“Heard there’s gonna be a new award category,” Sam Outlaw tweeted on Tuesday. “Best Authenticity.”
It was a joke dripping with sarcasm, but one that Outlaw is more than qualified to make. Based in Los Angeles, rather than those bastions of country music, Tennessee and Texas, the singer-songwriter has been subjected to a cacophony of “is he country enough” questioning as his career has progressed through two excellent albums. Usually, the slings and arrows have nothing to do with his music. Rather, they target his zip code, the fact that he once held another job (in, god forbid, advertising) and that his artistic presentation skews more sentimental, and clean-shaven, than scrappy. In other words, he’s not “authentic country.”
While there is no actual test for authenticity, that hasn’t stopped country purists from dissecting the look, lineage and, especially, backstory of artists from Outlaw and Gillian Welch to Sam Hunt and Midland. As Robbie Fulks once sang, with tongue in cheek, “You wasn’t raised in a shack, so you better not act so countrier than thou.”
The argument isn’t native to country music, however. It’s a nauseating common quarrel in pop as well, with artists as diverse as Lana Del Rey, the Strokes and Eminem all being accused at one time or another of falling short of some vague, ever-changing definition of what’s authentic. Still, it’s a particularly touchy and timely subject in country, with some loudly demanding to see the books, so to speak, of artists to gauge how many miles they logged in the van, how many nights they’ve sweated it out in bars and how they came to write – or co-write – their songs.
Which takes us back to Midland, the Big Machine Records trio of Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson whose debut LP On the Rocks, a smart study in Eagles sheen and slinky, soft-focus Eighties country, could have come out of the jukebox at Gilley’s in the Urban Cowboy era. It’s a fantastic album, full of tight, honeyed harmonies and songs about breaking hearts, getting stoned and working the road.
But questions have arisen about that last one: namely, if the band has cut its teeth onstage enough to warrant their seemingly quick success, or if, worse still, they fibbed about it.
“When did country music bona fides have to dovetail with the miles on a van odometer?”
Duddy’s recent comment to Rolling Stone Country about putting their “10,000 hours in” in dive bars has been the specific point of contention. That “10,000” was a tossed-off allusion to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers, about the time necessary to master a specific craft. Midland claim that much of their grunt work was done before they even became the band they are now. According to the members and their label, each has been playing music for years, separately and in various groups, in their native states of California, Oregon and Arizona. Only upon relocating to Austin in 2013 did they start performing around the local circuit.
If Midland concocted a history that doesn’t really exist, that would be egregious, but what if it’s simply a history that doesn’t fit the “authentic” norm? When did country music bona fides have to dovetail with the miles on a van odometer? Is there a Fitbit for authenticity that beeps when an artist reaches their 10 thousandth hour? Playing every dive bar and honky-tonk on either side of the Mason-Dixon line is one way to get both fans and maybe even a record label to notice your talents – and an admirable one at that – but it’s not the only way. Sometimes success takes years, and sometimes months. A shorter rise doesn’t make the music less worthy of being consumed, enjoyed or valued. Or less real.
Just what can be considered “real” in country music is nebulous. Gram Parsons wasn’t a real cowboy, but he sure liked rhinestones; Miranda Lambert was judged for her appearance on Nashville Star; and Chris Stapleton commits to a similar fashion style in every photo shoot, all to project a certain well-crafted image. Even Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – heroes of Americana and folk music – were attacked for less-than-authentic roots. Welch was born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, and her first album, Revival, was met with claims of “simulation” by critics. What could she know about life in rural America, the human condition or the Appalachian tradition? A lot, time has proven. Authenticity in music isn’t a blue checkmark on Twitter. At best, it’s a feeling. At its worst, it’s a cage.
And it’s one the members of Midland are unwillingly being forced into since the release of On the Rocks. Wystrach’s been lambasted for his past as a model; Duddy’s work as a music video director with Bruno Mars has been scrutinized. These aren’t entries on a C.V. that they’ve tried to hide, though. Rather, they incorporate them into their overall identity. Wystrach is astute enough to use his sex appeal to command a stage; Duddy helmed Midland’s own videos.
Yet the band, with their carefully groomed mustaches, aren’t afraid to poke fun at their image, posting photos of Tom Selleck and Nick Nolte on Instagram, along with a recent series of goofy GIFs. In that way, they’re presenting a type of masculinity that defies the rough-and-ready outlaw aesthetic we’ve come to expect from “authentic” country singers like Stapleton, Jamey Johnson or Cody Jinks.
It’s that attention to detail, that theatricality and that, dare we say, exaggeration in Midland’s art that makes the band and its music entertaining. And isn’t that the point?
To a few, maybe not. But attacking Midland for their styling, their glamorous press photos (taken by Duddy’s wife, photographer Harper Smith) or their lack of time on the road under the guise of defending “authenticity” isn’t just a hamster-wheel exercise. It also distracts from the type of music Midland is making – the long-awaited answer to bro-country that so many have pined to hear played once again on country radio.