At the end of the first verse in Midland’s new single, “Make a Little,” the music steps just a hair out of line. There’s a surprise chord, and the song coolly veers out of place before falling back in line.
It’s a nice little bit of symbolism for an unexpected, but wholly welcome, development. The band takes just enough melodic sidesteps and infuses just enough odd rhymes and bent phrases to keep fans happily unsettled while listening to its debut album, On the Rocks, released by Big Machine on Sept. 22. The surprise sounds are a point of pride for Midland, a trio from Dripping Springs, Texas, that’s applying a little Merle swagger to a genre that was — to many ears — getting too big-city for its small-town britches.
“We’re just fans of songwriting,” says guitarist Jess Carson of those sonic surprises. “The people that we’ve written with are similar-minded, and I’d like to think that we’ve developed as songwriters. But it’s also partly what we listen to — songs like ‘Wichita Lineman,’ which are mainstream country songs that everybody knows. If you break that song down, it’s complex. It uses chords that you wouldn’t think are predominantly country.”
In the big picture, there’s no doubt that Midland is a country band. Lead singer Mark Wystrach’s phrasing mimics Southern-sounding Diamond Rio vocalist Marty Roe; the act wields an electric sound that resembles John Jorgenson’s brash Desert Rose Band guitars; Carson, Wystrach and bass player Cameron Duddy weave tight, Eagles-esque harmonies; and they showed up at the CMT Music Awards in rhinestone suits that owed a heavy debt to Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
If Midland’s emergence with a nostalgic sound is a surprise to music fans who wrote off the genre in the bro-country era (first single “Drinkin’ Problem” rode its old-school sound to No. 3 on Country Airplay and No. 4 on Hot Country Songs, which measures airplay, streaming and sales) it’s also a mild shock to the trio, which was warned repeatedly when it started working in Nashville not to count on mainstream success. Nevertheless, it made minimum compromises in finding its way from Texas roadhouses to terrestrial playlists.
“The idea was, ‘Let’s not change who we are,’ ” says Duddy. “No one that we have worked with in Nashville has tried to do that. That’s the understanding. Like, ‘Let Midland do Midland, and we’ll see what happens.’ We just happened to be in the right place at the right time as far as the pendulum swinging back toward traditional country music. It’s kind of just that Malcolm Gladwell tipping-point situation, you know? It’s a matter of preparation and hard work meeting opportunity.”
Best-selling author Gladwell is the man who invented the 10,000-hour principle in the book Outliers: The Story of Success. Whether they reached the 10,000 mark or not, the guys in Midland certainly invested the hours in their craft. Each of them lived in Los Angeles for a time during the last decade, woodshedding into the morning hours with different bands to prep for whatever gigs they might piece together at clubs where the audiences might — or, more likely, might not — care.
“They would just show up and kindly listen to your band, or you would show up and there would be zero people there, and the bartender would take a smoke break when you’re playing, so you’re playing for fucking nobody,” says Duddy. “It was all part of the process of getting up your chops.”
Part of Midland’s process was leaving L.A. The members all moved to other states and reduced music to a part-time venture while they worked other jobs that actually paid the bills. But when Duddy got married in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in August 2013 — oddly enough, the same month that New York Magazine coined the “bro-country” term — his bandmates arrived a week early to attend, and they fell into making music for the pure love of it.
The sound was irresistible, and they decided to pursue it further. They cut some sides at Sonic Ranch in El Paso, Texas (the studio where Frankie Ballard recorded his El Rio album); committed to the band; and relocated to Dripping Springs, the site of Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic. They performed regularly at Poodie’s Roadhouse, a club founded by Nelson’s former stage manager, Randall “Poodie” Locke, who died in 2009.
“Our band got a residency and really got our shit together at Poodie’s,” says Duddy. “The bar is still there, and it’s low ceilings, shitty sound quality, bar flies and bar rats, but those are our people, man. Those were our first fans, and that’s how we grew our sound.”
The band took its name from a Dwight Yoakam album cut, “Fair to Midland,” appropriate since Yoakam — along with such acts as Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton and The Desert Rose Band — was part of the New Traditionalist movement in the 1980s. It came along in the aftermath of the Urban Cowboy-led crossover period that provoked The New York Times to write country’s epitaph in 1985.
“Country music was pretty pop-driven and pop-dominated at the time,” recalls Wystrach. “Dwight came through with something that was old and new at the same time, and it was really honky-tonk-born and driven. It was really similar to what we’re chasing. The difference is that we’re a vocal group, and you’ve got to throw in a lot of The Band and the Eagles and Alabama, and mix it in with that same honky-tonk sound.”
Songwriters Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne co-produced the first incarnation, allowing McAnally to work on a project with George Strait overtones.
“I swear if I heard Midland on the radio, I would be so mad if I wasn’t a part of it,” says McAnally.
Producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Brantley Gilbert) was brought in later to help find the right mainstream flourishes, essentially playing up the Eagles components without eliminating the raw Flying Burrito elements. The band received a surprise standing ovation from programmers during a showcase at Country Radio Seminar, the first large public evidence of the wave that was about to hit. It was a signal to Music Row that there are indeed some media gatekeepers with a desire to provide a little more traditional country balance in the genre’s current progressive mix. Those sorts of champions have existed in Nashville’s music community for ages. Midland may be making them happy, but the band doesn’t plan to cater to them, either.
“If people are hoping for it and rooting for us, that’s great,” says Wystrach. “It’s not going to affect or change what we’re doing.”
That part is not a surprise. Midland was different from the start, and the band plans to keep that Merle swagger.
Listen to the band’s debut album: