Midland couldn’t give less of a shit about whether you think they’re country enough—they know they’re the real deal.
Since releasing their hit song “Drinkin’ Problem” in 2016, the Texas trio has racked up a certified platinum single, released an album that debuted at number one on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and snagged a Grammy nomination along the way. They’ve made a name for themselves by carving out a space in the country genre where custom rhinestone suits and Southern rock harmonies are back in style. Even Diplo’s taken a page from Midland’s book, using bassist Cameron Duddy’s custom Fort Lonesome suit as a reference point for his outfit at this year’s Stagecoach festival where he performed with Lil Nas X. Still, they’ve often wound up in the crosshairs of internet critics who question the authenticity of their vintage country vibe.
Sitting across from me in the green room at the Moody Theater, lead singer Mark Wystrach tells me the band isn’t interested in proving themselves anymore. They’d rather let their work speak for itself. “You can try and poke as many holes as you want,” he says. “But we’ll melt your face off at a show.”
Given the success of their debut album On the Rocks, the trio would’ve had license to pivot their sound closer toward the mainstream pop-country world. Starting today, they’re touring for their sophomore album, a fourteen-track effort named Let It Roll released last month; it shows off the kinds of tight harmonies and nostalgic arrangements you’d expect to spill out of the jukebox at your favorite honky-tonk joint.
“Playboys” delivers electrifying fun, and also displays the lyrical wordplay Midland does so well: “She said, ‘I thought that I could change you’/No, but you were born a playboy/So get on the stage and play boys … This whole world would be a dull place, boys/If it was all work and no play, boys.” “Fast Hearts and Slow Towns” and “Cheatin’ Songs” offer refreshing takes on familiar themes like first loves and betrayal. That’s partially due to the fact that lead guitarist Jess Carson, the most reserved of the three members, is a trove of musical references and deep cuts. And while Wystrach’s deep vocal stylings are central to Midland’s trademark sound, Duddy and Carson take the lead on two songs toward the end of the album. “Roll Away,” written and performed by Carson, is a melodic soft rock song that would feel at home on an Allman Brothers record. One highlight of the album, “Lost In The Night,” is an intimate, Eagles-tinged country song, where a surprise sax solo and Duddy’s voice conjures up romance and longing.
Midland is no stranger to retooling or repurposing something until it fits just right: The album is flecked with songs written on the road, along with a few tunes they originally demoed back in 2014 at El Paso’s Sonic Ranch studio. One of the songs that made the cut after a few years on the shelf, “Fourteen Gears,” is a fan favorite. It’s one of the first songs that got the band noticed in the first place, but this new polished version shows off how far they’ve come since that first recording. They’re just as eager to show off the fact that they can do better than their first hit song.
Despite collaborating with Nashville heavy-hitters Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne to co-write songs on both of their albums, Midland also made it a point to operate outside of the country music mecca, opting to settle in the Austin area instead. They might draw from classic country artists, but they want to forge their own path. “We understand the system,” says Wystrach. “We just wanted to come in and bend the rules as far as we could.”
Looking at Midland’s unconventional path to success two albums in, it seems as though they’ve met their goal. The three musicians are well out of their twenties, both Duddy and Carson are married with kids, and Wystrach is expecting his first child with fianceé and Outdoor Voices founder Ty Haney in November. Each of them came off a series of successful careers—Carson owned a vintage clothes store, Duddy was directing music videos for stars like Bruno Mars, and Wystrach found work as an actor and model before co-founding a footwear business.
But when they got together as a trio around 2013, something fell into place. They quit their jobs, and moved to Texas, where Carson and his wife had already settled down. “When we decided to leave our lives and careers in L.A. for Texas, it was like science fiction,” Duddy says. “We weren’t satisfied unless we were doing music, but to tell your family and friends that you were going to go off and start a country band was like telling people you were leaving to go to space. A lot of people thought we’d be coming back with our tails between our legs.”
For a stretch of time they hopped from bar to bar throughout Texas, playing afternoon sets to crowds of ten people. But a lot has changed since those early days. In the past year alone, the band has performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, collaborated with Brooks & Dunn on a version of “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and worked with Dennis Quaid for the music video of their single “Mr. Lonely.” Still, they’re chasing an even bigger moment. “No one’s guaranteed success and you’ve got to be prepared for anything that comes your way,” Wystrach says, adding: “There’s a lot more to be done.”