“Some of the lines we put in there actually are songs,” says Old Dominion lead singer Matthew Ramsey. “But that’s kind of a serendipitous moment there.”
Credit serendipity for the title “Song for Another Time.” Ramsey heard someone else self-regulate a conversation by saying, “That’s a story for another time,” a phrase that struck him as potential grist for a song. He didn’t know where exactly it would lead, and the first time he tried to introduce it during a writing session, it went absolutely nowhere.
He brought it up again roughly a year ago on the band bus in the shadow of a stadium on Kenny Chesney’s The Big Revival Tour. Matt Jenkins (“Confession,” “Cop Car”) had flown out to write with Ramsey (“Chainsaw,” “Say You Do”) and Old Dominion guitarist Trevor Rosen (“Sangria,” “Better Dig Two”), a trio that has collaborated almost weekly for about four years. Old Dominion guitarist Brad Tursi (“A Guy Walks Into a Bar,” “Save It for a Rainy Day”) sat in on this particular day, as Ramsey tossed out the “Song for Another Time” title once again. This time, the idea took hold.
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“Just through our conversation,” recalls Ramsey, “it was like, ‘Man, what if it was living out these happy songs and not being sad songs,’ and we just sort of started down this road of putting song titles in it.”
Rosen tossed up the first sad song, George Strait’s “Marina Del Rey,” and the first verse progressed through a couple other downcast classics, The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” before finding some rejuvenation in the chorus. There, the mood changes with references to such upbeat pieces as Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”
The references spanned multiple decades and styles — ’70s pop (Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”), ’80s R&B (Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling”), ’90s country (Hal Ketchum’s “Small Town Saturday Night”) — matching the band’s wide-ranging background and the modern audience’s eclectic tastes.
“For the first time in history, all of us have now grown up where our iPod maybe had Hank Williams on it and it had P. Diddy on it,” says Jenkins. “People are listening to Katy Perry and they’re listening to George Strait, so I think it’s cool to incorporate all that where it’s not just all country. It just speaks to music in general, which was very intentional.”
Grabbing from the classics was easy. Blending in more modern titles was a little tougher.
“Those were the ones that were challenging to find — something that we could put in there that was pretty much known by everybody,” says Ramsey.
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Once it was done, Rosen played acoustic guitar over a synthetic drumbeat from Tursi’s laptop, and the guys sang the song with full harmony into an iPhone. “They’re able to work out parts and all that stuff in the midst of writing the song, and there is a lot of harmony on that chorus,” notes Jenkins.
They wrote one more song that day, a more light-hearted effort called “Goner,” then played them both for the other members of Old Dominion, drummer Whit Sellers and bass player Geoff Sprung, who were both enthusiastic about “Song for Another Time.”
Tursi subsequently whipped up a more elaborate demo from the work tape, and that version was sent to Chesney, who passed.
“He emailed me back and was like, ‘Man, this is a great song. It’s not right for me, but you guys should cut it,’ ” remembers Ramsey.
Later on the tour, Old Dominion played it at sound check before another stadium gig, and it felt so big in that context that they decided it needed to be added to its debut album, Meat and Candy, which was already finished. Producer Shane McAnally(Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt) booked House of Blues recording studio in Nashville, and the band flew back to Music City to knock it out in one day.
“One of the things that was really, really important to me was that guitar lick at the beginning,” says McAnally. “It has this dissonance — very Trevor Rosen. I don’t know why that lick tells me so much, but it does. It has the essence of [John Lennon’s] ‘Imagine.’ And because ‘Imagine’ is one of the most revered songs of all time, it felt important.”
While Sellers plays drums throughout the track, the opening sections of “Song for Another Time” sound a bit tinny, almost programmed. The rhythm is enhanced subtly with handclaps in the second verse, and by the end, the back beat has a much more forceful tone, much of it from engineer Ryan Gore playing with the sound during mixing.
“The drums definitely help carry the story,” says Ramsey. “It gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and by the end, it’s full-blown arena.”
By the end of a 12-hour day, Ramsey was pretty much blown out at House of Blues. The rest of the band watched from the console while he did his lead vocals. He felt pressure to get it right, but fatigue was making it hard to stay focused. McAnally visited the vocal booth, recalls Ramsey, and encouraged him to put everyone else out of his mind, focus on the story and find some moment in his own past when he had experienced the kind of heartbreak that’s embedded in “Song for Another Time.”
“I think he did it two more times and that was it,” says McAnally. “I remember Brad Tursi standing there at the board, and he said, ‘What did you say to him?’ All of the sudden, it just had this new life.”
The previous Old Dominion singles, “Break Up With Him” (No. 1, Country Airplay) and “Snapback” (No. 2), are part of the “candy” quotient in Meat and Candy, says Ramsey. “Song for Another Time,” released to radio via Play MPE on May 31, is at No. 36 in its third charted week. A song that almost didn’t make the album has now been picked, he says, to bring out some of the project’s meaty flavor.
“Let’s hope,” says Ramsey, “it’s a bacon-wrapped filet.”