Finding a good dive bar band is a little like finding a good dive bar: There are plenty of imitators out there, but you know the real deal when you find it. Texas trio Midland knows a thing or two about dive bars – in fact, they just might be the biggest bar band in country music right now.
It’s appropriate, then, to meet them at one of Nashville’s best dives, Springwater Supper Club and Lounge. Located on the perimeter of Centennial Park, which houses Nashville’s famed replica of the Parthenon, Springwater bills itself as "Nashville's oldest dive bar" and serves up cheap brews, greasy food, and plenty of music. It's a favorite of everyone from Dan Auerbach to Kesha, and is one of few Nashville joints that hasn't yet been bulldozed by some out-of-town developer.
"We walked in here today and I immediately felt at peace in this place," Midland bassist Cameron Duddy says of Springwater. "Places like this all around the country, it’s where we got our 10,000 hours in. If you can convert someone who just came in to have a beer and decompress and relax into somebody who turns around and listens and becomes a fan, then you have done your job as a band."
Springwater is not unlike the bar in Texas where Midland cut its teeth. In fall of 2015, the trio held a month-long residency at Poodies Hilltop Roadhouse in Austin, a historic honky tonk just outside town where the band played hours-long sets on Tuesday afternoons to notoriously difficult-to-impress bar-goers.
"Even to get booked at these places you have to be good already, because there’s house bands in Texas that would smoke us," lead vocalist Mark Wystrach says. "There are incredible musicians in and around Texas, but especially in Austin. Right from the get-go when we started this project we knew we had a really high bar to reach, pun intended."
It's only been a couple of years since that residency, but life for Wystrach, Duddy, and Jess Carson has already changed drastically. Last month they celebrated their first number one country single (which also happens to be their first single, period) with "Drinkin' Problem." Just this week, they performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon alongside Little Big Town and Kacey Musgraves, whom they'll accompany on an extensive tour in 2018. And today, they're releasing their debut album On the Rocks, a 13-song collection that polishes the grit and sweat of the dive bar stage with a pop-country sheen.
The sound the trio developed is one unlike little else currently doing well on country radio. A blend of Laurel Canyon harmonies, sunny Bakersfield twang, road-tested rock and roll, and big pop hooks makes for songs that can appeal to a wide swath of country's increasingly polarized fan base, seemingly reaching fans of Sturgill Simpson and Sam Hunt alike.
"I would like to think we skew closer to the Sturgills and the Stapletons and the Nikki Lanes, but there is an accessibility to what we do that we intentionally chased down so that our band wasn’t going to be a derivative niche band or sound," Duddy explains. "We wanted it to be accessible."
Finding the balance between staying true to its left-of-center roots and remaining accessible to contemporary country fans seems to come naturally to Midland. On the Rocks is practically bursting with songs that take sonic cues from Dwight Yoakam and George Strait while lodging radio-ready melodies squarely in listeners' heads. Opening track "Lonely for You Only" opens with a big, twangy riff tailor-made for a slow dance at a honky tonk before giving way to a soaring chorus. "More Than a Fever" is pure gold, a mash-up of Hotel California-era Eagles, throwback country traditionalism, and modern pop songwriting. Penultimate tune "Electric Rodeo" even throws a little power ballad into the mix with its swelling pop strings, chiming piano, and falsetto for days.
And then there's "Drinkin' Problem." That tune was not only the first to introduce the trio to the world, it was also the first the band wrote with On the Rocks collaborators Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. Their manager Jason Owen hooked the guys up with the Nashville powerhouses, both of whom were drawn to the trio's reverence for country music and their shared love for "geeking out" over old vinyl and talking shop.
"When our management sent Shane and Josh our demos, they really dug it," Wystrach explains. "It was the stuff they grew up on and it was stuff they really loved. We spent the first two hours drinking beers and talking about all of our influences. It turned into a fan fest. Two hours and a couple beers into it, we said, ‘Well, let’s write a song.’ Before you knew it, in an hour-and-a-half or two hours we’d written ‘Drinkin’ Problem.’"
In some ways, the evolution of "Drinkin' Problem" is not so different from the barroom-to-Billboard trajectory of the band itself. As Duddy explains, what eventually became the band's first single actually had roots as a less accessible, less "hit" demo. "We had a version of 'Drinkin’ Problem' for about two years that we were carrying around in our back pocket that would be called a demo — although it was fully mixed and had all the players on it and it was ready to go — and we decided last minute, ‘You know what, this is still too niche,’" he says.
Whether or not that original incarnation of "Drinkin' Problem" would have also topped the charts will forever remain a mystery. As for the band's commitment to finding more than just a niche for itself, though, the three attribute a major part of that decision to Nashville superproducer Dann Huff, who co-produced the album alongside McAnally and Osborne.
"[Huff] sonically leveled up our sound," Duddy says. "Anything that is even remotely kind of contemporary is because Dann Huff, with our collective effort, made it so. He'd say, ‘Look, guys, I want you guys to have the best shot at country radio.’ Had we not met Dann, I don’t think that would have happened."
In addition to having some powerful friends behind the boards, Midland also has the backing of Big Machine Records, another big (though independent), commercial-leaning label taking a chance on an artist from the fringier end of the country spectrum. Since signing with Big Machine, Midland has landed on show rosters with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, and Thomas Rhett, to name a few. The dive bar days have given way to stadiums and arenas; three-hour honky tonk sets are now half-hour opening stints.
"Gilette Stadium with Kenny Chesney... 55,000 people," Carson says. "That was by far the biggest venue we’ve ever played. That was just insane. When we were playing in the honky tonks in Texas, we couldn’t even imagine looking out at Gilette Stadium."
Though they'll hit the road on another big tour in February of next year and have dates with Jon Pardi in the meantime, Midland is still a bar band at heart. "We're just as excited to play this little honky tonk tonight with 80 or 100 people," Wystrach says. "We plan on giving everything we’ve got every single night. You’ve gotta play every single show like it’s your last show."