Midland Blends Eagles Harmonies and Haggard Swagger to Rekindle ’80s New Traditionalism.
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.”
“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 – “Midland”