Despite The Quality of “On The Rocks,” Midland Are Still Bullshitters

midland

WARNING: Language

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.

We’ll get to the music in a second, but first I must say my piece.

The men of Midland are bullshitters, plain and simple. The first time I spoke about Midland, I attempted to coax these guys into slowing their roll on selling themselves as authentic Austin honky tonkers, and steeled in the hardscrabble existence of the dusty road, and I attempted to do so in a positive, constructive manner. While giving their EP a score of 8/10, I said,

The lingering concern with a band like Midland is if they have the real stuff to ingratiate themselves to grassroots fans, or if they’re more of the mainstream answer to a phenomenon that’s occurring outside of the industry’s influence that they wish to incorporate … There’s also fair concern about the attention to styling that seems to permeate everything about Midland—their sleek suite of band photos [which] seems to want to set a visual component to their music that precedes the music itself.

When that initial concern was met with consternation and rebuke by some of the band’s fans and surrogates, and as Midland ratcheted up their rhetoric on their Austin-bred authenticity even more, I felt an expose was in order, enumerating the multiple reasons why Midland was less than what they were selling, including the fact that any dues paying in Austin was fleeting at best, frontman Mark Wystrach was once an underwear model and soap opera star, Cameron Duddy was already a wealthy, successful member of the entertainment industry with MTV Video Music Awards on his mantle from working with “best friend” Bruno Mars, and how Duddy’s wedding where Midland was formed was covered in People Magazine. These guys, specifically Wystrach and Duddy, were part of the power elite of the entertainment world way before Midland even played a note.

But that hasn’t stopped them from attempting to sell themsleves otherwise. They’ve doubled, and now tripled down, aided by elements of mainstream country music media, especially Rolling Stone, which published yet another puff piece on the day of the release of the band’s debut album On The Rocks, all about how Midland is “rough and ready” to hit the big time after paying their dues in dive bars.

“Texas trio Midland knows a thing or two about dive bars – in fact, they just might be the biggest bar band in country music right now,” says the piece in Rolling Stone. “It’s appropriate, then, to meet them at one of Nashville’s best dives, Springwater Supper Club and Lounge … ‘We walked in here today and I immediately felt at peace in this place,’ Midland bassist Cameron Duddy says of Springwater. ‘Places like this all around the country, it’s where we got our 10,000 hours in.'”

Bullshit, Cameron Duddy. You didn’t put 10,000 hours into anything. You know it, and I know it. Everybody should know it, and it’s already been established as common knowledge that Midland’s embellishment of their time in dive bars is gratuitous. All you have to do is keep reading the Rolling Stone piece to confirm that.

“Springwater is not unlike the bar in Texas where Midland cut its teeth,” Rolling Stone says. “In fall of 2015, the trio held a month-long residency at Poodies Hilltop Roadhouse in Austin, a historic honky tonk just outside town where the band played hours-long sets on Tuesday afternoons to notoriously difficult-to-impress bar-goers.”

That means Midland played four fucking shows at Poodies. Four fucking shows, and somehow you’re going to equate that to getting your “10,000 hours” in? Sorry asshole, but you’re about 9,992 hours short. Hell I’ll even throw in a few more hours for Midland’s one-off shows at The White Horse and The Broken Spoke in Austin and make it an even 9,980. We’ve been hearing about this stupid fucking Poodie’s residency for the better part of a year as the sole justification for Midland’s “authenticity,” and it gets more ass chapping every time. Most Austin bands play four years of residencies, and still don’t get to hopscotch everyone in line because of their established connections in the industry.

midland-on-the-rocksI’ve had people up my ass for the last 72 hours asking, “Trig, where’s your Midland review dammit? You’re too slow these days!” I’ll tell you where it is, it got sifted to file 86. Five minutes before I was set to post my review of On The Rocks on the release day, this Rolling Stone piece can down the wires, and reading it made me so fit to be tied, I deleted the entire review, of which the upshot was, “Screw the worries of Midland’s authenticity. This is good music and you should enjoy it.”

But I can’t in good conscience sit here and allow the sainted Saving Country Music reader and the rest of the public to be lied to about these guys. Constructive criticism was tried. And when that didn’t work, it was elevated to stern warnings. But if anything, Midland’s increased the “hardscrabble bar band” rhetoric, even as they’re now the owners of a hit single on mainstream country radio in “Drinkin’ Problem.” They know it’s bullshit, but they’re banking on the bullhorn of Saving Country Music being too weak to be consequential, and when you have so many willing accomplices in mainstream country media who will never question Midland’s bullshit-ass “10,000 hours” claim, that’s probably a pretty smart bet to make.

Look, all artists lie, including independent and underground ones—or at least present a public persona that is not entirely true to their honest selves, for the purpose of marketing. I get that, and you should get that as a music fan, and always keep it in the back of your mind. But this Midland stuff is far and beyond. This is way more egregious than anything Sam Hunt does, because at least Sam Hunt is somewhat honest about himself and his influences and desires.

A guiding maxim of Saving Country Music from the very beginning has been to call into question the marketing of artists when it is presented in a discordant harmony with reality, but never let that affect the personal feelings about the music itself, which should be the most underlying concern. But I won’t lie, the flippant, audacious nature of Midland’s claims, along with their ostentatious posturing, has created an intellectual crisis within myself as a critic, and much soul searching as to how this should be handled.

The worst part about what Midland is doing is their exploiting the true authenticity that actually does exist in scores of Austin-based songwriters and performers who haven’t received an ounce of the assistance or attention from the industry that Midland has. It’s this poetic fancy in the minds of fans of the lowly, hardscrabble songwriter playing to a half-empty bar somewhere in Texas, hoping to be recognized by someone important in the industry so their dreams can finally come true that drives the public’s fascination with Midland. And Midland knows it. Texas is filled with these type of struggling performers, and that’s also where you’ll find reams of hatred for Midland, because they’re taking the sob story of every bar band and commercializing it.

Folks in Nashville think Midland is all hunky dory, and they could be the bridge between the independent and mainstream, the traditional and contemporary for country music, even more than Chris Stapleton. But in Texas, the Midland name is mud. The folks who actually have put in their 10,000 hours in dive bars in Austin, they know Midland never paid any dues. They know their names didn’t grace the crumbling marquee’s of Austin’s shitty venues more than once or twice. They know what a measly penance four shows at Poodie’s is compared to what most songwriters have put in. Folks in Nashville and L.A. say, “There’s somebody out there that don’t think these guys are cool?” Meanwhile you better not mention Midland’s name with anything sharp around when you talk to many true Texas songwriters and their fans.

And all of this is a crying shame, because the music of Midland and their debut album On The Rocks really is as good as advertised, is authentic honky tonk country at least in style, with steel guitar and superb arrangements. You want to find the best example of true traditional country that currently exists in the mainstream? Sonically speaking, it’s not Chris Stapleton, it’s not Eric Church, it’s not Miranda Lambert or even Jon Pardi. It’s Midland, with a hat tip to William Michael Morgan.

Give Midland credit for this: They figured out how to make traditional country cool again, and deliver it to the masses through Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label. This is an incredible feat that should be celebrated, and without caveat. The Midland sound is truly dedicated to traditional country, and not the “Eagles-esque” or “Laurel Canyon” sound that idiotic, ill-informed music writers are attempting to couch it as. Perhaps there’s some fleeting moments in that vein, but the best way to describe the sound of Midland is pre Class of ’89 traditional jukebox country music.

Though frankly, a lot of folks are getting so blinded by their enchantment with seeing a project like this come out of the mainstream that they’re missing the fact that Midland does suffer from a substance issues in much of the songwriting. A line about “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” in the chorus of “Out Of Sight” is just one of many examples of rehashed and hackneyed lines that leave much to be desired. A song like “Check Cashing Country” would be cool if it wasn’t such a play off of their bullshit, inauthentic media narrative.

And looking in the track list, many of the usual suspects of the Nashville machine appear in full force, including Shane McAnally with his seven songwriting credits and producer mark he accrued while fitting in Midland sessions between working with Sam Hunt and Old Dominion. Josh Osborne appears eight times in the songwriting credits, and is also credited as a producer. So as much as Midland is out there trying to make you believe this music is straight out of their rough and rocky honky tonk dive bar experience, these songs are actually straight off the Music Row songwriting conveyor belt, and produced in the belly of the beast. The only difference is the arrangement and instrumentation is traditional, though don’t sell that short as an important feat in itself.

That’s what makes the whole story of Midland that much more heartbreaking. These guys truly could have been the bridge between the independent and the mainstream, the contemporary and the traditional. The music is there, at least for the most part, and so are the opportunities to reach the masses. But they just couldn’t shut the hell up about how rough and seasoned they are from hard-earned years in Austin honky tonks to the point where they poisoned the well.

The point of criticism is not to vent anger, or enact some sort of revenge born from spite or jealously against artists. It is an attempt to share perspective to aid the creative process, and to see art thrive and succeed in the marketplace. Midland had a unique opportunity bestowed to them by Big Machine. And nobody would have given a shit how rich they were, what their background was, or where they’re from originally if they just would have let the music speak for itself, and would have stood on their own two feet as opposed to trying to bullshit their way into the hearts and minds of listeners. Cautious fans would have overlooked all the marketing and the ridiculous promo photos, or maybe even found them cool if the music had preceded it all as opposed to vice versa.

But Midland blew it. They bought into the idea that the music wasn’t enough—that traditional country can’t stand on its own, that they needed an interesting story to cover their tracks, and prove themselves to fans. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t say shit to the media, and comes out on stage in New Balance shoes. Chris Stapleton is a boring, puffy, bearded, soft-spoken introvert who brings his wife out on tour with him. And they’ve both been wildly successful. Not because they’re interesting individuals, or sexpots dressed up like Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman. It’s because they are who they are. And when the music is good, that’s all that should matter.

With Midland, they figured out how to screw that formula up.

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One Gun Up for really good traditional country music, served boldly through the stuffy environment of the mainstream.

One Gun Down for attempting to bullshit the public, and exploiting the authenticity of true Texas songwriters and bar bands.

(5/10)