Mark Wystratch and Cameron Duddy are just finishing up lunch when a text message arrives from Jess Carson, the third member of their country music trio, Midland. “Look at these pants!” Carson texts with an accompanying photo of suede Levi bell-bottoms.
Wystratch and Duddy perk up; they had planned to take it easy before their show tonight at the Denver’s Grizzly Rose, having just flown in to Colorado following a wild party the night before at NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson’s house in Charlotte, North Carolina. That had been a hard-drinking affair: Johnson showed the Midland guys his airplane hangar of a man cave, which houses his cars and a fully stocked bar. There, Wystratch, fresh off a year of record-breaking alcohol consumption (his words, not mine), continued the trend. Duddy, trying to start the new year on a “clean streak,” stuck to beer.
Yet even while nursing hangovers, Wystratch and Duddy can’t resist Carson’s texts; as obsessive vintage clothing shoppers, they had to know where Carson found these sick suede pants while exploring Denver alone.
“Where the fuck are you!?” Wystratch shoots back.
Goldmine Vintage, a second-hand clothing store on Denver’s Broadway thoroughfare, turns out to be within walking distance of Wystrach and Duddy’s lunch spot. When they arrive, Carson is so caught up in his treasure hunt he doesn’t bother saying hello to his bandmates.
In fact, it’s not until that evening, when the band invites me onto their tour bus, that the trio compares purchases. Opening a shopping bag, Wystratch surveys Carson’s finds: a faded red Stevie Ray Vaughan t-shirt, a collared shirt with neon-colored clams on it and some shorts featuring stenciled beer bottles that, at a quick glance, could be mistaken for boxer briefs.
“This isn’t new. We didn’t invent having style and playing music at the same time.”
“I wouldn’t put those under a black light,” Duddy jokes. He adds, “We’re like a gaggle of high school girls after they go prom dress shopping. The curtains open up and we’ll say, ‘What do you think of this?’”
As this makeshift fashion show unfolds, I can’t help but notice how Midland’s bargain discoveries starkly contrast the interior of their luxury tour bus, a sleek shuttle featuring built-in leather couches, Formica countertops and a flat-screen TV. “It has an Aspen timeshare vibe,” Wystratch cracks when he sees me checking out the bus. “Either that, or a dentist’s office.”
The luxury bus is a useful, if slightly on the nose, metaphor to describe Midland’s meteoric rise as a celebrated country music act. Just two years ago, the trio was touring in a rented Econoline van. Then it was a 1970’s-styled Winnebago nicknamed “Thor” and now, as they head into national tours with Little Big Town and Thomas Rhett, Midland has upgraded to an Aspen timeshare on wheels. Midland’s trajectory has indeed been swift and successful; the band got its start when the three members jammed at Duddy’s wedding in Wyoming in August 2013. Sensing chemistry, the musicians relocated to Dripping Springs, Texas, where from 2014 to 2016 they put their songwriting and performance chops through trials by fire in famed honky-tonks like Poodie’s Hilltop Roadhouse. Finally, after winning support from Nashville mainstay Big Machine Records, Midland released their debut single, “Drinkin’ Problem,” last summer followed by a debut album, On the Rocks, in September.
The group’s throwback sound—Wystrach’s vocals emulate Merle Haggard, bassist Duddy riffs are reminiscent of Bakersfield sound and Carson noodles his guitar like Willie Nelson—has proven itself a hit with country music fans. After its September 22th release, On the Rocks peaked at number two on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart and “Drinkin’ Problem” has garnered two Grammy nominations.
Midland’s mainstream appeal, as well as embrace by Nashville’s movers and shakers, suggests they’re the next big thing in country music but alas, a frustrating debate has dogged them since their breakout, a discussion—and perhaps a superficial one—over the trio’s credentials. Put simply, are they authentic enough?
The question of authenticity has pestered rising country artists as of late as more Nashville singers have seamlessly crossed over into other genres. Take Sam Hunt, for example, who, after showing up in a pink suit at the 2016 Grammys, released “Body Like a Back Road,” a crossover hit that got major pop radio airplay. Of course, Taylor Swift’s sway away from the genre that catapulted her to fame has been well documented. What’s bizarre for the Midland boys, however, is that most of this authenticity debate is based on not how they sound but how they dress, which may best be described as a ménage of Elvis’s Graceland sensibilities and what you might find at a flea market in Tulsa. Other times, their look suggests cherry-picked aspects of the Marlboro Man combined with the fashion of Austin’s moustached hipsters.
The band insists no one is costuming them simply to broaden their appeal, and the shopping episode in Denver is exhibit A. There are no label executives or focus groups advising these men on their rockabilly-rhinestone aesthetic.
With the excitement of their first Grammys ceremony ahead, Midland is ready to put discussions about their country cred to rest. And when it comes to their fashion choices, Carson can’t help but roll his eyes. “This isn’t new,” he says, gesturing to the vest he wore earlier that day. “We didn’t invent having style and playing music at the same time.”
The point of origin for the authenticity discussion around Midland is referred by bandmembers simply as “the article.” To this day, Carson claims to be the only Midland member to have actually read the article, which he paraphrased for Wystratch and Duddy after it was published on September 25, 2017 on the blog Savingcountrymusic.com.
Penned by Kyle Coroneos (who writes under the pen name Trigger), the screed starts:
I can’t stand these Midland guys. I can’t stand their faces, I can’t stand their bullshit Tom Selleck circa 1985 mustaches, I can’t stand their stupid getups, or the fact that they’re making a mockery of the authenticity of scores of Austin-based country artists, and legions of traditional country performers across the globe with their false narrative about beating it down the highway for years and paying dues in dives bars and honky-tonks.
If Trigger’s article lit the match, Rolling Stone provided the gasoline. The music magazine found Trigger’s blog post and published a follow-up titled “How Midland Epitomize the Authenticity Debate in Country.” It’s remains one of the top search results when you google them.
When I ask about both hot takes, the guys make it known this is a sore subject. “It’s some troll who lives in his mom’s garage in Texas who writes salacious, unprovoked and lazy journalism,” Duddy says. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore…we’re standing here, we play music, we write good songs.“
Without further prompting, Wystratch continues, "I’d say that 95 percent of people aren’t having an authenticity debate about us, there’s just one loser.” The discussion continues for another 20 minutes, and understandably so.
The band has also been criticized for their former careers. Wystratch has come under personal attack for being a former underwear model and Duddy for having directed a hit Bruno Mars music video, the MTV Video Music Award-nominated “24K Magic.” On the latter point, Carson says he’s confused about why that’s a bad thing. “Frankly, the fact that we got to work with Bruno Mars is one of the coolest things that we’ve gotten to do,“ he says. Duddy has even used his talents to help produce Midland music videos. (Wystratch’s model looks haven’t hurt with attracting female fans, either).
The irony is that none of Midland’s critics, including those like Trigger who feel ordained to “save” country, take issue with Midland’s actual songwriting. On speakers, Midland is universally beloved. Ask them about their influences and their tone switches from defensive to genuine obsession. They have stories related to each of the names they list as personal favorites: George Straight, Earl Jackson, Garth Brooks, Dwight Yoakam, the Eagles, Gary Stewart…
"And when the three of us come together, it’s got all of that stuff in it,” Wystratch says. “So my take is see us live and listen to the music. If you want to actually know our story, how far back me and Cam and Jess go to meeting in Los Angeles almost 10 years ago, how long we’ve been involved in music, the fact that I grew up on a cattle ranch and my family has run a live music honky-tonk since 1977—you better believe that we have sacrificed everything. And there’s been blood, sweat, and tears along the way. You can’t fake this, man.”
At this point Duddy cuts in. “But I also want to say that growing up on a ranch—that’s your truth, [Mark]. But that doesn’t qualify you to play country music. Country music is about this.” He pauses to dramatically pound his heart.
“I grew up in California, and I love country music. I would hate to turn away any kid reading an article or listening to an interview who’s sitting in a fucking high rise in Manhattan and have them say, ‘Well fuck, I guess I can’t play country music because I didn’t grow up on a ranch.’”
“Ok. Got it. I hear you on the music,” I say, trying to calm things down. “What about your style? What do you say to people who think it’s a fabrication?”
The band recounts how they’ve all shopped for vintage since they were in their teens. “I think we’ve all romanticized the 1960s’ and 1970s’ musician look,” Duddy says. "When you’re strumming on your guitar in your room at 8 or 9 years old, it doesn’t stop. The hair, the guitar, the clothes—it’s part of the whole thing. None of us puts sweatpants on after the show. This is our shit. This is what we wear.”
And there have been some hard months on the road. Wystrach says last year, the band put in 300 days of work (and perhaps 300 days of drinking, too). The bandmembers have nearly burned out at times, relationships have been stressed, all leading to an out-of-nowhere debate over authenticity.
“The thing that drives me is just knowing that you’re going on stage and you get to play for these people,” Wystratch says, gesturing outside the tour bus toward the Grizzly Rose. After wetting dry throats brought on by the high altitude with tequila and beer, Midland takes the stage before hundreds of screaming fans at the famed Denver country music club that plays up Western shtick to a stereotypical degree. Wagon wheel spokes. A huge dance floor for two-steppin’. Not one but two mechanical bulls.
The place is sold out, but Midland’s sound dominates, punchy, crisp and balanced by the trio’s carefully crafted vocal harmonies, an increasingly rare find among country bands. Midway through the set, they’re rewarded with a bag of weed someone hurls on stage.
“You should call Texas and tell 'em what’s up!” Wystratch jokes when he picks up the pot. A bra gets flung up next.
Earlier, the band told me this sort of gift-giving isn’t unusual. Most often, fans will buy Midland drinks. But Duddy has found everything from salacious love notes to a drawing of the band by a little girl tucked into his guitar case. A woman even stitched a jacket for the band’s dog, Randy Travis, who Wystratch jokes is a "south Texas pussy hound.”
There’s not a dull moment during the set, but what the audience wants doesn’t come until the encore. They go wild as Midland launches into “Drinkin’ Problem,” the song that’s earned them two Grammy nominations, one for best country song and one for best country duo/group performance.
They’ll find out on January 28th at Madison Square Garden if the hit gets them one or two of the coveted awards. “To have had something as material as a Grammy nomination when you’re going home for the holidays and talking to the family, that’s already been huge,” Carson says.
In anticipation of their red-carpet moment in New York City, each member has designed his own outfit. “But none of us knows what the others are going to wear; it’s all cloaked in secrecy,” Wystratch says. “For the award shows, we very much take a cue from Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Gram Parsons, Elvis—they stepped it up for that kind of stuff. It’s where you get to play the star. So we’re going to do it up.”
Does “doing it up"—and on a national stage, to boot—come with worries it’ll fuel more criticism? “Look, you have to have some sort of junction with this kind of shit in your career,” Duddy points out. “Hopefully we just get it over with now and swing the pendulum back toward producing music that’s thoughtful and is fun to listen to.” Plus, Wystratch says Midland has a motto that keeps them true to their roots: “We like being the hardest working band while also having the best fucking time.”