This story has been updated (see below).
Despite attaining solid commercial success with a decidedly more classic country sound, Big Machine Record’s-signed throwback country band Midland have received ample amounts of criticism since appearing on the mainstream country music scene for attempting to portray themselves as a genuine Austin-based honky tonk band, while in truth being a trio of affluent and well-connected individuals from California, Oregon, and Arizona who moved to Austin to craft a manufactured narrative of authenticity.
On many occasions the band has touted their Austin authenticity with the help of the media, and even after receiving criticism for embellishing their backstory, they continue to drive home this idea.
On Wednesday, July 15th, The Washington Post published an in-depth article about Midland with writer Carlo Rotella tagging along to a Midland show at Schroeder Hall in Texas, and checking in with Big Machine CEO Scott Borchetta for selected quotes. The article also appeared as a centerpiece spread for Washington Post Magazine‘s Sunday edition on July 19th. But it’s not the puff piece content of the article that has many in Austin and beyond angered. It’s that an iconic, locally and black-owned business integral to the east Austin community was whitewashed in the featured image of the article in a bit of Midland marketing.
The picture at the top of the Washington Post article shows Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy hanging outside of a BBQ shack around a Cadillac with steer horns on the front. Many from Austin and beyond immediately noticed the storefront as that of the legendary Sam’s BBQ on on E 12th Street in Austin. But instead of the sign out front saying “Sam’s BBQ”—a sign many make a point to get a picture in front of whenever they make their way to that part of Austin—the name of the establishment is portrayed as “Playboys,” which is the name of one of the songs on Midland’s 2019 record, Let It Roll.
Perhaps for some who don’t understand the history of the Sam’s BBQ landmark, this may not seem like a big deal. But many in the Austin, TX community are up in arms over the photoshopped image. The switch was not disclosed anywhere in the article, and the name of the establishment is never given.
“The fact that a country band poses outside of a local black owned business (that has not only been affected by years of gentrification and now a pandemic ON TOP a period in our history of the most extreme civil unrest) AND photoshops the businesses name to a title of one of their songs…truly shows how out of touch they are,” once commenter said on Instagram. “There’s not enough auto tune in the world that could fix this level of being TONE DEAF.”
First established in 1957 by Sam Campbell, Sam’s BBQ was purchased by the Mays family in 1976, and has been a fixture of the east Austin neighborhood ever since. It is one of the last remaining landmarks from back when Austin’s black residents were segregated on the east side of the city. In 2018, the owners were offered $3.5 million, and then $5 million to sell the property to condominium developers, but refused both offers if the residents promised to continue to support the business, which they have loyally.
For many, Sam’s BBQ and its sign is a symbol of resistance to the rabid gentrification in the area, forcing many minorities out of their traditional neighborhoods in east Austin. That’s why the changing of the sign is seen as so offensive, especially at the hands of Midland and a major newspaper. Like many independently-owned restaurants, Sam’s BBQ has also been suffering though the COVID-19 crisis, and is currently only open for takeout.
“I didn’t give them permission to do what they did,” Sam’s BBQ owner Brian Mays tells Saving Country Music, who’s been hearing from angry customers over the image since it appeared online. “I remember they came and took pictures. They changed the sign on the computer. They had no business doing that. They didn’t play, they never paid me to do nothing, they just wanted to take pictures. It happened about a year, or year-and-a-half ago. Everybody takes pictures out here, but I didn’t know they were going to change my sign. It would have been alright, but they changed the sign, and I know they’re making money with it.”
The photos of Midland at Sam’s BBQ are attributed to Harper Smith. Dudley M. Brooks is credited for “photo editing” in the article, and the article was designed by Michael Johnson of The Washington Post. Saving Country Music reached out to The Washington Post for comment and clarification on who might have edited the image or if the paper knew about it, but has not heard back.
UPDATE: On Tuesday (7-21), The Washington Post changed the image and offered this statement on the article: “Correction: Portrait photographs of Midland were distributed to The Washington Post Magazine by Big Machine Label Group for use with this article. An authentic version of the opening photograph at top replaces the original promotional image the Magazine received from Big Machine.”
The incident is similar to criticisms Midland received promoting a show at the former location of The Palomino Club in Los Angeles. On October 8th, 2018, the original Palomino Club location was opened for a “one night only” event to benefit the Valley Relics Museum. Organized in part by Rebelle Road Presents, it featured Jim Lauderdale, Rosie Flores, James Intveld, and others performing at the once iconic country music club in North Hollywood, with promoters painstakingly working to present the Palomino like it appeared during its heyday.
A year later in October of 2019, Midland used the same basic concept to promote their own Palomino concert, with some locals noticing that they took photos from the original Palomino event to without permission to promote their concert. The band later released a live album of their Palomino set.
It’s not just the photoshopping of an image that ended up in The Washington Post that has many up in arms over the issue. It’s a prolonged pattern by the members of Midland to want to profiteer off the specter of authenticity that Austin and its institutions can provide. But when it comes to actually paying dues and paying tribute, it’s more about their personal image and marketing. Changing the sign of an iconic black-owned Austin institution to the name of one of their songs is just a typical Midland, and this time at the expense of a business that could have used the promotion during this difficult period.
This story has been updated (see below).