2017 still technically has a couple months left before the sun sets on the calendar year. Even so, it has been a year to remember for Big Machine trio Midland. Releasing their debut single, “Drinkin’ Problem,” this past winter, the group watched as the song climbed the chart -- peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in August.
“They told us in the beginning to be cautiously optimistic because the song was good, but one of a kind as far as in the landscape of songs that are being played on country radio,” Cameron Duddy admitted to Billboard. “We went into it hopeful, but skeptically hopefully. It was something else to see it go up the chart. I remember just hearing the song for the first time on the radio after playing our music for decades. I hope that feeling never goes away. It’s very magical.”
The group has been lauded by radio programmers, fans and critics for their traditional sound -- a combination of George Strait's Texas sounds mixed with the California grooves of The Eagles. Lead guitarist Jess Carson said they appreciate the rave reviews, but they are just doing what feels right to them.
“We play the music that we are influenced by. We are heavily influenced by '70s, '80s, and '90s country music. That’s our starting point. What brought us together is our shared love of that music and that era, so it’s kind of natural that’s what would come out. That’s beyond the music, too -- the imagery that we use as a band is all just the era that we are influenced by.”
That imagery includes their stage attire -- straight out of the playbook of legendary country-rock bands such as The Byrds or The Flying Burrito Brothers. Again, the group insists they are not trying to be trendy -- they are just being natural to their own tastes. “If you’re gonna do it, why not do it big,” stated lead singer Mark Wystrach. “It’s an expression of what we are into in our collective interests. We like the older stuff.” Duddy says he would wear their hip clothing no matter his vocation. “If I was bagging groceries, I would still show up wearing what I’m wearing now. It’s what I’m comfortable in.”
The road that Midland took to being signed by Big Machine included a few different twists and turns over the years, as Wystrach notes.
“Like a lot of kids, you head out west to pursue your dreams, the pretty women, and the good weather,” he quipped concerning their migration to Los Angeles, where they discovered each other’s musical talents. “Jess and Cameron had a project together that didn't work out, and Jess left town. I started my first project shortly thereafter with Cameron on a project together, and that didn't work out. Then, fast forward to Cameron’s wedding four years ago in Jackson Hole, he either made the biggest mistake or a serendipitous choice to ask me and Jess to be groomsmen. At that point, Jess and I hadn't seen each other in about five years,” he said. The die was cast.
Midland talks about their love for vintage styles, and whether they'd dress the same if they weren't country singers:
“The three of us had never played music together, though we all had such close calls. That week was a celebration up there, and we were traveling with guitars and started swapping songs. That week led to conversations about what kind of music we all loved, and in sharing the songs we were writing, they were overlapping. We have a vast musical background as to what our influences are -- everything from rock 'n roll to blues to folk to Americana to straight-up country. Within country, there are so many kind of micro-genres within that. But, our commonality was our love of country music. Jess looked at me and Cam and said ‘We should do something.’ We spent the next five or six months collecting songs, and we took nineteen songs, whittled them down to fourteen, took most of Cameron’s nest egg that he had gotten for his wedding, and we put that into a recording that was just the three of us chasing something. We didn't know anything about how we would work in the studio, but halfway through, we knew there was something special with these songs and the sound. Here we are three years later, releasing our debut album.”
That album, On The Rocks, was released to fans last Friday (Sept. 22). The group’s second single, “Make A Little,” has just been released to radio, and if you notice a tip of the hat to the group Alabama by mentioning their iconic '80s hits such as “Dixieland Delight” and “Feels So Right,” Wystrach says it’s definitely not coincidental.
“Alabama was one of those acts that was unapologetic in what they were writing. If they were going to write a love song, they were going to write one that made people want to get up and make love, but maybe start with two stepping. There’s a honky tonk feel to ‘Make A Little’ that is a little bit of a tip of the hat to the Bakersfield sound -- Dwight Yoakam and Pete Anderson stylings, but there are definitely some references to Alabama and their lyricism and the way that they weren't afraid to speak to their audience, and the ladies.”
Duddy says the vocal similarities are there, as well. “We’re a vocal band. We're a harmony-driven band and write all of our own music around harmony, and Alabama is one of the great harmony bands. The Eagles were a great one before that, the Sons of the Pioneers were one of the first, and we have seen that go away, unfortunately in popular music and country music -- it just happens that our voices sound good together. At least that’s what we’re being told, and we’ve amused ourselves with that. We’ve believed it for this long, so why stop now? For me, that is the direct link to Alabama -- just how well they did sing those songs together.”
One track that Midland hopes will put a smile on the listeners’ faces is the lifting "Altitude Adjustment," of which Wystrach said “That’s about changing your elevation, and essentially your state of mind. “Any way you want to interpret it, you can. It’s definitely tongue in cheek. It references John Denver because if you want to feel good, put on a John Denver album. If you want to cleanse and lose some of the weariness of the road, head out to the Rockies and get some fresh air. Go out there fishing, or swimming, or go listen to music and have a good time. ‘Altitude Adjustment’ is about just wanting to get away from the bullshit -- whatever that is. There’s a reason that people take vacations. They need to change their scenery.”
Midland talks meeting Jon Pardi and Jon Pardi Jr. in a rainstorm:
For Duddy, that scenery includes a successful career as a music video director, having earned a MTV Video Music Award for his work on Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven” in 2013. He says that has allowed him to keep one foot in the music scene -- no matter what was going on with the band. "Directing music videos was a path that I knew would ultimately keep me involved in music, which is what my first love has always been. When my bands didn't work out or lead to financial stability, the obvious pivot for me was to make music videos of my friends’ bands that did make it. It was like being a pilot. Once you figure out how to fly one plane, you can most likely fly all planes.”
The band plans on touring heavily to promote to album to the masses. In 2018, they will open up Little Big Town’s The Breakers tour along with Kacey Musgraves, but before that, they will embark on a CMT tour this fall with Jon Pardi and Runaway June. Wystrach says they are grateful for the opportunities. “We met Jon after a show at the Whitewater Amphitheater out in Texas a little over a year ago. This big thunderstorm came in, with rain, lightning, and thunder. Here comes this big hoss of a dude wearing this big rain poncho. We just really respect the music that he’s making, and enjoy each other's company. He’s definitely a modern traditionalist, as we are. It’s kind of a perfect pairing, then you throw in three of the most talented and beautiful gals in Runaway June, it’s going to be a good time. So, come out and see us!"