Some aspiring artists fantasize about seeing their names at the top of the marquee. Matthew Ramsey dreamed of reading his name in fine print — specifically, the liner notes of hit country records.
"It really wasn't until I realized that country music had a whole underworld of songwriters that I dug into it," Ramsey said.
In 2000, the Buchanan, Va., native moved to Nashville, Tenn., not to perform hits, but in hopes of writing them for others. Over time, he found success, and recruited other like-minded songwriters to jam together when they weren't working. That group of friends formed the rock-leaning country band Old Dominion in 2007, and a decade later, Ramsey and his four bandmates are no longer operating in Nashville's shadows — they're front and center as rising stars.
For the now-39-year-old Ramsey, their unconventional path still feels a bit surreal.
"We never really dreamed of being a band until it just naturally happened," said Ramsey on the phone last week, en route to Atlanta for another show. (Old Dominion performs at Rams Head Live on Friday.) "All of a sudden, we were like, 'Maybe we should take this kind of seriously, because people seem to like it.'"
Before they played nearly 160 gigs per year, as they did in 2016, Old Dominion was just a group of songwriters with some longstanding ties. Ramsey and drummer Whit Sellers grew up together in Virginia, and Sellers later met bassist Geoff Sprung and guitarist Brad Tursi as students at James Madison University. The JMU alums made their way to Nashville and connected with Ramsey, who was writing with future Old Dominion guitarist-keyboardist Trevor Rosen.
While they enjoyed playing low-pressure bar gigs together, the members were more focused on becoming respected songwriters and session players around Nashville. They soon racked up songwriting credits with country's biggest names, including Kenny Chesney ("Save It for a Rainy Day"), Dierks Bentley ("Say You Do"), Luke Bryan ("Goodbye Girl"), The Band Perry ("Chainsaw") and others.
Their growing reputations as songwriters soon translated to better-attended gigs around town for their kind-of, sort-of band.
"Our individual successes fed the band, and people just started showing up," Ramsey said.
Its audiences swelled to the point that Old Dominion realized it had to take a legitimate shot at its own stardom. The decision has served the band well, as evidenced by its well-received debut album, November 2015's gold-certified "Meat and Candy." The group's sound is reflected in the title: a mix of Top 40-influenced, hook-heavy country (the candy) and more serious songs (the meat), all of it catchy and sharply written.
"Girl, you know it can't wait, rip it off just like a Band-Aid / The way you look at me, girl, you can't pretend / I know you ain't in love with him," Ramsey sings on the platinum single "Break Up With Him," which hit No. 1 on Billboard's U.S. Country Airplay chart.
Ramsey said the record is a complete reflection of the skills they've honed over countless hours of writing sessions.
"I'm very proud that we wrote and performed all those songs on the album," he said. "It's an accurate representation of who we are as a band."
Their peers in Nashville have taken notice as well. Last April, Old Dominion won the Academy of Country Music Award for new duo/group of the year. It was a surprising moment of validation, Ramsey said, and also a reminder that the band won't be headed back behind-the-scenes anytime soon.
"We're not just a bar band anymore, and our peers recognize that. … It definitely meant a lot to us to be included, and it also made us realize we need to step up our game a little bit and stop goofing off," Ramsey said with a laugh. (If they're adjusting, they're wearing it well while still having fun, as seen on their recent performance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show.")
Now the band is focused on what comes next. Old Dominion plans to spend much of the year on the road, including its first full run through Europe. But first, it plays Baltimore, a place Ramsey would often visit as a kid to attend Orioles games with his grandparents. (His mother is from Oxon Hill.)
"There's going to be a bunch of family at that show for sure," he said of Friday's Rams Head Live gig.
Old Dominion just finished tracking its second album with producer Shane McAnally, Ramsey said, and will soon choose the record's first single. Their years of experience, both in the studio and on the road, have coalesced into an album, due sometime this year, that's "definitely the next level for us," he said.
"It's maybe a little more of a mature sound but we still have those silly, goofy elements that are on 'Meat and Candy,'" he said. "But we really dug into the songwriting, and made sure we said something other than a pick-up-line song."