Midland Interview

Midland are a trio who play country music that has an allegiance to the traditional side of things while maintaining a strong contemporary edge to their music. The latter is a result of working with the production and successful mainstream writing team of Dann Huff, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. The former by their commitment to delivering songs in the spirit of 70’s and 80’s heroes like Gary Stewart and Dwight Yoakum. Mark Wystrach, Jeff Carson and Cameron Duddy had all played music in the past and with each other but never as the trio Midland until they met at a wedding, realised a common bond and began writing and playing together. They also come from different working backgrounds and experiences with Wystrach gaining employment as an underwear model and Cameron Duddy as a video director (for Bruno Mars). This background, in certain quarters, fostered some controversy about the band’s background and history but there was no discounting the success the band had with the song Drinkin’ Problem. It was featured on their 2016 EP and was released as a single in July the following year and was a Top 5 hit at radio. Later that year they released their album On The Rocks which also featured the 5 tracks on the EP along with 8 additional tracks. Both were released by the influential Big Machine a label who undoubtedly had the where-with-all to help the band get noticed.

They have been touring since the album’s release and are playing the C2C Festival in Dublin, Glasgow and London where they should make a lot of new friends with their looks, “Nudie” styled suits and strong country sound. Lonesome Highway spoke to the band in Nashville prior to their departure to Europe.

The band’s name was take from the song Fair to Midland which featured on Dwight Yoakum’s Population Me album. So I asked them what the song and the title meant to them and by choosing it from Yoakum’s work was he a hero of the bands. Jeff responded that Midland has “multiple meanings in that each of us has our own philosophical appreciation of that but it began with Dwight Yoakam’s Fair To Midland song”. He further explained that “We were all living in different places when we started the band and we kind of met in the middle, which was El Paso, Texas. We meet in the middle as what we do is the combination of the three of us. So it has those multiple meanings for us. But in the simplest form the Dwight Yoakum song is the source” He acknowledged that the singer/actor was a big influence at the beginning with his “brand of balls to the wall honky tonk”.

As Yoakum did in the 80’s and 90’s and as Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale do today, did they feel that wearing the embroidered suits on the album cover was a statement in itself. Jeff again was affirmative in his response “Yeah, if you take someone like Dwight and going back to people like Roy Rogers in the ‘40s and Gene Autry and others it was important to be seen or as Roy Rogers said “from the nosebleed seats.” He further reasoned “there has always been a certain pageantry in country music all the way up to Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakum and people like that. So we’re just wearing that influence literally.” 

Asked about the creation of the songs and their sound and how it developed Wystrach considered that the album came from “three years of us being on the road and playing live for three or four and sometimes five night a week. So that comes straight from our blood, sweat and tears. There is a persona in the album that’s a little bit of Jess and Cameron and of me. That came from where we had been and where we were living - which is what On The Rocks is all about, which was our journey.” 

So I wondered were they going to stick with the same team for their next recordings. Again Wystrach answered that “nothing stays the exact same.” Elaborating that with the band “there is always going to be evolutions but the elements of who and what we are in Midland are evolving, so I don’t think the next album will sound just like On The Rocks as we progress and something changes.” But did they as band members felt that they were working well as a team and that they were going to continue to work with the team we have. “Cameron, Jess and I are very involved with every single aspect from the songwriting to the production through the creative direction etc. Everything is done through the three of us. We have amazing collaborators in Dan Huff, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne so we’re looking forward to working with them again.”

In that light I asked if there was pressure for them to move in any way to a more pop-oriented direction to gain more exposure on radio. Wystrach considered this but felt that “Midland - me, Jess and Cam just focus on what we’re doing. I think that’s what has been cutting through. I think you can attribute a lot of the success to the fact that it has something that is fresh and something very musical. It’s not pop.” Midland he emphaised were aiming for something less throwaway that some of the music currently riding high in the country radio charts. The band were not trying to do follow that more obvious route and that in terms of their song writing “what we do has some density to it as we’re not writing disposable, mechanical pop songs. We are writing from the heart and that’s where it’s got to start and finish.”

Was that a difficult position to maintain in that light I wondered. This time Carson responded “We didn’t have pressure from radio as when we started we didn’t think that we would be getting radio play or that radio would be interested in the music. I think that Drinkin’ Problem shocked everyone by showing that there are people who want to hear that on mainstream country radio. So we didn’t record those songs for radio we recorded them for ourselves.” 

Like most bands there is a democracy of sorts at play but did the trio divide tasks among themselves to a role that they felt best suited. Duddy answered “Well it depends on the task but we are definitely more productive when we divide and conquer. We each have a strong suit in something and it’s also a better use of our time. Everything goes through Midland so it’s actually easier for us on an emotional level as I couldn’t imagine doing this myself.” There is obviously a close bond that they have together and they had evolved a way of working that suited them and helped with the stress that is part and parcel of being in a band in these times. Duddy felt that there was a lot of pressure involved in making music including touring and he noted “I feel that every week there is some new bar that you have to raise up to, some new obstacle, and to be able to do that together and bear the weight of the pressure is made durable by the three of us doing that together” Also in terms of creativity that “you have a bouncing board and it has therefore to pass through at least two filters. If you’re Luke Bryan you don’t have that.”  Therefore if you were an individual that “you are always thinking, in the back of your mind, where is this opinion coming from? Whereas when you’re in the band the three involved can give an honest opinion, a straight “do you like this or not?” 

With a time constraint I asked the final question as to how they like to play live “We travel with additional players, they are close friends. Robbie Crowell is our drummer Luke Cutchen is our guitar player. He was basically working on our guitars in Austin and so we offered him the job.” All are looking forward to bringing their show to Europe “We haven’t been across the pond yet to play a show.” Duddy ended the interview by exclaiming “Speaking for myself I’m really excited to be coming over.”

Interview by Stephen Rapid