Carver-Hawkeye Arena is trading basketballs for bands April 27, when Old Dominion bounces in to headline a concert benefiting the University of Iowa’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program, led by UI men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery and his wife, Margaret.
With a seating capacity of 15,000, that’s a big venue for a band that played dive bars before hitting the road with its debut album “Meat and Candy” in 2015 and winning two new artist honors in 2016.
Old Dominion returned to those roots last summer to promote its sophomore collection, “Happy Endings,” released March 10.
“That was part of the big push to get closer to our fans, give them a little something special for our second album,” lead singer Matthew Ramsey said from a recent tour stop in Las Vegas. He and his four bandmates, all around 40, live within a few miles of each other in Nashville, where they gravitated as songwriters and musicians before forming their band about 10 years ago.
“We definitely spent years and years playing in those kinds of bars, but the difference was, this time there were people there,” Ramsey said with a laugh.
Looking out on the legions of fans in vast venues these days is “very gratifying,” he said.
“And honestly, kind of heartwarming when we’re out there on that stage. We know it’s our show and we’re the headliner,” he said. “You can look out and see how many people your music is touching. It can get emotional, it can get energizing. It’s all those things. We’re not far from playing those dive bars — we’re just a few years out from that.
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“It’s been quite a whirlwind, so we really like to take those moments and soak in that energy from that crowd.”
Their newfound success generates plenty of “pinch me” moments.
“At this point in our career, it’s a daily thing for us,” he said. “We’re a little older. This happened for us a little later than it does typically for others. We spent such a long time working on this and thinking about this and dreaming of this, that even though it’s been a few years that we’ve had success with a lot of songs, it’s still such an impossible dream to us. The fact that we’re kind of walking around in it, ‘pinch me’ moments happen daily.”
The band didn’t happen by accident. Four of the five members grew up in Virginia, nicknamed the Old Dominion State. Ramsey, from Buchanan, Va., grew up in the same region as Whit Sellers, playing in rival high school drum lines. Drummer Sellers met bass player Geoff Sprung and guitarist Brad Tursi in college. Ramsey met them by going to see their bands, and playing a few gigs with them in Virginia. Like the rest of them, guitarist Trevor Rosen, from Michigan, gravitated toward Nashville, where he met Ramsey and began writing songs together.
“One by one those guys came down to do the same thing — be writers and musicians,” Ramsey said. “We were just friends in the same city. We were just playing music to make a little extra money here and there or to showcase the songs we had been writing. It just grew naturally from there.
“We started with success as songwriters, and then people started to come to hear us play those songs. Then we would go outside of town and play a little bit, then more and more people started catching wind of this band of songwriters. It just grew to the point where we needed a booking agent and a manager, because we couldn’t do it all ourselves.
“It just naturally happened — we never sat down and said, ‘Let’s form a band.’”
Country A-listers have recorded their songs, including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, The Band Perry and Kenny Chesney. Hearing their songs on the radio is music to the writers’ ears.
“That’s what we moved to Nashville to do,” Ramsey said. “For Trevor, Brad and myself, that was our goal ... to learn how to write the best songs we could and have some other people record them. The band thing was never in our mind when we moved here, so being artists ourselves was never in our minds.”
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“That was the dream, and it’s an incredible thing when you start to have these artists that you’ve spent years and years looking up to decide that your music is good enough to represent themselves with your songs. It’s a great feeling every time it happens.”
WHAT: Old Dominion, with opening acts Michael Ray and Brandon Lay
WHERE: University of Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena, 1 Elliot Dr., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 27
TICKETS: $29.50 and $39.50 upper and lower decks; floor is sold out; $5 parking
BENEFITS: UI’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program, led by UI men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery and his wife, Margaret