How Country Trio Midland Are Bridging the Country-Pop Divide

Texas trio has the potential to unite traditional and pop-leaning fans of country music with breakout hit "Drinkin' Problem"

Midland's Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson talk breakout success, George Strait and Texas. Credit: Harper Smith/Courtesy of Big Machine

There's chaos over the phone, with Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy of Texas country trio Midland trying to sort out its position between members.

"Give us one second," Wystrach, the group's 37-year-old lead singer, says. "We're trying to figure out the – " and the phone breaks up again.

The band flew into Nashville two hours ago, and now they're crammed into a vehicle on I-65 South, an hour from Huntsville, Alabama, where they're booked for a promotional radio visit. It's no accident their song "Drinkin' Problem," a whiskey-soaked slow dance filled with three-part harmony and pedal steel, is currently inside the Top 20 on Billboard's Country Airplay chart. They're out on the road between gigs, visiting stations so that they'll spin their single even more, before the group heads out again, to Canada for four dates with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's Soul2Soul Tour. In the odd moment when they're not engaged with airtime and arenas, they're in the studio, tying a bow on their debut full-length, which will be released in September.

"Between that and trying to get your domestic duties done when you're home for maybe 17, 18 hours on a Sunday, there's not really much time to see much further than a day or two ahead," 31-year-old Duddy, the group's bassist, says.

But the hustle is necessary for a band that's got something other young acts don't: a sound Rolling Stone Country called "Solid. Country. Gold." Think Eagles-era Seventies country, a smoky honky-tonk soundtrack for couples spinning around the dance floor, the smell of spilled beer thick in the air. But like a vintage car with a rebuilt engine, Midland's classic sound has a thoroughly modern heart. Three of the five songs on their self-titled EP, including "Drinkin' Problem," were co-written by hitmaking team Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne (Sam Hunt, Keith Urban). The group's something-new, something-old feel positions them at a midpoint between throwback performers like Sturgill Simpson and sound-of-now acts like Florida Georgia Line, with a charisma that may unite the two groups' fans.

"It was just sort of something that we stumbled on," Duddy says. The California native met transplants Wystrach, of Arizona, and Carson, of Oregon, individually in Los Angeles where, for over a decade, the three wandered in and out of various projects, sometimes pairing off but never all together. It was at Duddy's wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in August 2013, when both Wystrach and Carson showed up a week early, that the three played as an ensemble for the first time.

They ran through covers on the porch, songs they'd all loved: Mo Bandy's "Bandy the Rodeo Clown," "Time of the Preacher" by Willie Nelson, the Eagles' "Tequila Sunrise," plus hits by George Strait and a handful of others. "That's just the style that came out," the group's lead guitarist Carson, 37, says. "It was never a conversation like, 'Dude, we should sound like this or that.' We just started playing. That was what happened." Because all three of them were the "lead-singer types" in their various projects over the years, the three-part harmonies they seem to do so effortlessly now came nearly as easy then.

After Duddy's wedding, the men started making plans in earnest to centralize. Carson had left Portland to follow his wife, a rodeo cutting competitor and trainer, to Austin, Texas, in 2011. Later, the pair moved to the small town of Dripping Springs, about 30 minutes away, to board their four horses. It's in this town of less than 2,000 where Duddy and Wystrach relocated in 2014. In that wide-open country, they built a rehearsal space and started writing around the sound that they heard on the Jackson Hole porch, touring behind these new songs at any Texas honky-tonk that would have them.

Sharon Burke, owner of Poodies Hilltop Roadhouse in Austin, hired Midland in 2015 for a month-long residency in the sub-prime slot of Tuesday afternoons. To her surprise, the band got even her jaded regulars on their feet and dancing from the first song. "Everybody loved them," she says. "They had a sound that was unique – you just knew they were going to go places."

Manager Jason Owen sent some of their songs to Shane McAnally, who heard something different, quite an accomplishment considering he's a man who's had a hand in many of country's hits for more than a decade.

"[Owen] knows my love of true country music," McAnally, who co-wrote Sam Hunt's latest hit, "Body Like a Back Road," says. He quickly corrects himself: "Well, I shouldn't say 'true country music' – it can all fall under the umbrella of country music – but what I grew up knowing as country music."

McAnally continues, "[Josh Osborne and I] write songs that are commercial because that's our job, because that is the world we want to be in. But we spend a lot of our time writing songs that never get recorded because of our influences," including George Strait and Gary Stewart. With Midland, McAnally and Osborne finally had an outlet for the music that they'd been writing for years that never found a home. It's not better or worse than penning the next Sam Hunt hit, McAnally says, carefully measuring each word. But it's satisfying in a wholly new and fresh way, and for an industry vet, that's high praise.

But don't think that Midland is some throwback manufactured boy band; while four of the five songs on Midland are the result of co-writes between the band and pro songwriters, "Check Cashin' Country," the fifth, was written exclusively by Carson – a gutsy move for a young band coming into its own.

"It's the best song!" Carson yells from the rear of the vehicle.

"He's too modest," Duddy says, laughing. He explains, "You're only looking for the best songs. It doesn't matter who wrote it. I know it might sound like an outdated ideology – there's politics involved with all this stuff – but really, it's just that simple: What are the best songs?"

But beyond their idyllic origin story, retro sound and – let's be honest – dashing good looks, can you take Midland at their word? Made up of a former male model (Wystrach), music video director (Duddy helmed videos by Bruno Mars and Jennifer Lopez), and vintage clothier (Carson), the guys are all on their second act, and maybe the reason they look and sound great is because they're orchestrators of their own cool.

Dean Dillon, writer of 15 of George Strait's biggest hits and a mentor to the band, would disagree. "Some [musicians] come in with an attitude: 'I'm going to set the world on fire, and if I don't do that in two years, I'm going home,'" he says. "I think these guys, they're committed. They didn't come to Nashville give it a shot. I honestly believe they're in it for the long haul."

Distrust of Midland might stem from the fact that they've appeared from deep in the heart of Texas at just the right time. Chris Stapleton pushed aside bro country with his soulful country rock two years ago, and Lauren Alaina's surprise hit "Road Less Traveled," which achieved Number One status in early April, may signify a further upheaval in the traditional hierarchy. There's never been a better time for what's next than right now.

"Country music's changing, and it's really exciting to be near the spear tip of that change," says Duddy as the band nears the radio station. "I think we just happen to be at the right place at the right time. We're enjoying the journey, every single part of it."