Neo-traditional group Midland is perhaps the perfect country act of the Instagram age. Depending on your perspective, that will be read as either an elitist swipe at these Texas transplants or a compliment of the most fabulous order.
Regardless, there isn't another group like Midland floating along the shimmering waves of mainstream country radio these days.
The members of Midland (named after the Dwight Yoakam song "Fair to Midland") — Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy — began their friendship in California a decade ago and started to become the unit we hear today when the guys jammed together for a few days in 2013 leading up to Duddy's Wyoming wedding. After signing a record deal with the influential Big Machine Records — the label of Taylor Swift and Florida Georgia Line — Midland has been on tour with Tim McGraw and recently landed a No. 1 country single on the Mediabase Country Airplay chart with its infectious honky-tonk gem "Drinkin' Problem." (Not to be confused with classic country cuts like Gary Stewart's "Drinkin' Thing" or David Ball's "Thinkin' Problem.")
Even backed by the deep pockets of a major Nashville power, that's no small feat for a group that features an actual classic-country sound. A mellow, melodic waltz boasting a wafting pedal steel, "Drinkin' Problem" reminds those of us (of a certain age) of the '90s, when Brooks and Dunn's slow jam classic "Neon Moon" was as danceable as it was commercially viable. Aside from a couple of current outliers, including youngsters John Pardi and William Michael Morgan, radio-driven country charts aren't a friendly environment for songs for fans of so-called real country music.
Midland hitting it big is the latest example of radio playlists and mainstream tastes welcoming at least a touch of old-school variety.
"We came to Nashville with a 15-song demo," Carson says by phone as he and his mates hang out backstage at the historic Ryman Auditorium after performing there for the first time. "That gave people here a picture of what we had been doing and the sound we wanted. We were lucky to have some great people who were excited about working with us and about writing some traditional country songs, so it hasn't been a battle for us to keep our sound."
But it doesn't take but the smallest amount of digging into the band's back story to start wondering who these guys really are.
Most of the profiles written on the band tout the group's Texas origin and paint a sawdust-tinted picture that seems a bit manufactured. Lead singing Wystrach has dabbled in underwear modeling and is the co-founder of an "eco-hip shoes and accessories" company, while Duddy has spent years directing documentaries and music videos, including the VMA-nominated clip for Bruno Mars' "24k Magic." Carson owned and operated a boutique fashion shop in Portland, Ore.
But it's only fair to point out that the three are in their 30s; unless an artist hits it big at an early age, the bills most likely have to be paid by nonmusical means. It just so happens these fellas have done so through intriguing, attention-grabbing channels. Duddy admits the move from video director to successful, touring country musician "is pretty unheard of, and probably hard for people to wrap their heads around."
Each member is quick to make clear that they may just now have found commercial success as musicians, but regardless of what jobs they worked over the years, "it's always been about music," Wystrach says.
Before setting off on arena tours with A-list megastars, Midland says it made its D-FW area debut with an opening gig in January 2015 for Aaron Watson at Rockin' Rodeo in Denton. The band has also performed in Texas venues both legendary (Broken Spoke, Luckenbach) and less-than-legendary. (Once, at the Burger Basin in Midland, Carson says, "the air conditioner broke, it was 120 degrees and we had to play in our shorts.")
Wystrach calls the musician talent in Texas "preposterous" — a compliment.
"So many artists there make a living by playing only in Texas because of that talent and how people there want to hear original live music. The artists doing that are our watermarks. We have to work our asses off to build our sound and get to where we want to be with our writing, recording and performing."
But because of Midland's relatively short time together, its loose affiliation to Texas and its glossy, pop-leaning record label, Texas country fans are surely suspicious.
The trio's often silly sartorial choices certainly don't engender confidence in those who think something's fishy here. The band's penchant for retro-tastic fashion and colorfully coordinated Nudie suits seems to be ripped from the script of The Brady Bunch "Adios, Johnny Bravo" episode, in which an opportunistic talent scout simply chose hunky Greg Brady because he "fit the suit."
Over the phone, Carson says, perhaps sarcastically, that "nothing is off limits when it comes to fashion for us," with a laugh that acknowledges the band's unique choices, though he might've been annoyed by the question. The combination of slickly polished corporate image and meaningful artistic substance is rare, though not unheard of. Indeed, it's fair for folks to wonder if Midland is as legit as the fawning national press suggests it is, or if it's a carpetbagging enterprise powered by killer cheekbones, a high-limit Urban Outfitters credit card and carefully chosen Instagram filters.
Here's the thing, though: The group's debut full-length album, On the Rocks, is a fine record — its unintentionally hilarious, countrified Spinal Tap-esque cover notwithstanding. On the Rocks is packed with addictive honky-tonk tunes complete with rich harmonies and often beautiful instrumental accents, including the aforementioned soaring pedal steel and the kind of piano playing that would make Ray Price proud. Tunes delving into neon-lit loneliness and searching for answers in the bottom of a highball glass may not be present on country radio, but they're certainly accounted for on this record.
And in an age where Sam Hunt doing his best Uncle Kracker impression amounts to the most successful country song of 2017, it'd be a mistake to not, at the very least, appreciate Midland's music, regardless of how goofy the band members dress, what state they're from or what their high-dollar publicists push into the blogosphere.
Perhaps Midland's greatest sin is the high degree with which it seems to have calculated every step of its current path, resulting in a story that's forced to revolve around everything other than the music itself.
It's doubtful they'd agree, and they understandably seem pleased with how well things are going. It's also safe to say they wouldn't be reaching all those ears without following detailed plans to an exacting degree.
"Our lifestyle would be much easier," Carson says, "if we stuck to weekend runs to Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. But we wouldn't be getting our music to everyone we want to get it out to by doing that. That's what really matters to us."
Correction, Sept. 22, 2017 at 3:30 p.m.: This story previously mentioned Midlake would have a concert at Good Records on Sept. 22, 2017. That concert is not happening.