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, sung with the twang of George Strait.
And it's impossible to resist.
Now, after endearing themselves to fans with the hit radio single "Drinkin' Problem" and a self-titled EP, Midland unveil their full-length debut, On the Rocks (Big Machine Records).
A collection of 13 tracks all written or co-written by Midland – the guys took their name from a Dwight Yoakam song – On the Rocks excels at setting a mood, transporting the listener to another place and time. It's an album made for wide-open skies, endless deserts and wondering where the road is going to take you next.
"Drinkin' Problem," written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who produced the album with Dann Huff, reclaims the drinking song for classic country music, making it less about an endless party and more about self-medicating. "They call it a problem, I call it a solution / just sitting here with all my grand illusions," sings Wystrach, evoking the best booze ballads of both Gary Stewart and Merle Haggard, two of the trio's chief influences.
"Make a Little," a rollicking ditty, is more optimistic, soaring with the brotherly harmonies of Wystrach, Duddy and Carson and a timely message: "There's just not enough love in the world." The rapid-fire lyrics embody the clever wordplay that is unique to country music – "we should make a little, generate a little / maybe even make the world a better place a little" – and also nod to Alabama, another country band that helped spark a revolution in the genre.
Midland hearken back to a time when an artist's personal style – colorful suits, tailored denim and well-worn hats – dovetailed with the music. And they tip their hats to other groundbreaking artists throughout On the Rocks.
The kick-back and get-high ode "Altitude Adjustment" name-checks John Denver, the majestic "Nothin' New Under the Neon" sounds like vintage Eddie Rabbit, and the glorious "At Least You Cried" channels Dwight Yoakam. By album's end, the band returns to the Eagles, recalling their famous intro to "Seven Bridges Road," with the closing "Somewhere on the Wind."
"On the Rocks is a confluence of our musical tastes and our reverence for classic country," says Duddy, whose wife, photographer Harper Smith, shoots all of the group's stylish photos.
"This record is truly a nod to the time period we are influenced by," says Carson, a Pacific Northwest native, "and is an effort to bring that sound and that pageantry back to the forefront."
"We write with a very visual storytelling approach. We paint that big picture and go to that place," says Wystrach. "Where is this story going? Let's paint it."
"Electric Rodeo," with its plaintive piano, sweeping strings and high-in-the-saddle chorus, is a prime example of the "picture" the band talks about creating. And "Check Cashin' Country," a solo composition by Carson, stands as the band's true-life road diary: the tale of a country-rock band trying to find time to sleep as they hustle from gig to gig, barely making enough money to put gas in the tank. It's the country equivalent of Seger's "On the Road."
Midland first came together at Duddy's wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the three members ended up jamming onstage at the rehearsal dinner.
"It was this serendipitous chain of events, and it was the best week ever," says Wystrach, who, despite his hippie persona, was actually raised on an Arizona cattle ranch. "By the end, we knew the three of us had amazing chemistry."
"Midland isn't manufactured," says Duddy, born in California. "We are three real friends who stumbled upon making music together."
Whether they intended it or not, Midland are filling a void in country, with songs that run the gamut from lush Urban Cowboy anthems to loose campfire sing-alongs. Putting their own spin on a classic sound, they're making something old relevant again.
"We are a band," says Carson, declaratively. "That's a big part of the spirit of what we do, that group experience and camaraderie."
Says Wystrach, "We've poured our hearts and souls into writing and making these songs and are extremely proud of what we've been able to create."
With On the Rocks, Midland have captured a sound decades in the making that is just right for today.