Midland started the new year in an unusual location: singing for nearly 86,000 hockey fans at the Cotton Bowl, during the pre-game ceremony for the NHL Winter Classic in Dallas.
“It was cold as hell outside,” lead singer Mark Wystrach says. “But a hell of a way to start 2020.”
The temperature was perhaps appropriate, given that the band performed its new single, “Cheatin’ Songs.” It’s a topic rife with chill-inducing aspects: deceit, betrayal, rejection and jealousy. But it’s also familiar for anyone who knows how it feels to get cheated on.
“I almost think that everybody does at some point,” says guitarist Jess Carson.
Cheating, and the emotion such a betrayal stirs up, has made it a core country topic through the decades. “Slipping Around,” a No. 1 1949 duet by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, is widely regarded as country’s first successful song of infidelity, and it has been followed through the years by such notable titles as Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?”
The ’70s and early ’80s were particularly prosperous for the genre — exemplified by Moe Bandy’s “It’s a Cheating Situation,” The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance” and Johnny Duncan’s “Thinkin’ of a Rendezvous” — though Randy Travis’ “On the Other Hand,” in which the singer uses his wedding ring to symbolically thwart temptation, tilted the genre’s pendulum toward faithfulness.
The hook in Midland’s single — “She’s bringin’ back cheatin’ songs” — manages to recognize both a personal affair and the sweep of country’s history, while sounding like it fits 2020.
“What makes that song so interesting is the DNA of it, but also what makes it so dynamic is that it’s a brand-new kind of cheating song,” suggests Wystrach. “It exists in a modern time. It’s kind of a reflection of what’s happening today.”
The original idea was not Midland’s, but it clearly suited the band. Songwriter-producers Shane McAnally (“Nobody But You,” “Mama’s Broken Heart”) and Josh Osborne (“One Man Band,” “Body Like a Back Road”) developed the hook circa 2017 and held it until their next writing session with Midland, which was already well down the road toward completing its first album.
“I do remember working on the idea a little one day at the office ’cause it was just the two of us,” says Osborne. “We sort of sketched out the framework of the chorus and decided that when we started writing with them again we would pitch that idea to them.”
But they gave two group members a preview even as they continued recording for the On the Rocks album. “Jess and I took a car ride with Shane and Josh to get some tacos or something down the street from Blackbird [Studios], and Josh sang us that line,” recalls bassist Cam Duddy. “We were all really excited just to find time to sit down and figure it out.”
That moment came roughly two years ago, when McAnally and Osborne flew out to central Texas to write with the band at Duddy’s home. They made it a point to spin the theme in an uncommon direction.
“We kind of wanted to do a cheating song where the woman’s got all the power,” explains Wystrach.
Not that that’s unprecedented: Barbara Mandrell’s 1973 single “The Midnight Oil” is considered the first song to flip the gender stereotype, creating unintended synergy in the “Cheatin’ Songs” chorus, which longs for a fool-around storyline “circa 1973.” Bandy’s “She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Gettin’ Even)” and Vern Gosdin’s “If You’re Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)” similarly found a female stepping out on her mate.
The five writers gave “Cheatin’ Songs” an early-’80s country-soul feel, referencing “Tight Fittin’ Jeans” in the chorus — “The king of country-funk, to me, was Conway Twitty,” notes Wystrach — and they incorporated images from classic cheating plots, such as smoke-filled clothing, removing a wedding ring and one familiar alliteration: “She’s lyin’ with him, and she’s lyin’ to me.”
When they built the bridge, they widened the focus to look at the trend line of adulterous country music. And yet “Cheatin’ Songs” walks a fine line between its salute to an old-school topic and its embrace of a personal issue.
“I don’t like songs about songs,” says Duddy. “I kind of find them annoying. This one just seemed to dodge the tropes of that and still [be] its own song first. It’s a song about a woman as opposed to a song about a song.”
When they brought “Cheatin’ Songs” into the studio with co-producer Dann Huff (Kane Brown, Riley Green), Midland collectively widened the early-’80s influence a bit, with Duddy and session drummer Greg Morrow anchoring a Ronnie Milsap/blue-eyed soul feel.
“When we found that pocket, that groove, that interplay, with the funk that Cameron was doing on bass with the drums, that’s when everybody kind of was locked in, and we built it really from there,” recalls Wystrach.
With Carson and Duddy both playing on the cut, they framed the instrumentation around Wystrach’s lead part during the tracking session and left the harmonies for later.
“You don’t really have takes to waste,” says Carson. “You might do four full-band takes of that song and that’s it, so for me, I’m focusing a lot on my performance. I’m always paranoid of, like, you get home and you hear a mix of the song and you don’t like your guitar part. What are you going to do? Fly back to Nashville and cut just your guitar part?”
They addressed those harmonies later, with Duddy supplying the high voice and Carson staking out the middle tones that fill out the vocal texture. Wystrach immersed himself in the retro aspects of his part.
“I don’t know how to say this without sounding kind of like a nerd, but I felt the spirits of Conway and the old-school kind of Nashville sound that was really important to me growing up,” he says. “I was having almost like a fantasy while I was singing that song, being picked up by those kind of spirits.”
Midland and crew thought “Cheatin’ Songs” was the most radio-friendly track on the Let It Roll album, released by Big Machine last August. Naturally, it garnered the most attention once the project hit the market, and it was issued to terrestrial radio via PlayMPE on Dec. 3, tagged with a Jan. 20 add date. While it may tip a Stetson to a previous era’s country themes, the behaviors in “Cheatin’ Songs” remain relevant in 2020. And, thanks to technology, so does the song’s musical roots.
“We live in this kind of constant nostalgia, unlike the generations before us,” says Duddy. “It’s because of cameras built into our phones and because of access to catalogs on Spotify now and affinity for old clothing and stuff like that. Our generation is probably in a constant state of nostalgia, and that is what the music sounds like for us.”