Midland: 21st Century Honky Tonk All-Night Band
Harper Smith / Courtesy BMLG – Midland
Ed Warm heard the buzz. The dug-in Chicago promoter behind the Windy City Smokeout and Joe’s on Weed Street is known for booking – and building – acts on the rise; hiring Midland was a no-brainer. But the rest was a surprise.
“When they come in, the phones come out,” starts the current Academy of Country Music Chairman and ACM Club of the Year owner, on the freewheeling trio. “Everybody wants a picture of them coming into the club, getting out of the car. There’s a buzz: ‘What are they gonna do tonight? What’s gonna happen?’ They had this charisma, an aura about them. But they were also polished. They have a stage presence and a charisma that most people have to grow into.”
Sandbox Entertainment’s Jason Owen, who co-manages Midland with Brand Management’s Matt Graham, laughs. Never one to shy from an act who puts art before radio pandering, he’s the architect of Kacey Musgraves’ genre-smearing Grammy tsunami, Little Big Town’s harmony-laden groundbreaking, Shania Twain’s return and Dan + Shay’s so far up the mainstream it’s hard to fathom pop-country, he embraces Midland’s against-the-grain, old-school ethos.
“It’s very rowdy and fun, but it’s also very reverent about the music and the culture,” he explains. “Nostalgia, in a way, for things that defined the genre; yet it’s totally new the way they approach it. That’s the other thing: they don’t follow a script, or a plan. Most acts are so scripted; with Midland, you never know what they’re gonna do next.”
One thing you can count on from the Dripping Springs, Texas-based threesome who line up white-knuckle bar-stormer Gary Stewart, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, the first several Eagles albums and Dwight Yoakam, whom they’ve toured with, as influences, is their will to bring it back alive. While nominated for two Grammys for “Drinkin’ Problem,” their very first single, this is a band intent on building it on the road.
“We wanted to create a business out of touring,” says bassist/vocalist/songwriter Cam Duddy unapologetically. “We like to play for people, and we felt we have more than No. 1s to offer. So many people spend their time chasing radio as the end, but that paradigm didn’t feel anything like us from the jump. It’s why we didn’t move to Nashville; why we’re doing the things that feel right. It felt really scary locking into a business plan that doesn’t feel anything like us.”
Be clear: Duddy, lead vocalist/guitarist Mark Wystrach and guitarist/vocalist Jess Carson are hook-seeking missiles. They write with Nashville uber-writers John Osborne and co-producer Shane McAnally; work with producer Dann Huff; record with the top session musicians.
Their albums On The Rocks and Let It Roll exist somewhere between the post-“Urban Cowboy,” buckle-polishing, Texas dancehall country and the Eagles, moments before emerging as a fully forged rock band.
Wystrach’s voice, a mix of warm, worn leather and slightly flexing sinew, suggests how life shapes you with the same sense classic country singers from Haggard to Whitley also provided beyond the words. There’s a slinkiness as well that bristles with amatory charge. Midland, it seems, isn’t afraid to drop the zipper and get after it, as “Cheating By The Rules,” “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” and the rockabilly-tinged, rebound-juggling Romeo of “Mr. Lonely” clearly express.
“We’ve been through the gears, and it’s an aspect of what we do,” Carson offers. “There’s an aspect of bad boyness, especially in the Midland character, that defines us. We’re definitely adults. ‘Mr. Lonely’ is a honky tonk, Brooks & Dunn-type story that’s Midland – threatening lame-ass boyfriends everywhere.”
If country is largely a PG-rated oeuvre, Midland recognizes the Conway Twitty eroticism that charged the genre for “grown ass men.” As writers, they recognize the carnal forcefield and they’re not afraid to cast a net that includes the execution.
“Look, there are clever ways of talking about sex, and there are … some of these hypermale testosterone-powered jalopies,” Duddy texts from Australia. “There’s the easy, cheap, boring way, and the hard way. Pun intended. We don’t let ourselves off the hook when we’re writing.”
Courtesy Stagecoach – Midland
SWEETHEARTS OF THE RODEO: Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson of Midland perform at the 2018 Stagecoach Music Festival in Indio, Calif.
That frankness, fearlessness and pressing into the music has created an undeniable momentum. Goldenvoice’s Stacy Vee remembers seeing the band at the Roxy in West Hollywood in 2015 and immediately booking them for Stagecoach 2016.
“It was so new, yet musically familiar, so I grabbed them for the Palomino stage,” Vee recalls. “It shows their ability to fit, whether it’s that stage or a George Strait show.”
Vee espouses “I love to give people things they don’t know they wanted” in her pursuit of making Stagecoach as definitive for country as Coachella is for the cutting edge, ranging from Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Avett Brothers, and Willie Nelson.
This year, Vee not only tapped Midland for a sunset appearance on the mainstage, she enlisted the band to announce the 2020 lineup on “Ellen,” a first. They’re also designing a limited-edition T-shirt, another first.
“Midland is carving their own path, with similarities to artists of the past, those ’70s artists who worked the road, which is super-organic and real. People can sense that. We [Goldenvoice], on purpose, color outside the lines. If we didn’t, we’re not Stagecoach.”
Deep in the heart of Texas, the feeling’s much the same. Billy Bob’s GM Marty Travis is a massive fan. After supporting Kip Moore at Fort Worth’s iconic honky tonk in 2017, they returned eight months later to a sellout. In June, Midland went clean on a $20-$25 ticket three months in advance; they’re about to sell out a two-night stand (11,000 tickets) Feb. 28-29.
“They’re edgy,” Martin says, “with a kinda dirty vibe. Fun guys who’re having a good time – they’re almost as shocked by how successful they are as they are invested in what they’re doing. We had so much fun backstage the first time they played here, they came back with TK McKamy for a video.”
Gary Osier, who’s spent almost three decades booking Billy Bob’s as well as Six Flags and NASCAR, sees a chameleonic effect anchored by their post-traditional sound. They also melt gender lines.
“Usually when women like an act, men are disgusted. We saw that with Clay Walker. When guys are really into them, women aren’t interested. These guys appeal across the board. When we first booked them, they were hipster and some Texas buzz. But it was really so much bigger: a lotta rock ‘n’ roll, a lotta swagger.
“I put ’em on a bill with REO Speedwagon; it worked great. They’ve got that look with their moustaches and all that hair. It translates in each room, then the music backs it up.”
Tempting to dismiss them for their attention to detail, Duddy’s life pre-Midland was as an MTV Video Music Award-winning director for Bruno Mars (including “24K Magic”), J-Lo, Britney Spears, and Brandi Carlile, suggesting a definite visual orientation. Says Carson, who owned a vintage store, “No stylist. We wear what we wear.”
Courtesy BLMG – Midland
You Can Tell By the Way I Use My Walk: Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson strutting their stuff in New York City.
The clothes reflect the music. The music reflects an era the three found particularly pungent, especially for the harmonies, lyrical restlessness and terseness of rock guitars through beer joint country. Music, as Carson says, “we’re happy to be up there doing the old school way. We don’t play to tracks, we want it to be fresh and change it up every night.”
Owen cites a night with Little Big Town. “At the arena in Dallas, they wanted Midland to sing ‘Day Drinking’ with them. The guys entered from the back of the arena, hurling Miller beer cans into the audience. Part of what makes them so special, not just the authenticity of their influences, but there’s this consistency to everything they do even as they’re never doing anything the same.
“From the merch to how they enter and exit, the fact they’ve had zero production … They’ve created a cool, almost hipster vibe that’s effortless, yet old school. Whether they’re hungover for a 7 a.m. radio interview or backstage in a marketing meeting, they know who they are, what they want and what makes their music stand out.”
“We’re aware of everything else in entertainment,” Duddy explains. “You go see Anderson .Paak or Father John Misty, and it’s vibe. No spotlights, no strobes, just sidelights. And you see all the old musical footage, you realize that was all they had to work with, and it worked. Stripping it back, stressing the band playing, the songs and the attitude. It’s what we do, and have always done.”
Owen points to last year’s impossible-to-get-a-ticket-to The Novo show during Grammy week. “It was wild as hell, full of supermodels and celebrities. Keeping it grassroots, keeping it about the live plays, we have something more than optics; something that’s going to last. That’s why this early in a career, you see the tastemakers on the coasts are more aware of this band than the folks on Music Row.”
Still, when Midland took over Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for Cinco de Mayo, it sold out. Given their Hispanic underpinnings – especially a Spanish version of “Drinking Problem” – it mirrored their musical reach. Osier and Martin note the polycultural audience they draw.
“I’m shocked at how many Hispanics there are, but that’s the thing,” Martin explains. “They’re not a rock crowd, or a weird crowd, but a great crowd of good-looking people who are here to have fun.”
Chicago’s Warm concurs, “They make no bones about saying to people, ‘It’s OK to come to our shows and have a great time! Be cool, or let loose – whatever makes you happy.’ People can feel that.
“In 2018, they moved the needle; we saw it with the social numbers, the metrics. But then there’s that other thing: they draw on Texas influences a lot, the singer/songwriter wittiness with some kind of Quentin Tarantino coolness pulled through.”
“Watch the Eagles destroy ‘Hotel California’ live, without backing tracks; tell me you don’t want to start a band?” Duddy posits via text. “Watch Springsteen at ‘No Nukes,’ and tell me you would rather do choreographed dances? It’s nice to feel ‘special,’ but lonely and frustrating … like other artists are more inspired by the Backstreet Boys than they are Waylon.”
They’re not quite wistful, nor are they working a Tareyton “Rather Fight Than Switch” ethos; more it’s a sense this music matters, needs to be kept vital. Every show, every audience validates the instincts – and sacrifice – of three men who had fully functional lives before Midland.
“Seeing the people sing the songs back never gets old,” Duddy says. “We built in an acoustic part of our set where we parse it down and jam in the dark, which is really fucking exciting for me because it’s what I grew up dreaming of doing.”
Courtesy BLMG – Midland
Midnight Cowboys: Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson of Midland whose first single “Drinkin’ Problem’ was nominated for a Grammy.
It seems so simple. Harkening back to another time when people made records they believed in, went on the road and built an audience. Owen, who’s landed Midland high-profile television slots, including a romping “Eastbound & Down” on the 2018 CMA Awards, stresses for all their telegenics, it’s the fundamentals.
“We have a great agent. Brett Saliba [at CAA] since Day One has been incredibly passionate about the music. He creates strategies based on that. A fighter, he gave us tent poles as this incredible team player who kept connecting dots.
“And Jake Basden at Big Machine understood Midland is not just a sound, but an aesthetic; they’d work in places like Esquire, NPR, Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Times and in late night television. Getting them seen outside the genre, what makes them different brought people to the shows. They told their friends … and here we are.”
Having slammed C2C in 2017, they’re returning to Europe in December. They’ve toured Australia. They’ll be a headliner at 2020’s Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. They’re gearing up for another tour of ever-larger dates: Martin half-jokes, “We could give them a four-night residency, sell 22,000 tickets, and still have demand.” They’re not only announcing Stagecoach’s line-up, they’ve got a prime slot.
“We’re all big dreamers,” Duddy says after 45 minutes. “Being a band is relentless. You have to have focus 10, 12 years down the road to understand how to get there. There’s something to be said for the sea time we’ve all invested over the years. It led us to here and lets us get up there and play, to be in the moment without being locked in. That’s what it’s all about.”