by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Harper Smith
It’s a chilly day at the beginning of February and early enough in the morning that there’s a rooster crowing on Cameron Duddy’s ranchland in Dripping Springs.
Midland has recently returned from the Grammy Awards —their hit single “Drinkin’ Problem” was nominated for best country song and best country duo/group performance (the awards went to Little Big Town and Chris Stapleton and Mike Henderson, respectively) — and they’re sneaking in a bit of rehearsal time before setting off on a 26-city tour with Little Big Town.
It’s been a whirlwind few months for the band, whose debut, “On the Rocks,” was released in September 2017 and named the best album of the year by the Washington Post. They learned about their Grammy nominations in between performing on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and the “Today” show.
As quick as this success has seemed to come, in a lot of ways it’s what the band — Duddy, Mark Wystrach, and Jess Carson — had long been hoping for. “Today, coming back for the first time after the year that we’ve had, is pretty wild,” Wystrach, the band’s lead vocalist, says. “It’s very surreal, and it’s getting kind of crazier, it seems like.”
Wystrach strolls into Duddy’s living room shortly after 8:30 a.m. in tan suede cowboy boots and a matching tan cowboy hat featuring a tuft of brown feathers and a pin reading “Kiss My Grits.” Wystrach is tall, with a slim, athletic build and feeling blue eyes. A former model and actor, he often draws attention because of his looks, but his vibe is calm and amiable. At some point, Duddy’s toddler, Kit, plops himself down in Wystrach’s lap, perfectly at home, while Wystrach recounts Midland’s origin story.
To hear him tell it, Midland started with a literal lightning strike.
Wystrach and Carson were in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the wedding of Duddy and photographer Harper Smith. The three men had met years earlier in Los Angeles, where Wystrach and Duddy were neighbors and bandmates in a country-rock outfit called The Young Whiskey. Duddy and Carson had played together in an Americana band called Major Grace before Carson left L.A. for Portland, Oregon.
“That first night we were sitting in Harper’s mom’s cabin, overlooking the Tetons, drinking beers and we brought the guitars out, and Jess started playing, like, American Songbook, old country songs, like Moe Bandy songs and Gary Stewart songs, and I kind of was looking at him like, what?” Wystrach says. Quickly bonding over their shared love of country music, the three guys traded stories and songs and got onstage as part of the wedding’s talent show. The day of the wedding, while waiting out a thunderstorm, “Jess looked at me and goes, ‘Man, we should do something, we should all do a project together,’” Wystrach says. “And strike me down if I’m lying, but a big ol’ bolt of lightning hit right at the ranch, just exploded and was loud as hell.”
While plenty of people might have had a good time at the wedding and moved on, Duddy didn’t let the idea pass. Six months later, in January 2014, haunted by a fever and a viewing of the “History of the Eagles” documentary, Duddy made some calls. “I hadn’t thought about playing music in five years, and I called those guys and said, ‘Jess has got these songs; Mark, you’ve got such a great voice; I’ve got money from when I got married saved up. Let’s go and record demos and start a band,’” Duddy says.
With shaggy, graying hair and an open, broad smile, Duddy cops to being the organizer in the group. “If you want to say the word ‘bandleader,’ that’s fine,” he offers. Duddy grew up in California, in Los Angeles and San Ramon, settling in L.A. after high school and making a name for himself as a music-video director. He’s worked on projects with Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and frequently Bruno Mars — notably directing the videos for “Uptown Funk” and “24K Magic.” While his own successful music career in L.A. had eluded him, with the ideas for Midland swirling, Duddy wanted to apply the same ambition and hustle he’d used to land directing gigs to building a band.
Shortly after Duddy’s call, the guys holed up for 10 days at the Sonic Ranch, about an hour southeast of El Paso, to record demos. They chose the name “Midland” as a reference to the Dwight Yoakam song “Fair to Midland” and for its more ambiguous properties. “If we’re gonna get super-thoughtful on it and wax poetic, it’s kind of like this common ground that we all meet at when we make music,” says Duddy. There was some rare alchemy in their coming together. “When we arrived at our sound out here in Texas, it was like something all of us had collectively been searching for for our whole lives,” Duddy says.
The key that turned the music box might ultimately belong to Carson. He grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon and, after years in the L.A. music scene, relocated to Portland. He met his wife, Camille, and opened a high-end vintage clothing shop, but the couple wanted to find a place where they could settle down and where Camille could do the rodeo sport of cutting. (This is where a rider on horseback “cuts” a cow out of a herd.) “We’d been to Austin and fallen in love with it,” Carson says.
By the time of the Sonic Ranch sessions, Carson was living in Texas, playing spots like Hotel Vegas. Duddy came for a weekend visit and returned two days later to put an offer on a house in Dripping Springs. Shortly a”er that, Wystrach moved in. “When we walked away from the Sonic Ranch sessions, I think we all knew that we needed to pursue this,” Wystrach says. “Austin was just the obvious answer.”
Making the move to Austin felt like something of a natural fit for Wystrach, who grew up on a ranch outside Tucson, Arizona. “My mother was born in Marfa. That’s where we got into the ranching business in 1933,” Wystrach says. “My grandfather used to know Liz Lambert’s family. They were in the West Texas Hereford Association together.” His parents owned, and still run, a place called The Steak Out, where, in Wystrach’s recounting, his uncle “Fast Eddy” bartended, fights broke out in the dirt parking lot, and local country bands played. “Coming out here and playing the honky-tonks to me was like going back home,” Wystrach says. “Especially a”er spending 10 years in L.A.”
It has, by all accounts, been a quick rise. In 2015 Midland was playing around Austin, including at the Broken Spoke. “I don’t think in my 54 years I’ve ever seen a band rise up to national attention as fast as what they did,” says James White, owner of the Broken Spoke, noting that he’d booked George Strait at the Broken Spoke for seven years before the singer hit it big with “Unwound.” “Usually [with] a band that I book, I keep them up front for quite a while before I let them play the dance hall, and they jumped right into that and did a great job,” White says. After their L.A. years, they were ready to let loose in Texas. “It was such a gamble, and the thing that kept us together, the thing that drove us was always the music,” Wystrach says.
When we arrived at our sound out here in Texas, it was like something all of us had collectively been searching for our whole lives.”
While some want to gravitate to the more salacious elements of their biographies (certainly there are results to be found if you Google “Midland” and “underwear model” or “Bruno Mars 24K Magic”) as some kind of demerit against their “authentic country” credibility, there seems to be overwhelming consensus about the quality of their music and musicianship. “They’re so talented and [with] beautiful voices,” musician Gary P. Nunn says. “Totally professional and committed to their work. So I’m happy and pleased to see that they’re getting to the top.”
If their backgrounds have drawn some ire, they’ve also uniquely qualified them for the spotlight — navigating a public profile is no small feat. And the music industry is not one that guarantees success or longevity. “I gotta hand it to them for basing their operations out of Texas and still being able to work the Nashville scene so well,” Nunn says. Midland signed with Big Machine Records in March 2016.
Of course, with more visibility, they’ve caught flak for all kinds of things. “Somehow in the short amount of time that we’ve been exposed in Nashville, I think we’ve got some sort of reputation that we like to raise hell. I mean, we do, that’s the truth, we do like to have a good time,” Duddy says, though he notes they’ve only come across a few others — Darius Rucker, Jon Pardi, the Little Big Town crew — willing to join in. To the idea of hell-raising, Nunn says, “Well, you know, they’re musicians. Part of the whole deal is to have as much fun as you can.”
And when you’ve cultivated a retro-chic look that swings from Gram Parsons-inspired Nudie suits to unironic “Dazed and Confused”-style thrift finds, you’re not exactly looking to stay under the radar. (Their Fort Lonesome-embroidered Grammys attire received high praise from “Vogue.”)
Back in Dripping Springs, the guys are prepping to have their photos taken alongside Carson’s Chevy C10. As Duddy decides on his clothes, he conjectures, “Midland is in a critical golden age right now, because we have enough success so that we are cocky but not enough that we are not willing to put ourselves on the line.” Moments later Duddy is running down the street pants-less, in a T-shirt, boots, and black underwear, encouraged by his wife, who thought it would make a great picture, as he made the roadside wardrobe change.
Pants back on, Duddy hops behind Carson’s truck for a few more photos. The guys are at ease, jovial, having a good time. There’s a natural chemistry— something that spills into their music and is present in their harmonies.
A week later, on a rotating stage under electric lights in the Frank Erwin Center, as the guys harmonize on “The Gator Boys” (a song not on “On the Rocks”), the chemistry sparks again. After opening with “Check Cashin’ Country,” Midland blows through their too-short seven-song set with the polish of a band that won’t be an opening act for long. Introducing themselves as an Austin band almost feels inaccurate; geography can’t contain them. When they close with “Drinkin’ Problem,” the crowd is singing along. “Their sound is so very contemporary with what’s going on right now. They sound like hit records when you hear their songs,” Nunn says. “It’s just right where country music is these days. The right place at the right time.”
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2018