Midland’s Mark Wystrach to SCM: “He is Gonna See Just How Country I Really Am!”

photo: Harper Smith / Mark Wyastrach in the middle

On September 29th, I took to Twitter to say, “Said my piece on Midland’s marketing as have others. Their music is better than most & life’s too short. Time to take the lessons & move on.”

And I meant it. Despite all my protestations on how Midland is portraying themselves, and being portrayed by their willing accomplices in the media, the music must be the ultimate arbiter in these matters. Please don’t mistake this as reservations or regrets for calling them to the mat for their embellished back story about dues paid in Austin and other concerns, but Midland’s music continues to be a sum positive for country, and that should be our underlying focus.

However, being called a “liar,” by both the artist in question and members of the media, especially when you’re a member of the media yourself where your integrity is so important, is something that must be taken seriously, especially when when words are being put in your mouth, opinions being assigned to you that are not the ones you hold, and these accusations of “lies” are often things that are not based around facts, but are opinions or assessments, often shared in a constructive manner.

The debate about Midland was never about if they were authentic enough to make country music, despite the way it has been portrayed by certain other publications or public figures who felt the need to weigh in on the issue. Let me repeat, the debate about Midland was never about if they were authentic enough to make country music. It’s completely understandable how that conclusion could be gleaned from the surface after zipping by this issue, but the argument made against Midland’s media portrayal was much more involved. The authenticity debate dovetails with the issues surrounding Midland, but the deeper issue was the inconsistencies and embellishment of their back story when the reality of things was something entirely different.

And if this debate is solely about authenticity, then why has Saving Country Music never questioned the authenticity of Florida Georgia Line, for example? It’s because Florida Georgia Line never portrayed themselves as anything than what they were, which was a couple of suburban rich kids who were influenced by country and hip-hop equally, and eventually met at Belmont University and started writing songs together. For who they are, Florida Georgia Line is actually quite authentic.

Some have brought up the name of Colter Wall as another artist that deserves criticism for not being authentic enough since he’s so young, and he hails from Canada where his dad is the affluent Premier of Saskatchewan. But Colter Wall isn’t out there portraying himself as anything. In fact, it’s impossible to find even a succinct biography on him. He lets the music speak for itself, which is exactly what Midland should have done.

Also, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that Saving Country Music is somehow the Genesis point, or even the primary instigator of these accusations against Midland. In fact if anything, Saving Country Music was a late bloomer. Well before SCM reviewed Midland’s EP in November of 2016, the trio was already receiving tremendous flack in the Austin and greater Texas markets for all the big talk about the dues they had paid, while little if anyone locally had heard or seen Midland in the honky tonks.

Saving Country Music was smattered with requests via emails, comments, and social media to expose this band and call their bluff, some even questioning if SCM was bias for shielding Midland from criticism. The concerns raised by others about Midland were alluded to in SCM’s initial EP review, but the conclusion was that it should be disregarded over the quality of the music. The same conclusion was also derived in the more in-depth analysis in the discrepancies in Midland’s back story months later in an article entitled The Midland Authenticity Dilemma.

The reason a site like Saving Country Music would even broach the issue of an artist’s back story is not because of bias, or anger. Ask yourself, if Saving Country Music had it out for Midland, what is the motive? Is it because they’re signed to Big Machine? That didn’t stop The Mavericks’ In Time being named Album of the Year in 2014. Is it a bias against anything touched by Shane McAnally? That didn’t hinder praise for William Michael Morgan’s “I Met A Girl.” If anything, the bias should be rooting for Midland since they’re a more traditional-style country band making strides in the mainstream—something Saving Country Music traditionally heralds over anything else.

It was never about how “authentic” Midland was. It was about their attempts to dramatically and unnecessarily embellish their back story to attempt to portray themselves as being more authentic than they actually were.

But the debate has continued despite Saving Country Music’s desire to focus back on the music, and now Midland’s lead singer Mark Wystrach has called Saving Country Music out by name, characterizing the Midland coverage as “lies” and “click-bait,” and even making veiled threats. Wystrach said to Lyric Magazine last week,

There are a few idiots writing lies about us, sure, but we’ve had real journalists, like Ann Powers from NPR and Wide Open Country who have done some real journalism, who have looked past page one of a Google search and de-bunked the click-baiters. If I ever meet that guy from Saving Country Music he is gonna see just how Country I really am!

Ooh! Tough guy. Is he going to go upside my head with one of his gaudy Concha turquoise neck pieces, or possibly one of bassist Cameron Duddy’s MTV Award statuettes?

Mark Wystrach goes on…

I grew up on a  working cattle ranch on the Mexican border and my parents ran a live Country music honky-tonk, talk about authenticity! He finishes every so-called article, though, with the line ‘…….but their music is good, so I’m really conflicted!’ It’s all smoke and mirrors and basically a gimmick to get clicks. He’s done no research, he’s never asked to meet us or come to see us live. What we do live you can’t fake. You can’t pay someone to fake play a magic guitar for you or fake sing. We just laugh at that stuff, man.

Of course, Mark doesn’t spend any time enumerating these supposed “lies,” because there aren’t any. Mark Wystrach was an underwear model. He did star on the NBC soap opera Passions for a stint. Bassist Cameron Duddy does comes from an extremely rich entertainment family, and is “best friends” with Bruno Mars (according to his own assessment). Duddy did use his friendship with Bruno to levy a major label recording deal with Big Machine Records. Duddy also did win VMA Awards before Midland formed, and Duddy’s wedding where the Midland band was hatched was covered in People Magazine.

Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it “fake news,” “click-bait,” or “lies.” All of the information presented by Saving Country Music is correct and verifiable. It doesn’t mean Midland is not authorized to play country music by some arbitrary set of rules, or that they don’t have some elements of their back story that do make them authentic, like Mark Wystrach’s time growing up on a cattle ranch. But it does mean you probably should soft-pedal your portrayal of yourselves as honky tonk road dogs when talking to the media if it’s heavily embellished or a downright fabrication, especially when you know there’s journalists, fans, and fellow artists wise to you.

Mark Wystrach also says to Lyric Magazine, “What we do live you can’t fake. You can’t pay someone to fake play a magic guitar for you or fake sing.” But nobody is accusing them of doing anything “fake” when it comes to the performance of their music. Aside from the passing Milli Vanilli joke maybe, there isn’t anyone saying they aren’t actually playing and singing their songs. It’s Midland’s own producer, Shane McAnally, who said himself, “I feel like we manifested [Midland], because this is our playground…” which brings about the “manufactured” accusations.

Also as Mark Wystrach mentioned above, Wide Open Country’s Jeremy Burchard wrote an article called The Truth About Midland, attempting to take Saving Country Music’s assertions about the band and deconstructing them one by one. But again, nothing that Saving Country Music has said about Midland has been debunked. Nothing. Other things being called “lies” or “fabrications” are simply opinions.

For example, it is the opinion of Saving Country Music that Midland did not play enough shows in the Austin area to be able to characterize their back story as a band that slagged it out in the honky tonks for years before they got their big break. Midland did play shows in the Austin area, and more than just the 4 Poodie’s shows that have been cited over and over in interviews and features. Saving Country Music has made mention of the additional shows every time the issue has been broached. Even by Wide Open Country’s count, Midland played roughly 15 shows total in Austin while coming up. Most true working bands in the Austin scene play that many shows in a month, and many play more than that. It’s not even close to the amount that one would need to characterize the band as having “paid dues” in the Austin scene by any stretch of the imagination.

Now again, that’s an opinion. And we can disagree. But it doesn’t make Saving Country Music’s characterization a “lie” or a fabrication.

Nor is it a lie when Midland bassist Cameron Duddy told The Los Angeles Times in late September, “Last year, I had to borrow money from our manager so that I wouldn’t lapse on my mortgage and that we could continue to put all of our efforts into Midland in the skinniest of times.”

The problem is, Cameron Duddy lives in a million-dollar house in one of the most expensive suburbs of Austin called Dripping Springs. According to public records, Cameron Duddy and his wife Harper Smith paid $1,080,000 for their 2,690 sq. ft. house with a 322 sq. ft. garage, pool, and over 21 acres of land in July of 2014. Again, does that preclude Cameron Duddy from being able to play country music? Of course not. But do you really want to hear a guy who is from an extremely wealthy family who made a mint off of producing Bruno Mars videos and had his wedding covered in People Magazine telling you a sob story about barely being able to pay his mortgage so you’ll believe his sad bastard country songs?

18 months before Cameron Duddy made his purchase, I, Trigger of Saving Country Music, purchased a house in the poor part of Travis County just outside of Austin for 7% of what Cameron Duddy paid for his. How many people do you know that live in million dollar homes? How many people do you know whose wedding was covered in People Magazine? You hate to continue to harp on the same points, but with the accusations of “lies” out there, it sure seems like the evidence is insurmountable at just how embellished the hardship portions of Midland’s back story are.

And this idea that people can’t speak with authority about Midland’s back story because they never seen them live or interviewed them is naive and irrelevant. One of the reasons Saving Country Music doesn’t interview any artists these days is to retain objectivity in an era where music media has become nothing more than a promotional arm for the industry. Interviewing artists is great, but when your job is primarily commentary and criticism, it can get in the way. One of the reasons Midland has been able to pull off this ruse is because they’re such charmers, and have cultivated cozy relationships with reporters who appear to be unwilling to question what they’re being told. One of the reasons I’ve personally never seen Midland play live is because I live in Austin, and they very rarely played here. I can say that with authority, as can dozens upon dozens of local Austin country bands and artist because they live here, and eat and breathe the Austin country scene.

And these true Austin artists are the ones suffering from the severe embellishment of Midland’s hardship story. This is not a victimless crime. Midland’s marketing team from the beginning tried to usurp the authenticity of actual struggling Austin bands, and overlay it on Midland to cover up their silver spoon past. Does that mean that Midland never struggled? Of course it doesn’t. Does it mean they can’t make good country music? Of course not. They are making good country music.

But Midland chose to put their narrative, and their image first, and that is why there was such a strong backlash. And when they were called out about it, they doubled and tripled down. Now they’re resorting to calling people “liars” and making veiled threats. And it’s not going to work. As Jeremy Burchard of Wide Open Country says, it’s “potentially damaging to a band that, despite their recent success, is still new to a lot of people.” This is exactly what Saving Country Music warned when reviewing Midland’s EP nearly a year ago. And those warnings were met with scorn when they were meant to be constructive. One of the reasons it is imperative to continue to make a big deal about this issue is because there is a cornucopia of lessons here on how not to market a band that should be heeded by independent artists, especially new ones looking to craft their narrative.

It’s unfortunate that the issue of Midland’s back story remains acrimonious, and that it needs to be broached once again. And I’m sure plenty will pipe up in the comments section complaining about the continued focus on this issue. But calling a journalist a “liar” is a pretty strong charge, especially when it’s untrue, and when pounded home with a cowardly, veiled threat.

Midland, Mark Wystrach, and the Millennial journalism corps can attempt to discredit Saving Country Music all they want, but this is already the most vilified site in country music, so it won’t even make a scratch, or make the issue go away. If anything, it just makes Saving Country Music’s star burn brighter. It’s the fact that everyone hates SCM in the industry that allows for such honesty, and that honesty is what draws eyeballs here because people understand they’re receiving the real deal, and not the spiel from some band’s label or publicist.

If Midland really wants all the controversy to go away, then they should put the music first, and shitcan all the over-the-top marketing and imagery. This is what Saving Country Music suggested a year ago, not as a scathing criticism, but as a constructive suggestion. Only by moving on will the music of Midland find the consensus behind it that it truly deserves.