Midland’s Songwriter & Producer Pretty Much Just Admitted They’re Manufactured

photo: Harper Smith/Big Machine

One of the criticisms of Saving Country Music in its coverage of Midland has been that we shouldn’t be focusing on a band’s backstory, and instead should put our focus on the music. But that has been the fatal flaw of Midland itself. They’re the ones avoiding talk of the music in the press and elsewhere, and instead are focusing on their backstory, and foisting their image to the forefront. And the reason is because Midland didn’t write their own songs, and had little say in the music itself, which makes them uniquely unqualified to speak about it.

When most bands or artists are interviewed, they talk about the inspiration behind certain songs—the cathartic moments they had penning intimate details of personal moments they share with the public through rhyme and verse. But Midland can’t do that because the music is not theirs. That’s why the backstory has become the focal point in interviews and features for the band as opposed to the music itself.

And the more Midland and the band’s surrogates talk, the bigger the hole they dig for themselves. This is exactly what happened in yet another puff piece on the band in Tuesday’s online edition of the Los Angeles Times, which is such a cornucopia bursting with incredible morsels of ridiculous notions and succulent quotations that expose the true nature of this outfit, it’s almost like a gift basket from the country music gods of truth.

Most notable is a quote from Shane McAnally—Music Row’s current songwriter and producer extraordinaire, who among other dubious distinctions, is the puppetmaster behind Sam Hunt and Old Dominion. Along with co-penning seven of the song on the new Midland album On The Rocks, he also helped produce the effort. And his quote not only exposes just how manufactured Midland is, it’s so incredibly honest and illustrative, it really helps to expose the entirety of the Music Row machine.

“I feel like we manifested [Midland], because this is our playground, writing songs for a 1982 George Strait,” says McAnally. “When these guys walked in and were a vehicle for those kinds of songs, and also quite capable of writing them as well, it was like [the movie] ‘Weird Science,’ like, it wasn’t our design, but it’s almost like we put into a machine what we wanted, and out came Midland.”

You “manifested” Midland? You “put into a machine” what you wanted, “and out came Midland?” They “were a vehicle” and your “playground”? Good Christ this is a quote that will keep on giving for years to come when talk turns to how artists and bands are groomed and coached on Music Row until they’re nothing more than constructs of commercial opportunism.

How many times have you seen the way songs, albums, and artists are constructed in mainstream country referred to as being like products off a conveyor belt? And here is Shane McAnally—inarguably the hottest producer and songwriter in all of country music (and really all of music at the moment)—pretty much admitting to what we’ve been saying for years about the mainstream, and what we’ve been saying about Midland for the past few months is: they’re just a vessel for preformulated musical products as opposed to an original act born of inspired works.

Look, when it comes to most mainstream acts these days, whatever name you may see on the front of an album or beside the title of a single, they’re nothing more than a “vehicle” (as McAnally says) for producers and songwriters like Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, who also has a hand in a majority of the songs on Midland’s debut album. Mainstream music is no longer about the artist. It’s all about the producer, and this is also true in pop, R&B, and hip-hop. Shane McAnally is the Max Martin of country music.

A lot of folks have wondered why a fan favorite song of Midland’s called “Fourteen Gears” did not make the new record. In fact at one point it was announced as Midland’s second single after “Drinkin’ Problem,” and even had a video released for it that has garnered nearly 2 million views. So where did it go? The answer is that “Fourteen Gears” was most likely pulled last minute after the commercial success of “Drinkin’ Problem” because it was not part of the Music Row/Shane McAnally/Josh Osborne songwriting/producing machine, and those principals couldn’t profiteer from “Fourteen Gears” like they can the current single, “Make A Little,” which was written by Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

“Fourteen Gears” was written by Midland lead guitar player Jess Carson, with some help from Cameron Duddy and Mark Wystrach, and no involvement from the professionals. One of the biggest scourges on Music Row at the moment is the insistence of labels to only release singles when they have tried and true songwriting professionals in the credits like Shane McAnally. This keeps money flowing back into the machine through publishing houses, and keeps radio program directors on board since they see a name like McAnally and know a song has been optimized for radio play. This is the fundamental reason for the sameness currently plaguing country radio. There’s only one song out of the 13 on Midland’s new album On The Rocks that wasn’t touched by a top flight songwriting professional, and that’s “Check Cashing Country” written by Jess Carson.

And just as the music is manufactured, so is the backstory, with just enough truth interwoven in there to make the embellishments passably believable. Just as it takes an incredible 15 months to take a song from page to single on Music Row—making the mainstream country industry incredibly sluggish to adapt and maneuver to current trends—so goes how they market that song and artist to the public. The willing accomplices in the mainstream press are all handed the same bullet points, which in Midland’s case are:

  1. They’re a bar band
  2. They formed at a wedding for Cameron Duddy (that was covered in People)
  3. They paid dues in Austin (at Poodie’s–four shows)
  4. They were dirt poor before they were discovered
  5. They’re the real deal, not like the rest of Nashville

Why do you think we’ve now seen a dozen or more feature-length stories on Midland focusing on their four-show residency at Poodie’s outside of Austin, and talking about how tough Midland had it early in their career? It’s because that’s what the media is being told to convey in talking points, and they rebroadcast these talking points dutifully without ever questioning what they’re being told. You know why despite the countless puff pieces on Midland, we haven’t seen any such copy emerge from the Austin media market? It’s because the journalists in Austin know that four shows at Poodie’s is no big deal, they know Midland never paid their dues in Austin, and know just how much money you need to have to settle in Dripping Springs, TX as opposed to the more affordable portions of the Austin area.

READ: The Midland Authenticity Dilemma

And when all of this ridiculous Midland backstory began to be questioned by Saving Country Music and others, Midland was powerless to bail on it because they had no other plan. The one-sheets of talking points were already printed out. The puff pieces in Rolling Stone, Taste of Country, and the Los Angeles Times were already in the pipeline. It was like trying to turn a battleship around. And so they just kept talking the same bullshit, and still are today.

In the Los Angeles Times article, it states:

All three members of Midland had played in bands for most of their adult lives but also made ends meet in other ways. Wystrach, an Arizona native, picked up modeling and acting gigs, including a stint on the soap “Passions.” Duddy was making a living as a music video director, including an award-winning clip he co-directed with Bruno Mars for “24K Magic.”

The article’s author makes it sound like getting an acting job on a major broadcast soap opera, or producing videos for one of the biggest pop stars in the world and winning VMA Awards is tantamount to working at Subway. Many actors and video producers work their entire lives to never get the opportunities Mark Wystrach and Cameron Duddy received even before Midland was formed and foisted to the front of the line. That doesn’t mean they can’t make country music. Everybody has a right to make country music. But it’s how it is couched that makes it come across as so insincere and detached from the realities that individuals even in the upper middle class experience that you can’t help but to call bullshit.

The Los Angeles Times article even starts once again with the wedding story of how the band formed when if Midland had any good sense, they would avoid this issue, lest it’s brought up yet again that Cameron Duddy’s wedding, due to him being part of the Hollywood power elite, was covered in People Magazine. Again, any good country band with any good sense would have stricken that from the talking points months ago, and focused on something else.

And this Los Angeles Times article just keeps on giving. It explains again, mere paragraphs away from where the band grumbles about how hard they struggled, that Scott Borchetta and Bruno Mars were both hot on signing Midland, and were only kept out of a bidding war because Scott Borchetta “locked the door” with the band, and wouldn’t let them out. That’s because he saw that he could mold them into being his traditional country superstars that would get “purists” to shut the hell up, while also re-integrating all those disenfranchised traditional country fans back into the Music Row fold to maximize profits.

Scott Borchetta is even quoted in the article saying, “I always laugh when people go, ‘Oh man, the guy who tried to kill country music, actually signed a country band.’ It’s the funniest thing.” And with this quote, Scott Borchetta once again proves why he deserves the moniker of the Country Music Antichrist, with all due respect to Shane McAnally, who now is a very close 2nd. They’re both cackling all the way to the bank, as the ranks of traditional country fans lap up Midland as the real deal.

We started this entire Midland process about a year ago just a little a bit suspicious of this band. This was elevated to serious concern when they started pushing this hardship backstory hard and heavy into the run up to the release of their first single “Drinkin’ Problem.” And now with their most recent press, especially this story in the Los Angeles Times, they haven’t just exposed themselves, they’ve exposed the entire facade and fallacy of mainstream country by refusing to abandon their ridiculous sob story talking points, even when it started to earn them more criticism than favor.

And frankly, there are so many other tentacles to this story, like exactly why Cameron Duddy could barely afford to pay his mortgage during Midland’s nascent period, or Mark Wystrach’s supermodel girlfriend, that veers too much into speculation, and frankly, shit talking than I’m comfortable with. But if anything, there’s a good chance we haven’t spent enough time prying into exposing this sob story that Midland claims they emerged from instead of vice versa.

And I kind of feel sorry for lead guitar player Jess Carson, who actually seems like a guy who did pay some dues, and is getting unfairly swept up in all these concerns of Midland’s authenticity.

And in the Los Angeles Times piece, Midland does try to play humble.

“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Oh, poor us. We had it so tough,’ especially with everything in perspective that is happening these days,” Mark Wystrach says after the hounds of the past few days have made it essential to respond, and after he’s done that very thing in this interview and others. Yet then he goes on to say,

“But absolutely it’s been a struggle. We all went all in, we could have done something else and could have been more secure and more stable … Through the years, you build a camaraderie and a common respect for every musician that’s out there trying to make it. But the light at the end of the tunnel is the thing that pushes every musician — that dream of someday making it and getting to share your music with the world. That doesn’t happen to pretty much anybody and that’s not lost on us.”

But that’s everyone. We all struggle in our 20’s. We all spend periods in our lives living hand to mouth, and some more than others because our eyes are bigger than our pocketbooks, or due to perception because we’re born into privilege, not because of any true personal hardship. To Midland, playing four shows at Poodie’s to small crowds probably was a hardship, life-altering experience after the glitz of Hollywood and MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Midland could have been sold to the public as anything. They could have avoided talking about their past, like most mainstream artists do, and instead focused on the music. Who gives a shit what their past is, let’s hear the music. Anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, geographic origination, class, religious background, or social status has the right to make country music. Let me repeat that, just because it continues to be glossed over with this issue. Anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, geographic origination, class, religious background, or social status has the right to make country music.

Saving Country Music just in 2017 has championed the music of a neotraditionalist from New York City, a former advertising suit from sunny Los Angeles, Nudie-suited singers and pickers from Sweden, and even an anti Taylor Swift country music outfit from Iran. Respectfully, this is not just an argument about authenticity, it is an argument about truth, and the co-opting of a trend back to the roots of country music by Music Row’s most notorious and colossal money changers. It’s also not an argument about what is real country or not. Midland’s music is real country.

This feels very much like the arguments in 2014 surrounding Eric Church and his whole “Outsiders” movement, where it appeared he was fundamentally looking to use the image and the style of cool underground bands to incorporate into his marketing, and caused incredibly contentious arguments about the nature of authenticity, and the role of the industry in co-opting it for their own purposes. But many have forgotten about those fights, because eventually Eric Church brought it back to the music with his album Mr. Misunderstood, and is now one of the most lauded personalities in the mainstream by independent and traditional fans.

Midland’s narrative is just beginning, and it is a misstep in the marketing that has made them overshoot what should have been a moment of unity in getting behind the re-emergence of the roots of country in the mainstream. But the future is yet to be written. Nowhere will you see Saving Country Music accuse Midland of not having talent, or being incapable of making good country music. In fact, we don’t even know if we’ve seen the real Midland yet. It could be hiding under the layers of bullshit, buried just like “Fourteen Gears.” It could be struggling to get out, frustrated to have to be filtered through professional songwriters, media coaches, and image consultants.

Yet it was Midland’s insistence on continuing to push their sob story over and over, even as it was being eroded and exposed in the public, that has put them in a position of polarization. And now they have not only exposed themselves, they’ve helped expose the entire farce that is the mainstream country music machine that didn’t just build Midland up, but keeps scores of artists and bands that Midland was patterned after by Shane McAnally and others, struggling in obscurity.

And that is why there is continued animosity.

© 2023 Saving Country Music