Matthew Ramsey, frontman of country group Old Dominion, joins Michael Franti’s Stay Human podcast for an in-depth discussion on his background as an artist, Old Dominion’s music and the responsibility artists with a platform have to speak up about tough subjects.
Born in the smalltown of Buchanan, Virginia, Ramsey explains that his love of art was always apparent to him and his family, especially in his formative years during school.
“Once I got into middle school and high school, I was clearly drawn to music and art. That’s where I kind of just buried myself in it. In high school, I had an English teacher, and I was always good at English class,” Ramsey shares. “I wasn’t a huge reader, but I could get language and writing and things like that. And my art teacher, they both really helped me. My art teacher would let me stay in the darkroom, and develop photos all day long. And she could see that I wasn’t into going to math class after her class.”
This magnitude towards fine arts led to a degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University in illustration and from there, Ramsey had to make a decision: “I knew that if I wanted to be successful in either one of these fields that I needed to pick one,” he says. “I was gonna have to either focus on art or focus on music. I decided, to most of my parents’ chagrin probably, that I was gonna work on music.”
In hindsight, it’s quite clear to see that Ramsey made the right decision considering the band’s mass success since their debut on the country scene in 2014. One of their biggest hits titled “One Man Band,” which is off of their latest album Old Dominion and clocks in at 195 million streams on Spotify, was a song that Ramsey explains basically came out of thin air.
“We were on the road, as we always are, and there was someone on the bus, I think he was like a radio person. We’re just talking, it was before the show, and I forget what exactly he said, but he said ‘one man band’ in his sentence,” Ramsey said. “It was like a lightning bolt to me. Whatever he was saying, I no longer remembered except for ‘one man band.’ And Brad [Tursi], our guitar player, was standing next to me. I kind of nudged him and he said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘We need to write a song called one man band.’
From that moment, the song flourished organically and accrued the critical acclaim that all songwriters dream of. Nevertheless, Ramsey doesn’t let the numbers get to him. If anything, he views his success as an incredible privilege and platform to give voice to the voiceless and shed light on the stories of others.
“What I love about music is the idea that we’re not just trying to put our blinders on,” he said. “We’re talking about the issues of the heart, we’re talking about what breaks our heart. It might be a social issue, or it might just be your girlfriend in seventh grade, or it might be something that’s happening with the environment or, you know, pick an issue. There’s many things that can break our heart, but music is the thing that helps me to say, ‘I can get through this challenge’ … And that’s what music has done for me. It’s saved my life over and over and over again.”
For the rest of the conversation, check out the “Stay Human” podcast, hosted by Michael Franti.