MINDSET – Road Less Traveled
Fit for Fame: Midland
By Robin Rootenberg
At their sold-out Mission Ballroom show in Denver, Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson file into the VIP lounge for a Q&A with fans. Two little boys are present, mom balancing one son on her hip while dad leads the other son by the hand into the room; a retired couple has traveled from Florida to follow the tour; and another couple dozen people dressed in denim and rhinestones, corduroy and untucked plaid crowd around the three musicians.
Wystrach, the lead vocalist, jokes with the fans that they’ll take questions when hands are raised, classroom style, and ribs those who talk out of turn. But then he asks the guests to put away their phones, not because his bandmate is talking trash but because “it’s more just about putting your phone down and communicating and connecting, which we rarely do these days.” The buzz of excitement is intimate, and one woman introduces herself as Duddy’s childhood neighbor.
With such a good-natured, all-ages fan base, it might be surprising that Midland is a such a recent phenomenon. In 2018, the group received the Academy of Country Music Award for Best New Group and two Grammy Award nominations. This year, they were nominated for two Country Music Awards. Their sophomore album “Let It Roll” is rocketing up the country charts. Their sound (self-described as “reminiscent of the 1970s and ’80s” country) doesn’t require listeners to love the genre. And the vintage flair they wear onstage and offstage gets regular attention from major lifestyle magazines like British GQ.
Midland’s origin story is also part of their attraction. They met and performed in Los Angeles in various bands, but the first time all three played together was at Duddy’s wedding rehearsal dinner in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2013. Duddy and his two groomsmen enjoyed it so much that not only did they make Duddy’s marriage “official,” but they also decided to make the band official.
For all the seems-too-good-to-be-true aspects of their success, Midland’s artists are not just the creation of a savvy record label marketing executive. With 24Life cameras rolling, Wystrach and Duddy hesitate when asked what it is that holds such appeal. Wystrach says jokingly, “Magnetism is when two magnets go together.” Duddy adds, “The science of magnets is really something that escapes everybody [in the group].” Finally, Carson says, “It’s complicated to us.”
Pressed for more, Wystrach explains: “I think when people are living their true selves, when they’re actually exactly who they are, there’s no facades—I think those people are magnetic, and I think you can kind of tell that. But I would like to know the answer about how magnets work.” The group cites Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Brad Pitt and Bruce Springsteen as examples. Wystrach explains that Springsteen “feels like he’s just oozing his own story—people are attracted to that.”
Nevertheless, when asked what they experience from their fans, they demur. “I don’t know about that,” Duddy says. “But when you play a show live, you are creating an energy, there is definitely an energy, and if it’s going right, the charge is going back and forth from in the audience and then up onstage. If you’re playing a great show, you feel fully charged with energy when you’re done, you know? So hopefully, when you leave a Midland concert … it carries you into the coming days and weeks.”
What’s myth and what’s meaningful
Country artists have long enjoyed a certain mystique. Songs about long hours on the road, drinking and infidelity, crimes of passion, bad men and women with hearts of gold might be performed by artists who’ve lived out some of their lyrics. When the been-wronged, done-wrong attitude is part of the stage presence for artists with wholesome private lives, the appeal might be even stronger.
Wystrach shares with the fans at the meet-and-greet event that he’s expecting his first child. When a guest asks why the trio chose to live in Austin, Texas, instead of Nashville, Tennessee (or California, where Duddy’s from), Duddy says, “There are things you sacrifice not living there, and there’s things that you gain not living there. And that goes for everything from not being in the inner circle … to not being in the inner circle.”
Carson acknowledges the choice might impact the group’s visibility on the awards circuit. “The only award we want to know is selling out places consecutively and just making good music,” Wystrach adds. “We are who we are because we’re outside of the system,” to which a fan immediately responds, “Keep it up.”
All three members of Midland also seem to view health as wealth. Even on tour, they make a point of getting in some kind of fitness and eating as well as they can. Wystrach and Duddy will hit the gym and both enjoy golf. When their tour bus pulls into town, Carson loves to walk around and find the city’s hip little coffee houses and vintage clothing stores. “I sometimes walk 7 miles in a day,” he says, laughing.
Connected with country’s heavy hitters
When it comes to songwriting, the trio has a healthy commitment to quality over quantity. A fan asks how their third album is coming and Duddy and Wystrach play along:
Duddy: It’s great, man. It’s almost done.
Wystrach: It’s almost in the bag, dude. Yeah. We just wrote a couple of slammers on the golf course today. One is called—I got my toes in the sand of another bunker.
Duddy: It’s golfcentric—you know how Willy did that—was it Willy or—no.
Wystrach: Yeah. Slicing my life away.
Carson: If I ever get out of this bunker, alive.
Wystrach: We’re just focusing on trying to get to our first break of 2019, which will come at the very end of 2019, so … whatever we do, we’re always going to do stuff that’s top-shelf quality and soulful.
Duddy explains that the group was fortunate to start out working with some of Nashville’s biggest songwriting talent. Some of the best advice they received, Duddy says, came from heavy-hitter Dean Dillon: “He told us, ‘You’re going to want to make sure you’re writing a song that you’re OK with singing for 20, 30 years if you’re lucky enough.’” It was advice that Duddy says the group took to heart, working hard to avoid the clichés and tropes common to the genre.
Legends, and just living
While the members of Midland are reluctant to comment on their own appeal, it’s clear they understand the notion of magnetism as they’ve begun producing a podcast called “Set It Straight.” The podcast explores the legends—true or false—associated with artists and the music industry.
Wystrach says all three band members love to talk shop and are fascinated by music history. “One of the greatest thrills of doing this is getting to meet people who were there in the heyday of the music that we love. … It’s just about exploring these stories from the past when you were able to get away with crazy [stuff] and not go to jail.”
As for Midland, the answer to a fan’s question about life between shows goes something like this: “Paying bills, decompressing, doing the things that take you out of this. Family is important. And whatever is hot on Netflix.”
Video & photo credit: Tom Casey, box24studio.com
Photo credit: Harper Smith