Midland at Austin City Limits Festival 2017 -
Midland … next stop, the top
By Lynne Margolis
The guys in Midland know they’re in the midst of a moment they’ll only experience once: that sweet spot when a band’s star starts to rise and reality starts to resemble their dreams. Right now, they’re enjoying their growing fame, which began building with the release of their hit single, “Drinkin’ Problem,” and went into hyper-drive with the September 22 release of their debut album, On the Rocks, which entered Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart at No. 2.
The trio — lead vocalist Mark Wystrach, guitarist/vocalist Jess Carson and bassist/vocalist Cameron Duddy — hail from Dripping Springs, Texas, just outside of Austin. But their music owes as much to Bakersfield — and Laurel Canyon — as it does to Texas. Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam (whose song, “Fair to Midland,” inspired their name) and the Eagles form their foundation, George Strait and another inspiration, Gary Stewart, shore it up.
They spoke of those and other influences — and clarified their bona fides — following their Sunday set on the second of two Austin City Limits Festival weekends.
“I want to clear up one thing,” says Wystrach, in a voice that sounds nothing like the deep baritone of his singing. “Each and every one of us has been playing music since we were kids. Jess got into music at 9 or 10 years old; Cameron started in his first band at, like, 11. I grew up in a live country-music honky-tonk, since I was a baby sitting in my mother’s lap. Music has been an essential part of our lives.”
They didn’t come off some Music Row assembly line, in other words. They’ve put in the time, even though each had other career pursuits as well. Duddy, a northern California native, won an MTV Video Music Award for directing Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”; he also directed Mars’ “24K Magic,” Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It” and Jennifer Lopez‘s “Ain’t Your Mama” — and Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem.” Wystrach, who grew up on an Arizona ranch, acted and modeled (including underwear, though he says he was more often the guy who rode the motorcycle or horse in shoots, and spent far more time tending bar and waiting tables), and cofounded a footwear company, MOVMT. Carson, raised on an Oregon Christmas-tree farm, played in various bands, as did his partners.
They discovered they sounded great together when Carson and Wystrach showed up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to be groomsmen in Duddy’s wedding. They’d all known one another from their years in Los Angeles, where each had migrated in his early 20s to seek a music career; Duddy had been in bands with both. None of them had gotten very far, however; they hadn’t even released any music. But as they blended their voices in the mountains, they decided to give it another shot — together.
“This band felt like the first time that we had the opportunity to really do things right,” Wystrach says. He and Duddy followed Carson to Dripping Springs, where he’d moved with his wife, a horse-cutting competitor. As for why they chose Austin instead of Nashville, Carson explains, “When we started this band, country music itself was not even anything like it is today.”
Revivalists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson had yet to appear on the scene, much less sweep awards. “There was nothing in the ether that would have made us think that we could go to Nashville and have any effect,” he adds. “We wanted to play in honky-tonks.”
They got a weekday afternoon slot at Poodie’s, the famed roadhouse founded by Willie Nelson’s late manager. They also played places like the Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, the fabled songwriting incubator where George Strait got his start. When the headlining band and bartender stepped out to smoke cigarettes, Wystrach recalls, Midland found itself playing to the club’s memorabilia-filled Strait shrine.
As he tells that story, he happens to be wearing a Strait-logoed T shirt. The band is somewhat dressed down today, but is known for its love of retro country glam (think Gram Parsons’ Nudie suit).
“We’re pretty unapologetic about having a great sense of fashion,” says Wystrach. “That’s part of the artistry.”
They honed both their look and their art while working their way along the honky-tonk trail. Eventually, they crossed paths with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who share songwriting credit (as well as co-producing credit with Dann Huff) for several of On the Rocks’ 13 tracks. McAnally and Osborne found kindred spirits in Midland; the first time they wrote together, “Drinkin’ Problem” was the result.
“If you get to be exposed to other great artists who can help elevate and realize your full potential … you’d be a damned fool to not take that up and run with it,” Wystrach says.
But the efforts are truly collaborative, they add. And Duddy emphasizes, “We’re writing music that means everything to us. These are our stories; these are our songs. And we get the biggest kick out of writing together.”
One of Carson’s favorites on the album is “Electric Rodeo,” which describes the ups and downs of their current lifestyle with lines like, “We’re painting on our suits/we’re pluggin’ in our boots.”
“We intentionally went for a sort of Glen Campbell quality to that song,” he says. It matches the band’s collective personality: partly serious, partly tongue in cheek. And catchy as heck.