Pink Limos and Road Songs: Midland Take a Country Music Joyride
“Anyone have a Triple A card?” asks Midland’s Mark Wystrach, climbing into the middle row of a Pepto-Bismol-colored vintage Cadillac limo that’s currently parked outside of a hip East Nashville bed and breakfast called, appropriately, Urban Cowboy. Though it looks impossibly cool, the interior of this thing is more aging New York taxicab than luxury vehicle — the circulation is minimal, the seats shellac themselves to thighs like athletic tape, and it may or may not emit borderline lethal amounts of exhaust. And it’s hot. So hot. The tiny, multi-colored clip-on fans that the band has rigged inside only taunt us in their ineffectiveness on this Tennessee summer day. Midland, however, slide right on in.
“Why don’t we start this thing up and open the windows,” Wystrach says, a 6-foot-something man in what can only be described as the adult version of a child’s overalls and sporting a mullet as healthy as his ‘stache. “They probably won’t ever come back up again, but it’s worth the risk.”
Wystrach chooses a middle seat next to bandmate/guitarist Jess Carson, in aviators and a Stetson-style hat, while bassist Cameron Duddy, somehow not sweating in a lilac suit, perches in the back trying to ratchet down a window. “Lurch” — a.k.a. Aaron Mohler, the band’s tour manager and a Marine — is behind the wheel (“Have someone you need taken care of?” asks Duddy. “Call Lurch”). And though you can’t see it from inside, there’s a bunny on the roof — the “Mr. Lonely” bunny silhouette, named for the first single from their second album, Let It Roll, out today. “This used to be a really nice car, and I am sure some important people cruised around in it,” Wystrach says, speaking in his own sort of desert-surf kind of accent (he grew up on a ranch in Arizona, spending time at his parent’s western steakhouse, which they opened after his father retired from the Marine Corps). “But unfortunately this is not currently the case.” The car is all style and no substance. Midland, however, is both.
Since releasing their debut LP, On the Rocks, in 2017, Midland’s built a band, and a brand, on both craft and showmanship, and by somehow being both inside the country world (a Music Row record deal with Big Machine, some country airplay, TV awards shows) and on the fringes with their polished throwback sound (they also actually wear fringe). They’re a rare country band on a planet of solo artists and duos, lovers of embroidery and flashy fashion in a world of sneakers and ball caps. While other acts in the genre were relaxing comfortably into a monolith of midtempo, vaguely poppish bro-tunes, Midland somehow snuck pedal steel onto the airwaves. They cruise in pink Caddies while everyone else thunders around in pickups. They rose to fame fast and hard and already out of their twenties, leaving other careers and thus other connotations behind — but not the baggage of having to explain a slightly atypical rise.
All of these corners — i.e., everything that makes Midland Midland — shine on Let It Roll, but the record’s a testament to a piece of vintage far more important than any retro hook or item of clothing. Which is the idea of the album itself. Let It Roll is a feat in sequencing and production, a story front to back bookended by the title track and the closer, the Carson-sung “Roll Away,” which sounds like a road trip soundtracked by the Allman Brothers and really good weed. The harmonies are warm and exact, with Wystrach’s Keith Whitley-esque vocals deep and sometimes rolling into a tongue-in-cheek growl, to remind us that music is also supposed to be fun. It’s a fully realized and seriously executed work that’s never entirely serious — this is Midland, after all. They have a sense of humor, and so should you.
“There are moments of real humanity and that’s us fucking up or celebrating,” says Duddy, who, in a previous life, was a music video director and still oversees much of Midland’s visual presentation. He now lives on a farm in Dripping Springs, Texas, with photographer Harper Smith, who recently shot Maren Morris for Playboy. There, they have donkeys named Kevin and Teddy, ducks, a horse, bunnies, and plenty of room for their three-year-old son to lounge on rugs found in Santa Fe. “Being in a band is really hard. It’s three people and it’s a lot of emotions running around, and three different opinions and taking care of people, and taking care of yourself.”
The plan this morning is to cruise around Nashville and see where the boys used to live before finding a place to talk. But it’s impossible to go incognito with Midland. In the five minutes we’ve been trying to leave the Urban Cowboy, the band has been stopped twice, once by a fan who works at the pizza shop across the street (“Tell her to fuck off,” Duddy jokes, “we’re talking to Rolling Stone,” before giving her a big hug and a smile for the camera). “Lurch,” Duddy says, after climbing back in, “if we don’t start this thing up, the carbon monoxide will actually kill us.”
Wystrach spins around preparing for takeoff, resting his back against the car door — it’s not like there are seatbelts in here anyway, and there doesn’t seem to be any other possible way for him to fold his overall-covered self into this small space. Lurch fires up the engine, which is more of a painful sputter than anything else, and we’re rolling.
On the road — whether in a pink limousine or on the bus playing hundreds of shows a year — is Midland’s baseline. Moving from place to place, from city to city, and from love to love is a theme on Let It Roll: everything moves, everything changes, risks are taken, and dice are thrown. Little time is spent at home in Texas, where all three live, particularly in the last several years since they were plucked from a small showcase at the Basement in Nashville to Big Machine records. Since the debut of On the Rocks in 2017, they’ve had a successful single at country radio (“Drinkin’ Problem”), been nominated for Grammys, toured nonstop, started a Spotify podcast, and written Let It Roll. They’ve also evolved into fashion plates, ones more inclined to call up Western-stitching brand Fort Lonesome than Fendi.
And they’ve become perfectionists, even when it comes to picking a place to sit and talk for an interview.
“There is literally a girl painting topless over there,” Wystrach says, looking over to a nude art session happening in plain sight at a pavilion in the local park we’ve pulled into. “Should we go over there? That might be just the right amount of weirdness we are looking for.”
Duddy and Carson shake their heads (“On the record, Mark wanted to see a topless girl and Cam and I were like, ‘no,'” Carson says, to which Wystrach responds, “I just like art”) and the trio eyes a bench after briefly considering an area near a small lake where an uncomfortable amount of geese have gathered. They reluctantly settle on a table underneath a tree, which turns out to be less than ideal: in the car parked next to us sits a dog with a missing eye that watches us like a hawk. Wystrach, sitting on top of the picnic table we’ve found, is disturbed but not shocked. Weird shit just seems to follow Midland.
“This is a metaphor for how sometimes things roll your way, and sometimes they roll away,” he says.
Let It Roll is all about those moments. Recorded in Nashville with Dann Huff, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne, it’s not a concept album but a nearly cyclical, complete work in 14 stories that they all co-wrote and put together over two years while touring exhaustively. There are new songs — like the rock-band bio “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” and the musicians anthem “Playboys” — and old ones, like “Fourteen Gears,” the track that first got Midland noticed but was omitted from On the Rocks because they just couldn’t get it right. On the new version of the song, Wystrach’s voice has never gone deeper, and modern country — the kind with this much steel guitar, anyway — has probably never been catchier.
There are echoes of Chris Isaak moodiness (the mysterious, Twin Peaks-y opening riff of “Put the Hurt on Me” nods easily to Isaak, who shared the stage with the band at their Ryman Auditorium headlining gig in May), and California sheen on “Lost in the Night,” where Duddy takes a spin on lead vocals. There are classic country cheating songs, but with a different perspective: on the aptly named “Cheatin’ Songs,” the man is the one left to pick up the pieces while his girlfriend picks up her clothes off the floor of a bedroom that’s not his. There’s a drinking song, but a hilarious one: “Every Song’s a Drinking Song,” which contains the line “we’ve got lovers without livers,” while subtly poking fun at the genre’s love of odes to intoxication.
“Our trick is to make sure it’s not some dog and pony derivative throwback,” says Wystrach. “We’re just taking classic methods and bringing them into the modern world, which is dominated by the digital sound.”
It’s sexy, too, and a little sleazy, because Midland love the way that rock’s best frontmen and women treat a microphone like someone they’re trying to get into bed. And there are character songs, because that’s something that Midland knows well, namely how to put on a show and blur the line between reality and fantasy. They know they’re here to entertain as much as anything else.
That was instantly recognizable when Allison Jones, Senior Vice President of A&R at Big Machine, first arrived at that Basement showcase. Jones had heard the buzz about this little “retro country but with a modern sound” trio from Austin, who all first met in Wyoming for Duddy and Smith’s wedding. They’d played in various iterations before, with each other and without, around Los Angeles and Portland. Wystrach and Duddy’s country-rock band, the Young Whiskey, was booking gigs at places like L.A.’s now defunct the Mountain Bar back in 2008. But when they came together as a trio, first strumming old country songs, they knew that Midland was in the cards — and named the band after the Dwight Yoakam song “Fair to Midland.”
When Jones caught them that night at the Basement she secured a front row seat with her team, and remembers seeing Wystrach on stage doing stretches before the show started. “I thought, ‘Oh my word,'” she says. “‘Is that the lead singer?'”
Halfway through the first song she texted her boss Scott Borchetta, “[My team and I] were literally just laughing, it was so good,” Jones says. “I felt like I was seeing Keith Whitley or early George Strait.” She asked the band out to dinner, and signed them shortly after.
“Drinkin’ Probem,” the trio’s debut single, topped the Mediabase Country Airplay chart in August 2017, but hearing it on the radio sandwiched between the drum-machine-assisted, pop-country songs of the moment made for an amusing experience. Nevertheless, the song was infectious and nostalgic enough to be a hit, and also open a door to a Nineties-country revival: the Brooks & Dunn reboot, Jon Pardi, Luke Combs, and even Kane Brown’s “Short Skirt Weather.”
“No one has time to romanticize the struggling artist thing. We want to feed ourselves and buy nice things.” – Cameron Duddy
But Midland want more than just country music stardom — they want stadiums.
“It’s not the Seventies anymore,” says Duddy. “It’s OK to say you want to be the biggest thing. Back then, there was an element of ‘selling out,’ but now it’s inherent that you have to do certain things to survive.” He points to Kendrick Lamar and his various partnerships — with Beats headphones, for one — to show that it’s acceptable for great artists to also expand their market share. “We are also collectively almost one hundred years old,” he adds. “No one has time to romanticize the struggling artist thing. We want to feed ourselves and buy nice things.”
What they’d like to buy is a better limo (“It’s a money pit, and we’re trying to unload it,” Carson says after we all pile back inside. “Want to buy it?”). The destination is a return trip to Urban Cowboy, where the band will finish off some pre-release housekeeping before heading to Chicago for a festival gig and back on the road, till infinity. Their Let It Roll trek kicks off September 17th in New York and includes dates in Australia. “Midland works hard and wins the crowd over every night,” says their friend and fellow Texas artist Paul Cauthen. “Can’t deny that.”
“We come from the stock of ‘just get out there and tour,'” Duddy says as the limo does its best to get up a hill and out of the park, before telling a story about how they met Lil Nas X at CMA Fest, who, turns out, was a fan of Midland’s show.
“I read that the first show Lil Nas X ever played was Coachella,” Duddy says. “You work your whole career for that. And he watched us play at a Spotify event and he was really cool and complimentary and we hit it off but, it’s funny, what a different path. You can honor likes and views and just get in the cyber reality, but we choose to do it the hard way. There’s no hiding. It’s all there onstage.”
Exactly two months later, Midland’s pink Cadillac is parked outside of the Texas Troubadour Theater in a dated strip mall near the Grand Ole Opry. They’re about to play an album release show for media, industry, and some fans. It’s a more calm setup for Midland, who embrace the rowdiness of a live rock show. There are pews and passed hors d’oeuvres, but also plenty of kitsch — the whole thing is serious and humorous at once, which is very appropriate. Backstage, Carson is wondering about his ensemble.
“I’m not sure if this is the outfit for tonight,” he says, wearing a silky black shirt with yellow detailing, unbuttoned with gold chains, a hat and black jeans. He used to own a vintage shop back in Portland, Oregon, before he moved to Texas so his wife, Camille, could pursue the rodeo sport of cutting (“cutting” the cow out of a heard while on horseback, essentially). “Is it good enough? Do you love it? You wouldn’t lie to me, right?”
Consensus is that, yes, the outfit is good, though Carson still seems a little unsure. Since we last spoke, Wystrach’s mullet is gone, but the ‘stache stands, and he’s wearing a red vintage T-shirt he “bought in New York City for way too much money” with some polyester-looking navy pants. Duddy, seeming to channel a bit of Keith Richards, has on a loose top unbuttoned low enough so that you can almost spy the “Mom” tattoo on his chest. They’re tired, up since 5:30 a.m. doing the usual pre-album rounds, and, also as usual, have barely been home lately.
“It’s been an emotional week,” Wystrach says sitting down on a couch with his bandmates, his eyes reddening — he could be getting choked up, or he could just be stoned. “There is a lot of thought put into [this album]. It’s a little slice of our life. The joy, the sorrow, the blues, the tough times, the humor, the irreverence, the crazy times you just want to get up and dance, the times you want to yell at the sky — it’s all tucked in there.”