Midland Surprises (& Arouses Suspicion) with Big Machine Debut EP

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There may be no better example of how the mainstream country music industry has completely bought into the shifting of the paradigm to more traditional and more substantive music than the signing of the band Midland to Big Machine Records. As inexplicable as Chris Stapleton’s run has been, as amazing as it is to see Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell selling out shows every night or William Michael Morgan and Jon Pardi impacting radio, it’s this pretty strange development that speaks to just how deeply rooted this movement has entrenched itself into the industry now.

Though you’ve probably never heard of them, and information is hard to find since their name is so similar to a score of other bands and projects making a simple Google search a bit of an adventure, Midland has been around for a good while. From Austin, TX (Dripping Springs specifically), they’ve been kicking around here and there, dabbling in different projects in LA and other places, and releasing music that initially was much more Americana-feeling, and more Eagles than Ernest Tubb.

But their first single “Drinking Problem” along with the rest of their just released EP has people doing double takes and wondering where in the hell Midland has been all of their lives, and what a company like Big Machine would want with them. It’s a new day though, and if you have half a brain on Music Row, you’re smart to diversify your portfolio with a band like Midland.

midland-epTheir EP is easy to like and takes no warming up to. It still remains a little more tied to the classic rock influence in country than a pure country effort. “Drinking Problem” has kind of a Jimmy Buffet, James Taylor feel to it, even if the lyrics are quite country in theme. “Check Cashin’ Country” is more authentic to the genre, but raises the question if an act on Big Machine has the authority to sing about hardships in the business—similar to the irony of Staind frontman Aaron Lewis releasing anti-country songs through his new Big Machine record. If nothing else, Scott Borchetta is making sure he’s covering all of his bases.

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. For every Grateful Dead there’s a Strawberry Alarm Clock, and it remains to be seen which side of that divide that Midland resides on, regardless of the dues paid in previous incarnations of the band.

“Drinking Problem” was co-written by Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne—two of the most dyed-in-the-wool Music Row songwriters in existence. For context, Shane McAnally produced both Sam Hunt’s Montevallo and Old Dominion’s Meat and Candy. McAnally is at the very core of the “Metro-Bro” movement, and now he’s writing classic country songs for Americana-level acts.

There’s also fair concern about the attention to styling that seems to permeate everything about Midland—their sleek suite of band photos, and even the final song on this EP “Electric Rodeo” seems to want to set a visual component to their music that precedes the music itself. This project could benefit from having a bit of dirt rubbed on it, and maybe lose a little bit of the sexpot posturing.

But all of these are concerns—though maybe warranted—still don’t seem to be able to erode the appeal of their music. Midland is just really great at what they do on this EP. You like it immediately, and can listen to it over and over. And whether you consider yourself a pure country fan or more Americana leaning, it’s still feels right down your alley.

It’s frustrating how the mainstream thinks you must release an EP from an artist before you can release their debut full-length. This robs the freshness and momentum from the music when the EP songs ultimately get recycled for the debut release. We saw some of this effect with William Michel Morgan. EP’s ultimately leave you wanting more, and with lingering questions, especially when so little is known about a band like Midland.

But this EP gets you really excited about what a band like Midland could do, and the fact that it exists within the fold of the mainstream industry shouldn’t just rouse our suspicions, it should speak to how much progress has been made in the last few years.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)