Nashville to do this. We moved to be songwriters. Now, it’s just crazy. It really is an unreal feeling to watch it grow from a song that’s unknown to one that goes up the chart.

Q. Is there anything you miss about just writing the songs? I’d also imagine it’s different now as opposed to before because you probably can’t go into a Starbucks or somewhere else without getting recognized.

A. I do miss the songwriting community. We spent probably ten years immersed in that community and now this happened. We’re constantly creating. We now have to do interviews, photoshoots and you just want to write a song so you just have to work in writing.

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Q. You guys know each other forever. How has relationship grown over the past two-plus years?

A. We were friends before the band. As this thing grew, we kind of just realized the most important thing about it is our friendship. We set the goal that when it’s over we want to still be friends. We have such respect for each other’s abilities, and there’s no room for ego.

Q. So none of you thought about going it solo?

​A. I can’t imagine doing it alone. It’d be such a lonely world to be in - to go talk to all the radio stations and [what not]. Sometimes you just don’t want to talk about anything. We pick each other up when we need to.

Q. Speaking of picking each other up. Your hit song “Shoe Shopping” is all about terrible pickup lines. Give me your best worst.

A. Luckily, I haven’t given any. I’ve been married a long time.

Q. That song’s a fun one, and so much of your songs, while they can go deep, always seem to be upbeat in some way. There’s a lot of depressing sh*t going on in the world no matter what side of the political fence you’re on, is it refreshing to churn out such fun songs?

​A. ​It’s actually motivational to come up with some more fun songs. Sometimes it’s like ‘gosh, some people just want to forget about that sh*t for a while.’ And, we definitely see that at the live show. But, on the flip side, it’s like we have an opportunity to say something - like the first single “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart.” That has a message that no matter how f—ked up the world is, you have to buckle down and keep going. It’s a gift we can give that message, but we hit it in a dance groove. It’s fun to sing, and fun to dance to. It’s hard to be political in this genre or you’ll pay for it. But, sometimes you do want to just say f—k it.

Q. “Written in the Sand” is such a good song, and has a great line: “are we names in a tattoo or just a number on a hand?” Explain that line to me, and help me segue to asking you about your tattoos.

​A. The crux of the song is people in a relationship, and how we get to a point where we are saying is this something that lasts forever or is it just a fling? Obviously, tattoos are permanent and a number can be easily washed away.

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Q. Speaking of numbers (and segues), how many tattoos do you have?

​A. Ten… My first one is nothing really classic. It was just me and my roommate and we were just like ‘let’s go get tattoos.”

Q. Is it like a barbed wire or something?

A. Nah, it might as well be. It’s a thing on my shoulder blade. It looked cool. Who knows what it means. It’s some little design circle with a thing through it. It could mean something terrible for all I know.

Q. What about the rest of your pieces? Have they been that impulsive or more thought out?

A. Everyone after that has been thought out. It doesn't mean they’re all good. I had one little guitar I actually drew, which was my second one. I keep thinking of covering it up, but I kind of like the bad tattoos. I figure if I cared enough to put it on myself [then I should keep it].

Q. What about styles? Are you drawn to certain ones?

A. At first, I was afraid of color. I just wanted them black and white. I was scared to get color for some reason. I just didn't want to get them that bright. The first color one I got were carrots on my arm - they’re my most popular ones for sure. They came from a children’s book - The Carrot Seed. I was reading it to my kids, and the boy in it is very persistent that his carrots will grow. At the time, it felt like my music journey. Everybody gets down on themselves - thinking you’re not going to make it. But, you have to keep going. When we got our first Number One song, I got a big bunch of carrots on my right arm. I have tattoos for each of my daughters, my wife, and most of them have to do with my kids in some way.

Q. So the good, the bad, and the circle seem to all be personal for you. I hate asking people which tattoo is most personal, because they all are.

​A. ​You’re right. They’re all meaningful even if they’re all silly. Right now, I have a bear that’s drinking a cup of coffee, which is silly. My daughter says I’m a bear if I don’t drink my coffee. The older I get, the sillier I get. I have a garden gnome for my daughter Naomi. My kids love them. They like to touch them.

Q. Do you have any others that reflect your career?

A. I have a couple diamonds on my shoulders that are, again, reminders to myself. I work pretty good under pressure. When you get pretty stressed out, somebody always says you look like you have ‘the weight of the world on your shoulders.’ I thought of pressure, and thought ‘how could I turn it into something beautiful?’ I thought about how great diamonds are made - the pressure and the time.

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler

Photo by Peter Roessler