Between the scratchy rhythm guitar, crisp drumbeat and cheery harmonic texture, it’s easy to come away from Old Dominion’s newest single, “Never Be Sorry,” feeling energized and wanting more.
That’s an accomplishment with just about any musical track, but it’s particularly impressive when the topic is a potential downer. And that’s the case with “Never Be Sorry,” though it’s not entirely obvious. The most accessible lyrics — specific images of shoe shopping in Chicago and a downpour in Santa Barbara, Calif. — are positive scenes from a relationship. But the least tangible passages — feet hanging off the moon or the sky falling down — are artsy, hazy recognitions that the romance is history. Still, the music is so electrifying that by the time the listener figures out it’s a heartbreak song, it’s too late: The pensive plot is subservient to the song’s sonic joy.
“More and more lately, if there’s a sad lyric, I feel like I want to make every song happy,” guitarist Brad Tursi says. “A happy sound with a sad lyric is, to me, a cool juxtaposition.”
Tursi’s guitar groove provided the starting point for “Never Be Sorry” when it came together on July 19, 2018, in a green room at the BankPlus Amphitheater in Southaven, Miss., during Kenny Chesney’s Trip Around the Sun Tour. Co-writer Josh Osborne (“One Man Band,” “Happy Anywhere”) picked up songwriter-producer Shane McAnally (“7 Summers,” “One Night Standards”) at the Memphis Airport and met up with the band to start a weekend songwriting trek.
Once Tursi fired up his aggressive riff, threaded initially through a minor chord, the writing troupe — including Old Dominion lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey and guitarist-keyboardist Trevor Rosen — instinctively kicked into a bittersweet melody and rapid-fire lyrics with cloudy references to the song’s breakup.
When they arrived at the chorus, it needed a change-up. Tursi spun into complicated major seventh chords, and they landed on the “I’ll never be sorry” hook, marrying it to a surprisingly linear melody.
“Sometimes the dumbest, most basic melody is the one that feels the best,” says Rosen. “I don’t know why that is, but when you feel it, you know. It doesn’t have to be some crazy, all-over-the-map melody. Sometimes it’s just the simple one where you stay on [one note] that you feel that release in your gut.”
The speed of that lyric, coupled with the pace of the instrumental foundation, was key.
“The way this song was going to work was if that chorus was just relentless,” notes Osborne.
The first chorus included the scene on Chicago’s Miracle Mile, an oblique reference to Old Dominion’s “Shoe Shopping” on the Happy Endings album. It likewise owes a debt to Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night.”
“There’s a line in it where he says, ‘I would drive all night just to buy you some shoes,’ ” observes Ramsey. “It’s not flowers, it’s not a ring, but there’s something there that’s really nurturing and caring, I think, about buying a pair of shoes for your girl. I don’t know why, but that always stuck with me.”
“The funny thing about that lyric,” adds Rosen, “is we didn’t realize, until after we recorded it, that it’s not the Miracle Mile in Chicago. It’s the Magnificent Mile. So we’re kind of working on a fix for that. You have to go in and fix that lyric before we put this on Chicago radio or we’re going to get killed next time we go there. But ‘Miracle’ sang so well.”
The geography shifted to Santa Barbara in the second chorus as the couple got “locked out of your car in the pouring rain.”
“The California images, I swear, I don’t think they can ever get old because there’s so much nostalgia,” says McAnally. “And the sound that Old Dominion has leaned toward, especially on the current record, it’s just going more and more like West Coast country to me.”
They recorded a cursory work tape with acoustic guitars and a gang vocal lead, and once bassist Geoff Sprung and drummer Whit Sellers gave it their approval, “Never Be Sorry” was one of the core songs Old Dominion tackled when it started work on its self-titled album at Nashville’s Sound Stage studios.
But as much as they loved it, the song nearly tanked when it failed to coalesce.
The work tape sounded “more Maroon 5 than Old Dominion,” says McAnally, and they struggled to make it fit the band’s style.
“If I’m remembering correctly, it took us two days to get this thing,” notes McAnally. “I mean, there was definitely a moment they wanted to not do it. Multiple moments.”
The key came when Tursi started fooling with the major seventh chords from the chorus, substituting them over the original minor triads in the verses. Sellers and Sprung fit the rhythm section into a bit of a new wave groove, enhanced when they applied a trigger to the drums that unleashed electronic percussion in tandem with the kit’s natural sound. Tursi added a simple, almost flashy guitar solo that enhanced the track’s retro pop-rock attitude. That sound was likely developed through an Eventide H9 guitar pedal, though Tursi is not certain and can’t reproduce it exactly.
“I’m really not a gear guy, but I was like, ‘I’m going in the studio. I have to buy something different just to have some inspiration,’ ” he recalls. “The guitar sound for this particular song was definitely made with that pedal, but then after the session was over, I think I left the pedal there and I never went back to get it. All these sounds on the record are from that thing, and I never retrieved it.”
The lead part was uncharacteristically easy for Ramsey — “Vocal sessions for me are like going into battle,” he says — while Tursi’s harmony session at his home studio yielded an extra wrinkle: He turned in a winding, soulful counter-voice in the song’s waning minute that would remain.
All the alterations upped the game for “Never Be Sorry.”
“I thought it was kind of quirky and weird, and I thought it would be like a color on an album,” says Osborne. “Then when I heard the way they cut it for the first time, I thought, ‘This sounds like a hit.’ “
Sony Music Nashville agreed.
“From the beginning, when we turned this album in,” says Ramsey, “there were a lot of people, as far as label and management and production and Shane, you know, that really were like, ‘This has to be a single. It’s going to stand out on the radio.’”
RCA Nashville issued it to AM/FM programmers via PlayMPE on Aug. 17. It entered the Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 12 and rises to No. 52 in its third week on the list. Assuming it keeps climbing, it should be well-positioned between Election Day and Christmas, a time when an edgy American public will likely be receptive to a song that puts a sunny disposition on a broken-hearted lyric.
“People just want something to make them feel good,” says Rosen. “We, in the back of our minds, always assumed this would be a single. So it just felt like the right time.”
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