It's been more than 20 years since the late sociologist Richard Peterson argued, in his landmark book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, against the perception that country music tends to evolve in one direction, from traditional sounds toward pop-influenced ones. Peterson mapped out an ongoing dialectic between "hard-core and soft-shell expressions," pointing out, for instance, that country's commercial momentum shifted from uptown Adult Contemporary balladeers like Barbara Mandrell, Anne Murray and Kenny Rogers to a new crop of down-home neo-traditionalists like Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and the Judds over the course of the 1980s.
If anything, distinctions between different aesthetic and cultural sensibilities have gotten increasingly blurry. The past decade has, after all, been one of male hit-makers borrowing heavily from contemporary pop, rap and even emo, while also doubling down on rural signifiers and settings in song lyrics and videos. Few of those acts would fall into country's crooning tradition, but a number of them have learned suave phrasing from contemporary R&B and hip-hop. More and more, they've focused on channeling muscled-up masculinity into gentility.
Midland emerged into a country world in flux. In 2016, the Texas-based trio — comprised of Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson and Cameron Duddy — had detected enough of an overlap in the ways their musical minds worked to leave behind other careers and form a canny, harmony-centric country band, catching listeners off-guard with a taut album, On the Rocks, full of vintage reference points. Now, with a '90s country revival gathering steam in the mainstream, Midland's mining of the past doesn't seem so isolated. But its sophomore album, Let It Roll, is a showcase of the subtle arts that distinguish the band. Connoisseurship and finesse are Duddy, Carson and Wystrach's preferred tools. Theirs is a different understanding of softness.
Country acts have various ways of emphasizing their authorship of, or connection to, their material — presenting it as autobiographical, or personally meaningful, or great fun to play live. But the guys in Midland — who are all singers, songwriters, instrumentalists and arrangers and work closely with their producers Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Dann Huff — put their biggest stamp on their music with their craftsmanship.
They've come up with some luxurious melodies, like the one that drifts at a plaintive, sensual pace through the Latin-tinged, Orbison-esque "Put the Hurt on Me," and the one that makes a sleekly syncopated ascent through the verses of "I Love You, Goodbye," a song that proposes a placid ending to an affair. They apply the subtle art of dialed-back intensity during the title track's lulling bridge and the molten, quiet storm-like passage that arrives late in the riff-driven, southern rocker "21st Century Honky Tonk American Band."
Wystrach, who most often sings lead, plays up the wryness of his drawled enunciation during the wordplay-filled honky-tonk shuffle "Every Song's a Drinkin' Song." When the group is at its prettiest, his reedy, crooning delivery lands like a string of yearning sighs, with Duddy and Carson's harmonies nestled above, misty and pristine.
They tend to invoke specific styles and eras with lavish attention to detail. Take "Cheatin' Songs," whose lyrics reference the 1981 Conway Twitty single "Tight Fittin' Jeans" and whose clean-toned electric guitar figures sinuously anticipate the groove in a way that echoes the silken, danceable sounds of that underappreciated era.
That's one of two cheating tunes on the album, a robust songwriting tradition that ebbed as the format became more focused on soundtracking spring and summer breaks. Just as much as the members of Midland are taken with old styles, they're also interested in finding new applications for country music's worn-in, old moves — its patient romancing or unreserved pleasure-seeking — and in vantage points seasoned by experience.
Sometimes that means inhabiting unscrupulous characters. During "Playboys," a toast to road-dogging male musicians enjoying a footloose and faithless existence, the macho lack of concern feels very knowing: "She's already gone away, boys/If we don't go home what difference does it make, boys/This old world would be a dull place, boys/If it was all work and no play, boys." But Midland's most mischievous use of perspective and tone comes during the rollicking, '90s-influenced line dance number "Mr. Lonely." The song's sleazy, sexually confident protagonist boasts of all the action he gets picking up women on the rebound. The self-awareness that the trio brings to tunes like that could even be taken as an arch rejoinder to some recent performances of masculinity. It's clever stuff.
NPR got on the phone with Carson, Duddy and Wystrach, who were dispersed in Austin and New York between tour dates. While it's not their style to intellectualize what they're up to on their new album, they're all about discussing the attention they give to their craft.
NPR Music: From the moment you emerged, people engaged with what you do on multiple different levels — as fun music, as clever craftsmanship, as a knowing reference to other eras and a departure from what's currently going on in the mainstream. Where have you directed your attention with your second album? What are you offering people who just want to have a good time and those listening a little more analytically?
Mark Wystrach: I don't think that affects our approach. We're doing our thing, and we've been doing our thing since kind of the beginning of this band five years ago, and it's evolving and growing for us as musicians and as entertainers. But we're just going out there and trying to put on a better and better show. After every show we're trying to learn something. We're trying to understand the dynamics and we're trying to get the show tighter and tighter. ...To hear [the songs] live, we want people to say, "Wow, that was even better than the album."
I hear unexpected details on the album, little left turns in the melodies, bridges that usher in tonal shifts, parts weaving in and out of arrangements. Are there particular things that you've honed during the process that you were just describing?
Cameron Duddy: Thank you for acknowledging that we do deliberately write music that does that. That's what keeps things fresh right?
That's what I'm interested in hearing about — what you've played around with in order to keep it fresh for yourselves.
Duddy: It's going to be equal parts from wanting to impress your peers, but also make [the tracks] not too heavy and boring for your average listener. I think, really, if you fully distill it down, the basic of it is that it's because we are a band and we play our instruments both onstage and in the studio that we allow ourselves the room to do that in our recordings and in our songs. If you're just a singer or a solo act that doesn't necessarily record on the album that you're singing on — insert anybody's name or many people's names in country music right now — I don't think that becomes a priority for you.
[Let It Roll is] an evolved version of the first album. The arrangements are elevated, the vocal performances — not just the harmonies, but the leads — are better and took less time to get to in the studio. The powers of the three voices coming together, I feel like they are mixed louder on this album. We made that intentional, because we're more comfortable with it. I know we talked a lot about harmony and its importance on the first album and then we went out and toured it for two years and never waned on that feeling. ... That's why we bring it up — because we're proud of it. We're proud of the work that we've done.
One of the lines that stood out to me on Let It Roll was "Yeah, it's been a while since country music loved a fool." Could you expand on that? What sorts of characters, perspectives and storylines do you feel have been absent in a lot of recent country songwriting?
Wystrach: The three of us, we all study music from all different colors and shadings of it and different spectrums. But the thing that drew us together and our overlap in taste in music is that craftsmanship. Like, you can tell the difference between a Porsche 911 and a Ford Tempo. Yeah, they're both cars and they both have wheels and an engine, but there is an attention to detail and quality in music that we are all attracted to that comes in songwriting and things that maybe people have steered away from, at least as far as the popular radio goes. ... I think there's a cleverness that can go into the songwriting that can make it approachable, but also layered and dynamic.
What I what I'm getting at is that there are several songs on Let It Roll that feature cleverly written and proudly sleazy characters. So you sometimes sing from the perspectives of these guys who aren't even trying to pretend that they're aboveboard, while a lot of other male artists in Nashville emerged from the bro movement working overtime to project gentlemanly qualities. That's an interesting contrast.
Duddy: I think a good movie, a good song, a good story, a good piece of art, a lot of the times it's not your everyday character that gets the spotlight. It's the people that are in some sort of struggle that we write stories about. That's just your storytelling 101: it has to be a conflict. The characters that we like to write about, that we like to listen about in songs, are usually the dudes that kind of live in the fringes or the gray area of life. Because I feel like we all believe that there really isn't a black and white version of getting through this thing in one piece. It's really kind of like empathy in a way, and therapeutic to kind of explore these guys in a creative and fun way and not have to live those characters.
You set the tone for this album cycle with "Mr. Lonely," a tongue-in-cheek song with a very sexually confident protagonist. You put out a video of women doing a choreographed line dance to it, followed by a video with Dennis Quaid playing the character comedically. Then you had a flash mob do the dance in downtown Nashville during CMA Fest. And your "Mr. Lonely" merch includes T-shirts and condoms with a logo riffing on the Playboy bunny. What narratives about country music and sex are you playing with?
Jess Carson: "Mr. Lonely" is an irreverent honky-tonk song that's supposed to make people get up and dance and have a good time. That character, that's still a thing that exists. In this modern day and age, sexuality, etc. is evolving and changing, but there's certain elements of attraction and that element that's always gonna be alive — you know the good old meeting at a bar, quick romances and whatnot. But I will say "Mr. Lonely" is about treating a girl right. And it can go for anybody — girls treating their guys right, guys treating their guys right. It is about, "Pay attention, love them and be a good partner, otherwise Mr. Lonely's going to come in there." You know, it's not meant to be taken very seriously. It's an irreverent dance anthem, if you will, written a lot in the vein of George Strait's "Fireman." In that case, it's definitely an archetype and a character, a study of a character.
You make no secret of the fact that you have settled home lives, but you also sing about these footloose outlooks. What's it like inviting listeners to use their imaginations at a time when a number of country artists make fairly literal connections between what they sing about and who they are? Who's responded to the way you expand ideas of authenticity?
Wystrach: I think if you come if you come to our shows, you'll see an incredibly diverse fan base. So I don't fully know how to how to respond to that. But what we're doing is somehow speaking to the young, to the old, to the hardcore country fans. I'm in New York City right now and I went walking through the Lower East Eide part of town. I'm just wearing my workout shorts and coming from the gym and I got stopped three different times by three totally different people that, if I was just to be looking for our fans, I wouldn't consider that. It's all over the place, people that are interested
... I'm not sure what people are picking up on or what's attracting them to our music and our sound and our vibe, but I'm surmising that it has something to do with [us being] artists that are that are chasing something kind of soulfully...
Carson: Let me offer an additional adjective. Soulful? Yeah sure, absolutely. I think in addition to that, it also happened to be that country music has completely homogenized in the last decade. I mean, look, we are about as different as you can get from what everybody else is doing.
The reason why this album, I feel like, is so important is because it's not only about looking different and sounding different and talking about different s***, doing it differently on stage. I feel like this album really solidifies that this is not a f****** joke. You know what I mean? Like, we didn't grow these mustaches because it's f****** "Mustache November." [I] do that because I love Dickey Betts and I want to look like that guy. It all just goes to what is turning us on.
... This wouldn't have gotten to the second album if we weren't for real, if we weren't real musicians and performers and serious about our songwriting and our craft on stage. It would have fizzled out. But the fact that we're continuing and there's a lane for that is, I believe, because there's just there's no other Midland.