You wouldn’t expect a country trio that sounds like The Eagles to be signed to Big Machine Records, but 2016 is full of surprises.
Midland, a trio from Dripping Springs, just released on Oct. 28 one of the year’s best country EPs through the record label best known for signing Taylor Swift. While that may sound like a stretch, Midland’s sound could not have arrived at a better time for mainstream country music. With their three-part harmonies and Dwight Yoakam-esque emotion, guitarist Jess Carson, bassist Cameron Duddy and lead vocalist Mark Wystrach have crafted a sound that feels lived-in but is entirely their own.
The group got together three years ago in Jackson Hole, Wyo. when Carson and Wystrach arrived to town early to be in Duddy’s wedding and started playing some music together.
“We’re all from different places, but we all wound up in California at the same time, and that’s how we all met at first,” Carson told me in a phone interview last week. “I’ve known Cam for more than 10 years, and Cam had played in bands with Mark, so that was the link.”
The wedding weekend collaboration came about with the three of them realizing they all liked country music, and they decided they needed to play as a group together.
“We wanted to do something with music, but none of us were sure about how that would work— we were just really serious about it,” Carson said. “We’ve mostly only been a band, in its current state, for about three years.”
Those three years included an early recording session in El Paso that yielded “Fourteen Gears,” the group’s first official collaboration. It also included thousands of hours of touring in Texas honky-tonks like Poodie’s Roadhouse, Broken Spoke and White Horse.
Now, they’re opening for the likes of Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam, and just signed with the aforementioned Big Machine Records.
“We went from struggling to get a gig to opening for Dwight, which was just crazy. And especially with meeting Willie, he’s such an icon. And since our EP came out, it’s just been insane the amount of press we’ve been getting. It’s been really surreal.”
Their self-titled EP was co-produced by Dan Huff and Shane McAnally*, and features co-writing credits from McAnally and Josh Osborne. Lead single “Drinkin’ Problem” was written with those two, a collaboration that Carson said was “as good as it gets.”
“It was just so natural writing with them, it came so quick, I think we wrote ‘Burn Out’ and ‘Drinkin’ Problem’ in the same session,” Carson said. “And they’re heavy hitters. They’re the type of people where you can’t stump them. They’ve just got a ton of country music knowledge. And I think they’ve helped us retain our own sound while keeping it current.”
The EP certainly sounds like a sound all its own. Aside from “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem,” there’s “Check Cashin’ Country,” a wry ode to backwoods Texas roads and the nature of the country music Midland wants to create; “This Old Heart,” a heartbreak song that sounds like it could have come from Alan Jackson circa 1994; and “Electric Rodeo,” a throwback to the 1970s, complete with rising strings.
If there’s a knock on the five-song EP, it’s that it sounds a bit too slickly produced at some points. Sometimes it feels like that Big Machine is humming right along, flexing its corporate muscle straight through the songs on down to the album art showcasing the trio in denim leaning up against a jukebox. After all, Midland sounds more traditional, and traditional country is a proven commodity now, especially after the rise of Chris Stapleton. Booking a group that sounds like The Eagles and looks like today’s top crossover stars is a no-brainer business decision.
But the EP hits you with its fresh new sound right away in a way that doesn’t beg for attention or demand that you take a listen. The songs are a wonderful reward for any country fan looking for something new.
And Carson said the group isn’t out to be labeled— that includes any “Texas country” or “Nashville country” categorizations.
“There was never a meeting where we said, ‘Hey, we want to sound like this,’ but especially with Cameron, The Eagles are one of his favorite bands, so the influence was definitely there. It all just grew out of our influences.
“I feel like Midland has a sound, and for better or worse, it’s different from other country that’s out there. I don’t feel like we fit into a category— are we a Texas band? Yeah. There’s a Texas-ness about what we do, and we have some songs about Texas. But we love Texas because it’s home and it’s where we set out to do our music. We’re resisting putting a brand on ourselves.”
As for a full album, fans will have to wait until sometime next year. But for right now, check out Midland’s EP on Spotify, featured below.
*Correction: Dan Huff and Shane McAnally are co-producers of the “Midland” EP. An earlier version of this blog did not include McAnally in that capacity.