In 2020, the ACM Awards took place like they do every year, but this year’s ceremony looked markedly different.
For one thing, they happened in September, having been pushed from their usual April date by COVID-19 shutdowns. For another, the show aired from Nashville instead of its usual Las Vegas home base, and were spread out over a handful of iconic Music City venues.
But perhaps most strikingly, the show happened without a live audience. And when Old Dominion stepped on the Grand Ole Opry stage to accept their Song of the Year trophy — the first of two awards they took home that night — they were addressing a camera and an empty house. In that moment, any semblance of a prepared speech that frontman Matthew Ramsey might have had evaporated. Looking at the empty seats, all he could think of were the people that the band had lost, and he spoke from the heart.
“Songwriting is what got us here,” he said from the stage. “This is not what I thought I’d say. We’re sitting here in this empty room, and I can hear [Nashville songwriter Andrew Dorff], our friend who passed away. I can hear him saying, ‘I know who you are!’ He used to yell that at us.”
He went on to mention his bandmate Brad Tursi’s brother, Drew Tursi, who died suddenly at the age of 30. He also included songwriter Josh Osborne’s late father. Osborne co-wrote “One Man Band,” the song that won them the Song of the Year Award, and he was standing onstage alongside Old Dominion.
Without an audience full of fans, Ramsey continued, those lost loved ones’ absence was ringing in his ears even louder. But he could feel them there, cheering him on.
“I can feel them all — they’re so proud. It’s such an honor to receive [this award] in their presence,” he reflected.
A month and a half after that night, on the phone with Country Now, Ramsey admits that his memorable speech was pretty spur of the moment. “I was thinking of all these people I needed to thank and I’m terrible at that. But I’m walking out and looking at this empty auditorium, and that’s all I could think of, the people that weren’t there,” he explains.
It’s no wonder that that speech was what bubbled up in Ramsey’s brain, and it’s no wonder that the sentiment connected so powerfully with the people watching from home. For everyone, on some level, 2020 has been a year of loss.
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And in Old Dominion’s case, loss also came in the form of not being able to spend the year as planned, out on the road performing the songs from their self-titled October 2019 studio album.
“We just worried about, you know, when you can’t play shows — at least for us, that’s a real indicator of our success,” Ramsey points out. “When you get to go out into the real world, in whatever city, and see that your music is alive and well and breathing in that city, it really fuels you. And makes you wanna continue to make music.
“So when that’s taken away, it’s like, ‘Okay. What do we have now?’” He adds.
The bandmates of Old Dominion don’t particularly consider themselves chart nerds. They appreciate the importance of that kind of success, but they don’t spend a lot of time watching their singles’ journeys up and down the charts, so that particular barometer was never going to be a satisfying replacement for the feedback they get from live shows.
What they did have, though, were the awards shows. “We never really focused on that very much [either] — they’re nice indicators of your success, but it’s never been anything we hung our hats on,” Ramsey explains. Still, in the absence of touring, the band grew to really appreciate the awards show aspect of country music.
“The fact that we are in these conversations, and we are getting awards for Song of the Year, nominations for Album of the Year — it’s a nice, like, ‘Okay, we’re still here,’” the singer goes on to say. “No one’s forgetting about us. Which would sound silly, but it’s a real fear. We just wanna get back to normal.”
To that end, band has leaned into the creative side of their work, too, although they’ve also had to adjust the way they write songs. In the absence of in-person writes, many artists have turned to video chat to help them keep co-writing, but Ramsey says that method hasn’t worked for him.
“At one point, I learned I was not going to write on Zoom. That was not for me,” the singer admits. “[Bandmates] Brad [Tursi] and Trevor [Rosen], they did it, but I just kinda decided — I’m lucky enough to be at a point in my career that I don’t feel the need to write a song just for the sake of writing a song.”
In other words, he wasn’t going to force it: Ramsey decided to just take a step back, and return to songwriting when the mood — and circumstances — were right. Ultimately, he found other ways to return to the creative process, he goes on to say.
“I sat around and wrote by myself some, which was fun, but then what ultimately happened is we booked this trip to Asheville, North Carolina,” he relates. All five of the bandmates, plus songwriters Shane McAnally, Matt Jenkins and Josh Osborne and recording engineer Justin Niebank, took a socially distanced, isolated, three-week trip out of town.
“And we wrote and recorded a whole new album. So that’s something we couldn’t have ever done if we were touring,” Ramsey reveals. “Couldn’t have spent three weeks living and breathing music like we did.”
The trip, which Ramsey describes as “band camp,” produced a batch of music that the singer says Old Dominion never could have created if 2020 had been business as usual, and if they’d been in Nashville while making it.
“This is our home, so there’s too many, for lack of a better word, distractions,” he explains. “There, we were allowed to just be a band. And we’ve never made an album where all five of us wrote every song together.”
Each day on the trip, their daily routine revolved around the music they were making.
“We all sat in a big circle every morning, and we’d write a song, and then we’d get it about three-quarters of the way done and take it up into the studio and start bringing it to life,” Ramsey recalls. “It was a really musical experience that you just don’t get if you go and write a batch of songs from 10-3 every day. You’re just not gonna be able to make this type of album.”
But the singer adds that there’s one topic that fans won’t hear much about on the new record. “No, we’re not writing COVID-y songs,” he replies with a laugh when asked if the pandemic will be making an appearance on the album.
“There’s no reason to give this thing any more attention than it’s already got,” he says, but adds that maybe this eventful year has seeped into the new music in more abstract ways.
“I think maybe what it does do is make you a little more introspective, you know. It definitely can highlight what you miss, and you write about those things,” Ramsey allows. “But no. I’m not at all gonna write any type of song that’s, like, quarantine-based.”