Album Review – Midland’s “Let It Roll”

Authenticity has always been one of the most essential ingredients to the best of country music. But “authenticity” is a very loaded term. It can denote if an artist comes with the type of credentials that can endear them to a country music audience beyond the music itself. Is the artist from the American South, Texas, the interior West, or the central valley of California—the primary origination points of original country music? Did they grow up poor, or on a farm or ranch? Did the work in a factory or construction, go to prison, serve in the military? There are a host of qualifiers that can be used to endear or embellish the character of a country star to sell that coveted “authenticity” ingredient that an audience often craves from their favorite country stars.

But over the storied history of the music, the holy ghost of country has inhabited the souls of countless musicians and performers who don’t fit any of these requisites, or even had narratives that worked against them. Hank Snow was from Canada, but is one of the most iconic country stars of all time. Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel is originally from New York, but has singlehandedly been keeping Western Swing alive. Gram Parsons was the rich kid that migrated to California and started making country with hippie bands, but helped spread the appreciation for country music among the counterculture more than anyone else. Though country cred will always be a quotient in country music to calculate a given performer’s supposed “authenticity”—and arguably should be to some extent to help keep the music grounded in its roots—these rules should also be expendable if the quality of the music and the heart displayed by the artist shines through.

The true authenticity that should be insisted upon by all country music fans is if the artist is true to themselves, and their own story. This is where the band Midland ran afoul with many country fans, especially in Texas, when their yarn about spending years sweating it out in Austin honky tonks was clearly and demonstrably embellished, and easily and summarily debunked when they first came on the scene. These weren’t Austin natives and honky tonkers. Bass player Cameron Duddy had won VMAs directing videos for Bruno Mars, and sold a million-dollar estate in Southern California to purchase another million-dollar estate in Austin’s Dripping Springs community during the formation of the band. Lead singer Mark Wystrach grew up on a ranch, but had worked as an underwear model and starred in soap operas.

And when confronted about these inaccuracies, Midland doubled down on their tales of barely being able to make rent, and paying dues for years in Austin haunts. Sure, the trio played a few shows at Poodie’s out in the Texas Hill Country, and some one-off gigs at Hole in the Wall and The White Horse in Austin. But all of this was part of a calculated plan to present the narrative of authenticity they believed would set them apart from the often soulless and manufactured Music Row stars they would shortly become peers of. It wasn’t just the embellishment and outright lies that angered many fans, it was that a band like Midland could ride into Nashville, and immediately overshadow artists who embodied that hardscrabble Austin honky-tonk existence Midland was trying to emulate through their country music cosplay.

Midland signed to Big Machine Records via Cameron Duddy’s deep contacts in the music industry. The producer and co-writer on many of their songs was Shane McAnally, who was the puppetmaster behind Sam Hunt and other gross offenders from mainstream country music. Midland wasn’t a true Austin honky tonk band rising to the top against all odds, they were the Music Row machine incorporating this narrative to swindle country music fans, and re-integrate disenfranchised listeners back into the mainstream fold in a big marketing bamboozle.

But ultimately it’s the job of every truehearted music fan to shove all of these nonessential elements aside, open their hearts to a song and ask, “Is the music any good?” But Midland made this especially difficult to impossible to do so for many with their first record, because the marketing preceded and outpaced the music so demonstrably, you couldn’t get away from it. To buy into Midland, you had to buy into their marketing. To avoid it, you had to shun all social media, shield your eyes from their ridiculous promo photos of the band all decked out in high dollar Nudie fashion, and suspend disbelief. It wasn’t just that they lacked authenticity. They symbolized the antithesis of it.

Artistically and logistically, nothing has changed between Midland’s first record On The Rocks, and their new record Let It Roll. Most of the songs are still co-written by Shane McAnally. The album was produced by the unholy country music trinity of Dan Huff, Shane McAnally, and Josh Osborne (who also handles a lot of writing). The Midland members are also in the songwriting credits, but who knows how much they truly contributed. To tell someone they should stare straight past all the danger signs posted all over this project and not be offended by what Midland embodies would be against the principles of any concerned citizen of the country music community.

But to completely discount in entirety the importance Midland is having in revitalizing the authentic sound of country music in its most consumed and wide-reaching realm of the mainstream is to arguably be just as foolhardy, and unfair. Let It Roll is not a great country music album. But it is a great country music album for the mainstream, and perhaps one of the best that will be released all year. The adherence to the roots and modes of country music in this record is both admirable and undeniable, in both the songwriting and instrumentation. When considered with an open heart, the songs of Let It Roll allow that love for country music to well up in the soul. In short, it passes the listening test.

“Fourteen Gears” was a song that some considered the band’s best, and many were forlorn that it didn’t make it on the first album. But it appears on this new one, even if the demo version was better. “Mr. Lonely” and “Playboys” are just fun, easy-to-love country songs that make you smile. “Cheatin’ Songs” and “Every Song’s A Drinkin’ Song” might be songs about songs, but they’re good ones, and allow that sweet nostalgia for country music gone by to fill your senses. And Midland has a style. It’s not their own style. It’s sort of this combination of classic honky tonk and Eagles-era California country, but it works, and it’s fetching, with ample steel guitar and half-time beats, moody moments and sweaty tones that sound like country music is supposed to, even when they insert a bit of classic rock and folk pop sensibilities into the mix to endear themselves to a wider audience.

Midland is mostly style, and this is a fair concern. But a few songs like “I Love You, Goodbye” and the final track “Roll Away” dig a little deeper, or at least try to. It’s also fair to point out that they could have gone contemporary with their second record now that they’re popular, and didn’t. But when considering the music as a whole, and not on a sliding scale due to it emanating from the mainstream, it’s still pretty thin, and somewhat dependent on the flashy promo photos, throwback garb, and marketing push to create a full bodied experience. Kacey Musgraves can write circles around these guys, and they couldn’t even get juried into something like AmericanaFest. Yet they’re still leagues ahead of many of their mainstream contemporaries.

The effort to save country music must be a pragmatic one. Classic country like the stuff Midland is peddling has become a hot commodity in the mainstream and beyond in the last couple of years, and don’t question for a second that Midland and their big radio singles haven’t been a catalyst for this positive development. As much as Midland might overshadow authentic Austin honky tonk bands like Mike and the Moonpies, Dale Watson and his Lonestars, or Croy and the Boys (who just released their own record), they also might become a bridge for those who like what they hear to start digging for something a little deeper and more authentic.

There is some fat on Let It Roll. It could be trimmed down to 10 songs easily, and some of the refrains and arrangements on certain songs don’t really work as intended. And with a band like Midland, it’s essential to point out that most of the magic is being done by the guys on the backline being paid a salaries as opposed to royalties. Midland is the Monkees of country music. But The Monkees did a pretty good job bringing all those Neil Diamond-penned songs to life if we’re being honest.

There should be no forgiveness for Midland and their naked plays to piggy back off the authenticity of actual Austin honky tonk bands until they ask for it, and the marketing run up to the release of Let It Roll was not much better than with their debut record. But if country music is ever going to be saved, the mainstream must also be conquered, and it’s going to take savvy marketers like the ones behind Midland to help do it. These guys are still turds. But it’s time to bury the hatchet, to be the bigger people in the room, to recognize the good they’re doing and the quality behind their efforts beyond the qualifiers, and say, “If you want to help make classic country cool again, fine by us.”

Midland will never be the authentic Austin honky tokers they tout themselves to be. But they can be authentic to themselves, which is the challenge we all face when trying to find ourselves, when trying to win acceptance from the world at large, while also trying to carve out our unique place in it. And if they did, it would allow their music to reach an even wider audience of true country fans who want to like their music through all the trepidation. Because the music is there.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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