With all the chest-thumping going on in Nashville today, where bluster and swagger have replaced heart and soul, you half expect some of country music's male stars to be sporting bruises. Which is what makes Midland, a trio of friends based in Dripping Springs, Texas, so undeniably refreshing.
Made up of singer Mark Wystrach, lead guitarist Jess Carson and bass player Cameron Duddy, Midland is the embodiment of Seventies California country, all smooth Eagles harmonies and heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics. Their songs are intoxicating country sung with the twang of George Strait. And it's impossible to resist.
Midland — the guys took their name from a Dwight Yoakam song — excel in setting a mood, transporting the listener to another place and time. This is music made for wide-open skies, endless deserts and wondering where the road is going to take you next. "We write with a very visual storytelling approach. We paint that big picture and go to that place," says Mark. "Where is this story going? Let's paint it." It's no coincidence then that it was in an especially scenic setting where the band first came together — at Cameron's wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There, casual friends Cameron and Jess formed a musical and personal bond while picking songs together on Jess's cabin's front porch.
The connection was only strengthened when they found themselves jamming with Cameron onstage later that week at his rehearsal dinner. "It was this serendipitous chain of events," says Mark, an Arizona native. "And it was the best week ever." "All of us playing together happened only because Mark and I both showed up in Jackson Hole a week before the wedding with time to kill," adds Jess, originally from the Pacific Northwest. "But, by the end, we knew the three of us had amazing chemistry," says Mark. Armed with the newly married Cameron's nest egg, Mark, Jess and the California-raised Cameron decamped for the Sonic Ranch studio, near El Paso, Texas. They cut 15 songs and, bolstered by the outcome, realized they had a unique sound. "When we went to the Sonic Ranch, we became a band. We walked away believing in what had happened," says Mark. "All of our souls, our imaginations, were wrapped up in these 15 songs. We went all-in." "And then we all moved out to Texas," says Cameron with his gregarious laugh.
Now signed to Big Machine Records, Midland is in the studio refining and expanding their catalog with ace songwriters like Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. The sessions have yielded some of the most traditional-sounding country music to come out of Nashville in a decade. Lead single "Drinkin’ Problem" evokes Gary Stewart — one of Midland's biggest inspirations, along with Merle Haggard — as Mark croons, "They call it a problem, I call it a solution / just sitting here with all my grand illusions." "It's talking about something that's real, but it's told in a way that it can be tongue-in-cheek, depending on how the audience experiences it," says Mark. Adds Cameron, "Every good country song has that versatility. But the best are the ones you can listen to when you're angry, sad, happy or however you may be feeling." "Electric Rodeo," with its plaintive piano, sweeping strings and high-in-the-saddle chorus, is a prime example of the "picture" the band so often talks about creating. And the majestic "Nothin' New Under the Neon" sounds like vintage Eddie Rabbit.
Whether they intended it or not, Midland have filled a void in country music, and soon they can do likewise on country radio. Like their inspirations the Eagles, they are writing and recording songs with mass appeal. "The commonality with the Eagles is that we set out to make soulful, catchy and accessible music," says Mark. "Our greatest compliment is when somebody who says they're not a country music fan says they really like our songs." But those songs succeed because of one key ingredient: the friendship of Mark, Jess and Cameron. To a number, they each agree it's their secret formula. "Midland isn't manufactured," says Cameron. "We are three real friends who stumbled upon making music together." "We are a band," adds Jess, declaratively. "That's a big part of the spirit of what we do, that group experience and camaraderie. And it is ever-evolving." Midland's music is truly a sound decades in the making that’s just right for today.