Midland Deepen Their Honky-Tonk Roots On Sophomore Effort ‘Let It Roll’ [Interview]

Midland. Photo: Harper Smith

For album number two, country trio Midland take a page from George Strait’s playbook, with no need to shift too far away from their retro-country sound, or mix in more pop-country confections into each new project. Instead, they lean harder into their neo-traditional vibe, drenched in inspiration from ‘70s country music, with more than a tinge of ‘80s and ‘90s honky tonk stylings made popular by artists like Strait and Brooks & Dunn.

When Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson released their debut album, On The Rocks, in 2017 on Big Machine Label Group, the project’s retro grooves proved somewhat of a shock to a country music scene saturated by slick pop-country and hip-hop. Their debut single “Drinkin’ Problem” was certified Platinum, and the trio earned two Grammy nominations, as well as a win for New Vocal Duo or Group of the Year at last year’s ACM Awards.

“We try to write timelessly, and this whole album feels timeless,” says Carson, seated in a dressing room at the Ryman Auditorium, hours before they would honor the album’s co-producer and co-writer, Shane McAnally, with his latest ACM honor. “It could have been a lost album from the late ‘70s and there are songs that could be from the ‘90s and there is something fresh about it, too.”

Since the release of their debut project, they’ve continued to fine-tune their sound before live audiences, graduating from the Texas barrooms to theaters, festivals and arenas across the country. The decision to dedicate that amount of time performing in the past couple of years necessitated that the album be piecemealed in Nashville recording sessions scheduled between tour dates.

However, the hours spent touring resulted in the road-tested, tightly-constructed, gems found on their sophomore project, Let It Roll, out today.

Photo: Collin Duddy

“As soon as we wrote ‘21st Century Honky Tonk American Band’ we were playing it live, and that was about a year ago,” says Duddy, referring to a track on the new project. “We were basically a couple of days of from having to deliver the album, and we went back to hear a the mix of that song and the whole performance was just wrong. Through the process of playing it live for a year, we discovered things that we loved about it and a tempo that worked better and parts that were just gelling differently.” The group went into their own studio with their band in Austin, Texas, and re-recorded the track in about two hours.

The album’s lead single, “Mr. Lonely,” holds a swagger, relishing in being the guy that women turn to when their men treat them wrong. I’m the number that you know by broken heart, Wystrach sings. But beneath the delightfully irreverent mashup of honkytonk and rock ‘n’ roll, the song serves as a word of caution to people to treat their lovers well.

“That was one of the songs when we were writing it we were chasing a little bit of Brooks & Dunn, a little bit of [Strait’s]  ‘The Fireman’ and a bit of Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Fast as You,'” Wystrach notes.

Elsewhere on the album, “Put The Hurt On Me” makes for a silky slow jam, while Carson takes the lead on the hazy, lilting album closer “Roll Away.”

Some of the best numbers center on a classic country music mainstay that has somewhat fallen out of favor in recent years—the cheatin’ song.

“Cheatin’ By The Rules” portrays a guy caught between a dying relationship and his own desires, trying to shield an old flame from the reality of the situation in all the usual ways, as he lays out guidelines to his lover not to call after 5 p.m., or hiding the car around back.

Elsewhere, they sing, She’s lying with him and she’s lying to me/She’s bringing back diamond rings kept in the pocket of her tight fittin’ jeans, in “Cheatin’ Songs,” complete with a reference to Conway Twitty’s 1981 hit.

“In this day and age, Midland is the best cheating song band out there,” Duddy says.

“We are one of one,” quips Carson.

“Those songs have been lost a little bit in the more popular writing and there is a nuance to writing a cheating song,” Wystrach says. “There is a way to approach the gray area and the darker, seedier side of life. That’s part of the great tradition of songwriters we admire. They are able to approach these subjects in a way that’s palatable. It’s catchy, but the subject is an uglier side of life.”

“I grew up with cheating in my family,” says Duddy. “My mom ended up having three or four different husbands and you grow up understanding, ‘Oh shit, that guy wasn’t the worst guy in the world.’ Or, that my mom is not a terrible person because these things happen in life. This isn’t Christian rock, it’s country music and since the beginning it’s been part of the history of it—“

“Your Cheatin’ Heart,” interjects Carson.

“But it’s not condoning it,” Wystrach says. “It’s an observation. It’s part of life.”

While their contemporaries have increasingly turned to songs that provide literal, moment-by-moment recollections of their lives, the members of Midland gravitate toward broader themes and characters.

“To me ‘Cheating By The Rules’ is really tough because when you first listen to that song, it’s like, to my wife especially, ‘Are you really going to record this song?’” Duddy says. “It’s about this guy who is caught between this fear of doing the right thing, which is breaking it off, or doing the easier thing, hiding. It’s a complicated scenario.”

“Everything goes through our collective experiences, so to do something so first-person would be a little bit strange, and I think that’s where the artistry comes in. There are a couple of songs Jess wrote [solo] on this album, but they relate to a collective experience,” says Wystrach.

“Those literal songs, there’s not a lot of depth to that stuff,” says Duddy. “Sometimes you start chasing trends because look, that’s your job and you’re going to survive one way or another as a songwriter in Nashville. Jamey Johnson, he wrote ‘Honkytonk Badonkadonk.’ You stick around Nashville long enough and you have to do what you have to do to survive. We are not begrudging anyone who takes part in the exercise of mass popular music like that. It’s a means and if you can do it, then power. But that’s not something we are interested in.”

Aside from a one-off collaboration on Brooks & Dunn’s recent Reboot album, Midland hasn’t engaged in another favorite album staple among today’s country artists—collaborating with other hit artists on a project, though Duddy acknowledges those studio pairings can be difficult for a band that still makes its home in Texas instead of Nashville.

“There are certain songs on the album that the idea from conception was to be a collaboration and it turned out it was difficult to…”

“We wanted to do ‘Drinkin’ Songs’ as a duet,” remarks Carson.

“We talked about doing something with Brothers Osborne. If we lived here it would be a different thing,” Wystrach says. “But with Brooks & Dunn, we were in the studio with them as we were traveling through Nashville. For Brooks & Dunn, you make room in your schedule.”

“And there’s nothing on-brand for us, and I hate to say it like that,” Duddy adds. “It doesn’t matter who we would have gone with, it would have seemed out of left-field because we are kind of on…”

“Maybe Margo Price, someone we really look up to musically, would have worked well,” Carson says.

Midland’s members had a hand in writing every track on the album, with plenty of material stored up from album number three. Wystrach notes that another Let It Roll track, “Fourteen Gears,” was written for their debut.

“There’s other songs that didn’t make this album, but we know we want to record them. That gives you confidence and takes the pressure off of the third album, because we already have songs in mind.”

However, Duddy notes they wouldn’t mind having some of those unrecorded songs in their arsenal recorded by other artists.

“Hell yeah. We love money.”

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About the Author

Jessica Nicholson serves as the Managing Editor for MusicRow magazine. Her previous music journalism experience includes work with Country Weekly magazine and Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) magazine. She holds a BBA degree in Music Business and Marketing from Belmont University. She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]

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