There is a scene in Midland: The Sonic Ranch, a new documentary about the unexpected formation and success of the country music trio Midland, in which future bandmates Mark Wystrach and Cameron Duddy argue about the proper emphasis of the word “although” in a song lyric.
“Make ‘although’ two words,” Duddy, from the control room, instructs Wystrach in the vocal booth. “Put a beat in between.”
Wystrach, out of sight, doesn’t quite follow. “Dude, slow down,” he says. “What are the two words?”
“‘All’ and ‘though,'” Duddy replies, exasperated, before leaving the room.
The exchange is so fraught with tension, so ludicrous, and so right out of a C&W Spinal Tap that it spontaneously combusts any conspiracy theory that Midland — a gloriously coiffed, tailored, and produced country group — might have been created in a Music Row lab. No one in their right mind would have put these three personalities together.
But therein lies the magic of Midland. Greek-god singer Wystrach, perfectionist bassist Duddy, and sensitive songwriter-guitarist Jess Carson are an oil-and-water mixture that somehow manifests as reposado tequila. Midland: The Sonic Ranch, premiering Friday on ViacomCBS platforms including CMT Music, aims to capture that alchemy using previously unseen footage from the band’s very first recording sessions at the Sonic Ranch studio in Tornillo, Texas, in 2014 — two years before they had a Nashville record deal with Scott Borchetta (an executive producer of the film) and his label Big Machine.
Directed by Duddy and Brian Loschiavo, the black-and-white documentary follows the group as its not-yet-lineup learns to play together and exist in the same room without laying hands on one another. “When tequila enters the picture,” Carson says at one point, “that raises the probability of a choking.”
Six years later, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Duddy sounds amazed they’ve made it this far: accruing radio hits like “Burn Out,” “Mr. Lonely,” and the Number One “Drinkin’ Problem”; a pair of Grammy nominations; an ACM Award for New Group; and high-profile gigs like Bonnaroo and at the Houston Rodeo, a razzle-dazzle segment that opens the film.
“Scott Borchetta said something that I thought was pretty on point recently. I’m paraphrasing, but he said, ‘I signed Midland knowing it’d be an incredible risk because it’s hard to keep a band together,'” Duddy says. “It’s true. Being in a band is harder than being a solo act. You’re constantly working through dynamics that are ever changing.”
He says the unexpected time off during the pandemic allowed Midland the chance to not only raid the archives for the footage that would become the Sonic Ranch documentary, but also let them smooth over some cracks in the band.
“It wasn’t like we’re on the verge of breaking up or anything,” Duddy says, “but had we not had the ability to just kind of sit around and get back to being friends…I mean, who knows what would have happened to Midland?”
The group’s origin story goes something like this: Wystrach and Carson were mutual friends of Duddy’s who, after jamming together at Duddy’s wedding in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2013 decided to book time at the Sonic Ranch as a vacation of sorts and see if there was a true creative spark. Duddy, a filmmaker, tagged along to document the proceedings, but as he says, “An hour in, instead of a camera in my hand, I had a bass, and there was less and less footage as the days went on.”
The footage they did compile is equal parts vulnerable — “I’m like Peter Pan, man; I refuse to grow up,” Wystrach admits in one scene — and outrageous. The members take turns firing a lever-action rifle like they’re Chuck Connors in The Rifleman and drive backwards in a pickup truck at high speed. “That lifestyle of playing music can pull you back to a primitive state,” Carson muses on-screen.
The documentary arrives with a companion album of those early demos, overseen at the Sonic Ranch by producer David Garza (Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters). Duddy laughs at the idea of labeling the collection of 12 songs, many of them solo compositions by Carson, who sings lead on two, a “soundtrack.”
“Those recordings are not polished. We’re not even a band at this point,” Duddy says. “It doesn’t sound like a Nashville recording.”
Instead, it’s the sound of three guys still getting to know one another, personally and musically — which is what makes the compilation such an interesting artifact. First single “Cowgirl Blues” is an unvarnished shuffle rich in rodeo imagery. “Champagne for the Pain” taps into the trio’s shared love of Tex-Mex tones. And “Whiskey,” a solo write by Wystrach, is an Eagles homage with strong “Peaceful Easy Feeling” vibes.
“There is a naiveté to the music,” Duddy says. “And that is exactly what we were: naive and fairly innocent dudes getting together at the Sonic Ranch in 2014.”
“Texas Is the Last Stop” — the bugbear that caused Wystrach and Duddy to butt heads in the studio — makes the final cut too. And Wystrach nails his line.
“I’ve even been to Paris/and al-though it was great,” he sings, “if I’m going back to Paris, it’s the one in the Lone Star State.” On-screen, the three men celebrate the take with high-fives, handshakes, and hugs. They’re now Midland.