The Midland Authenticity Dilemma

midland

Look, I am a staunch proponent of the idea that anyone, anywhere can make good country music, and we all owe it to the individual artists to judge the music on its own merit first before ever considering what type of back story or port of origin the artist happens to hail from. Saving Country Music commonly feature artists from the northern regions of the United States, from Canada, Australia, the British Isles, Europe. SCM featured a country artist from Iran recently. Some artists are from rich families, some from poor. Some paid dues, others much less. Some are black, Hispanic, multi-racial, non gender specific, whatever. Ultimately you have to boil everything back down to the music and ask yourself, “Is it good?”

And it’s under this philosophy that I landed on the conclusion that when it comes to the music of Midland, the answer is, “Yes, it’s good.” It’s not great, but graded against its peers in the mainstream and housed on major labels, Midland is a really solid, throwback-sounding country band that makes you hopeful for the future of the genre and radio.

But as time has gone on, I find myself disliking these dudes more and more because I can’t beat back the obvious reality that we’re being misled about these guys. The band’s publicists want us to believe Midland is a collective of road wearied Texas country lifers who are finally getting their big break and deserve to be elevated in stature due to their raging authenticity and cowboy-esque ruggedness, and they have the photos to prove it. But unfortunately, this is just not true.

Instead Midland is a machination of the big Music Row industrial complex, no different than most major label artists, is signed to Scott Borcetta’s Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Florida Georgia Line, et al), with Shane McAnally—the Max Martin of country music (Sam Hunt, Old Dominion, et al)—writing the songs, producing the music, and pulling the strings behind-the-scenes. It’s all a facade, and the fact that they keep trying to ram Midland’s “authenticity” down our throats makes me never want to hear their music again.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The only two artists out there that can truly boast 100% authenticity behind their music are James Hand and Spencer Cornett, and Big Machine isn’t rushing to sign either of those dudes. Authenticity arguments can be as tiring as the “what is country?” arguments. But there are layers of authenticity that can either endear the artist to the audience, or perhaps hold them back.

Luke Combs’ big breakout single “Hurricane” is godawful. But I think he’s probably a pretty authentic guy. He’s not trying to present himself as anything but what he is, which is a good ol’ American boy singing some country tunes. There are some other folks that are more or less authentic in the mainstream. But what is making Midland so unappetizing is the subterfuge behind their story of authenticity, and how it just screams of marketing.

A recent Taste of Country feature on the band includes the passage, “The group went through some pretty hard financial times before they finally hooked up with a big-time manager and got a record deal. They also learned ‘how to avoid trouble and how to get out of trouble,’ they say. Asked to cite an example of trouble, they laughingly say, ‘Getting arrested … helping to get your bandmate out of a choke hold by a six foot six … the guy that was the caretaker of the worst rehearsal space, it smelled just like urine, beer cans and garbage.'”

Sounds pretty authentic, doesn’t it? Clearly the marketeers are trying to marry the hardscrabble experiences found in the band’s lyrics (written by Shane McAnally) to the band’s back story. And this is just one of dozens of examples in the media.

The specifics are not the issue. We can assume they’re true to some extent. It’s how they’ve been embellished and presented along with the parade of promotional photos that seem aggrandizing. For those that don’t know Midland’s back story, the band claims to be from Dripping Springs, TX, via California, via Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They’re old buddies who played music in various other projects and ended up forming a band together when attending the wedding of bass player Cameron Duddy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Now that should be the first red flag on how authentic and road-weary Midland really is. Anybody who knows Jackson Hole, Wyoming—anyone who’s actually been there—knows this is a super posh, and extremely expensive piece of the American West. It’s where Dick Cheney lives. And to get married there? One can only imagine the bill. You have to be a member of the elite class to get married in Jackson Hole, WY folks, trust me.

But of course Jackson Hole sounds like this cowboy-esque, magical Western American Rocky Mountain landscape, and it is. It’s just one you and I could barely afford to stay a weekend in, let alone fly the whole family up to for an exchange of nuptials.

Remembering the part of the Midland back story where this wedding is where the band formed, I was trying to verify the date and details and such when I happened onto an article in People Magazine covering the wedding. That’s right, the wedding where Midland was formed? It was covered by People Magazine in September of 2013. Without delving into the back story of either of the other two members of the band, the fact that Cameron Duddy’s wedding, and the place where Midland was formed, was covered by People Magazine, should tell you just how bogus the idea is that Midland is a band of hard luck, hardscrabble characters. Cameron Duddy was a product of the ultra-rich and power elite even before Midland was formed.

“The groom, 27, and his bride, 31, opted for a cowboy chic theme for the nuptials, which were held at the sprawling Jackson Hole ranch owned by Duddy’s step-grandmother, actress Connie Stevens,” says the People Magazine article. “Duddy, who recently won an MTV Video Music Award for directing Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” is the son of cinematographer Christopher Duddy and Renee Axotis. His father wed Stevens’ daughter, actress Joely Fisher, in 1996.”

Cameron Duddy’s winning MTV Music Awards for directing Bruno Mars videos in 2013? I thought he was supposed to be slagging it out in honky tonks at that time? That’s what we’re being told at least. He’s also directed videos for Fifth Harmony and Jennifer Lopez. And we haven’t even gotten to the part about the band’s frontman, Mark Wystrach, and his Soap Opera/underwear modeling career. But let’s stick to locations for a moment.

A lot has been made about how Midland is from Dripping Springs, TX. A passage from a recent Rolling Stone feature on the band states, “Later, the pair moved to the small town of Dripping Springs, about 30 minutes away [from Austin], to board their four horses. It’s in this town of less than 2,000 where Duddy and Wystrach relocated in 2014. In that wide-open country, they built a rehearsal space and started writing around the sound that they heard on the Jackson Hole porch, touring behind these new songs at any Texas honky-tonk that would have them.”

Just like Jackson Hole is portrayed, you would think Dripping Springs is some backwater with cowboys riding their horses down a crumbling Main Street. In reality, Dripping Springs is one of the most expensive white flight suburbs in the entire state of Texas. And nothing about it is “wide open country.” Once again, if you had been there, you would know. It’s 2,000 residents is a technicality due to the tiny city limits. Maybe Midland lived in a shack, but nobody relocates to Dripping Springs due to hardship. People leave it because it’s become so expensive since rich, California transplants like Midland keep moving there. If you’re familiar with the Nashville region, this would be the equivalent of claiming someone grew up on the mean streets of Franklin.

And anybody who actually knows about living in the country, knows that one of the most expensive things that one can own is a horse, unless it’s a rescue animal. And Midland had four of them when they moved to Dripping Springs.

One of the things that has really tweaked off a lot of folks in Texas who’ve been following this Midland narrative is the idea that, as the Rolling Stone article says, the band played “at any Texas honky-tonk that would have them” when virtually nobody in the Central Texas country scene and beyond can recall ever seeing Midland on a bill or a calendar. The Rolling Stone article also mentions, “Sharon Burke, owner of Poodies Hilltop Roadhouse in Austin, hired Midland in 2015 for a month-long residency in the sub-prime slot of Tuesday afternoons.”

That means they played four shows total at Poodies. Let’s not undersell their public appearances either, because Midland did play here and there during their time in the Austin area. It’s just the incredible embellishment of the narrative that gets you looking sideways at theis entire project.

And what of the Midland frontman, Mark Wystrach? Yes, he was a male model for underwear among other things, and appeared on the NBC Soap Opera Passions, as well as other various TV shows. That doesn’t mean you’re immediately rolling in the dough by any stretch, or that you can’t play country music. But it also means you don’t have the ability to sell people on this idea of being destitute and doing all of these hard-wrought things that lend to the mystique Big Machine Records is trying to assign to this band, all while the other side of country media like Whiskey Riff is running dedicated articles of Wystrach glossies from his acting days, selling him as the hunkiest guy in country music.

It’s all marketing. It’s all image and “lifestyle branding.” Cameron Duddy and Mark Wystrach leveraged their high-level contacts in the entertainment business to launch a band. I can’t wait until the Midland-branded silver-plated, fake turquoise necklaces make it to Wal-Mart’s Panama Jack display. The lead guitar player, Jess Carson, who is originally from Oregon and moved to Austin, seems to be the only one with some true musical skins on the wall. But even his back story is foggy at best.

And I keep thinking back to the instance of another Big Machine Records outfit, Maddie & Tae, and how they admitted they were told to say things from a media trainer surrounding their “Girl In A Country Song” moment, and the drama it caused with fellow label mates, Florida Georgia Line. “We had a media trainer tell us to say we were kidding’ because they were worried people would be mad at us,” the girls said.I don’t think anyone thought it would take off like it did but we didn’t say anything everyone else wasn’t thinking.”

Ultimately, what should all of this say about Midland’s music? It should say nothing. You should be able to erase everything I just said and simply worry about the music. But you can’t help but focus on how you’re being sold one thing, and seeing another with these guys when all you hear about is their authenticity. It precedes the music, because ultimately Midland’s music is secondary to selling them to the public as product. Midland’s big single “Drinkin’ Problem” was written by Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, and produced by McAnally. Really, that’s all you need to know.

There are hundreds of artists in Texas and beyond who do play every honky tonk that will have them, struggle to get by, are burdened by hardship, but do the best they can with a quarter of the connections, opportunities, and resources Midland was bestowed through industry and familial contacts, and they do it all without trying to use their sob story as a chip on their shoulder because they know it’s a privilege to play music. Gram Parsons was a rich kid too. But he never tried to sell anyone on the idea that he was anything but himself. Every artist struggles. Every human struggles, especially in young adulthood when money is tight.

Look at Sam Outlaw, who has been out there just as long as Midland, and is still fighting for recognition. He’s from Southern California, and worked in an advertising agency before starting a country career. Compared to the story of Midland, it sounds like he has no authenticity. But Sam Outlaw is at least honest. And that’s what makes him more authentic than most in the mainstream, including Midland.