The Return of Cheatin’ Songs

Before the pandemic the band Midland had arrived on the verge of country stardom by reclaiming vintage styles from the genre’s history and making them sound new again
Members of the retro country music band Midland. (Harper Smith)

On the highway out to Goliad, Tex., driving through open country past chemical plants and horse-head oil derricks and the occasional scatter of pastured cattle, Midland’s “Cheatin’ Songs” came on a Houston country radio station. It was March 2, Texas Independence Day. Midland would be playing a dance hall outside Goliad that night, and on the following night would play the opening of the Houston Rodeo at NRG Stadium. Other stars lined up for subsequent nights at the rodeo included Lizzo, Chance the Rapper, Willie Nelson — big-time company. This would be Midland’s biggest headlining gig to date, though the coming of covid-19 cast a shadow over it. The pandemic still felt far away at the moment, a coastal crisis that hadn’t really hit the heartland yet, but Nashville’s Cassandras were already foretelling a long hiatus in live shows brought on by the imminent national shutdown. (Midland’s Washington-area tour stop in Bristow, Va., scheduled for July 18, has been canceled.) The music industry’s touring-centered business model would crash, at least temporarily interrupting Midland’s unlikely rise to the top.

To a traditionalist’s ear, “Cheatin’ Songs” sounds like just about the countriest thing on country radio — a somebody-done-somebody-wrong song of a sort that was all the rage 40 or 50 years ago, with achingly tasteful pedal steel guitar setting off lyrics that manage to be anguished and clever at the same time. Slipping her engagement ring into the pocket of her tightfitting jeans, the unnamed cheater is not only breaking the singer’s heart, she’s taking him and the rest of us on a time-travel journey: “She’s bringin’ back cheatin’ songs / The kind of hurt that gets you singin’ along / Somethin’ circa 1973 / She’s lyin’ with him and she’s lyin’ to me.” Three-part harmonies gild his tale of woe with a stylishness that suggests itself as a balm.

To a non-traditionalist’s ear, the song’s back-to-the-’70s feel brings up other period associations that stray far from the honky-tonk mainline running from Hank Williams through Merle Haggard. Midland’s high harmonies and the studied unction of its sound have prompted frequent comparison to the Laurel Canyon country-rock of the Eagles, which Midland’s members admire to the point of worship. But “Cheatin’ Songs” sounds less like the Eagles than it does like what would happen if Player or Little River Band or some other scrupulously coifed soft-rock outfit of the era teamed up with Conway Twitty, and they recruited a bunch of high-end session players who had worked with both Tammy Wynette and Steely Dan. Velvety-elegant, wistful, louche, the song stands out amid the twanged-up arena anthems, turbo-folkish club thumpers and singer-songwriter earnestness that dominate country radio, which still plays an essential role in deciding who gets to be a star.

Like a cutting-edge vintage shopper, Midland chooses the coolest old stuff and repurposes it in a way that feels new and seems effortless. The top-tier Nashville songwriter Josh Osborne, who along with fellow hitmaker Shane McAnally works closely with the band on many of its songs, told me, “With Midland, we write songs like it’s the ’70s and record them like it’s the ’90s” — with the crispness of production that characterized the ’90s records of neo-traditionalists like Dwight Yoakam and George Strait — “and hope they work in 2020.”

“I signed them knowing it would be a big risk,” Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine, said. “There’s only really a handful of bands that figure out how to stay together.”

Bands that succeed and last are rare in country music, which for generations has heavily favored a system that surrounds a star personality with super-competent but anonymous sidemen drawn from Nashville’s bottomless talent pool. But Midland is a genuine trio: Mark Wystrach is the frontman, Jess Carson plays guitar, Cameron Duddy plays bass, Jess and Cam sing harmonies, and all three write songs. They formed the band in 2013 after discovering their musical chemistry at jam sessions they held when they were all together in Wyoming for Cam’s wedding. Mark and Jess were in their 30s by then, with Cam not far behind, all of them already veterans who had knocked around the music business without notable success. They had to convince themselves as well as their significant others (all three are married, with kids) that moving to the same place — Dripping Springs, outside Austin, where Jess lived — and putting everything into one more shot would be worth it.

Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine, their record label, told me, “I signed them knowing it would be a big risk. In our industry you have singular voices more than ever, some duos, but there’s only really a handful of bands that figure out how to stay together. When you start doing the math and figure out where a dollar goes, it’s a lot more profitable being a solo artist.” Borchetta, who is most famous for his role in the rise of Taylor Swift and their subsequent falling-out, also played an important role in launching the Mavericks, a band that, like Midland, employed a vintage shopper’s magpie aesthetic to make a way in a single-artist-dominated industry. The Mavericks won awards and had songs on the charts, and in the 1990s were one of the coolest things out of Nashville, but breakups and personnel changes hamstrung their progress, and they topped out as a well-respected niche enthusiasm. Borchetta signed Midland, which is aiming a lot higher than that, in 2016. He was well aware that the trio could come apart, but he began to relax after they made it through the first six months. “If they were going to break up, it would have been then,” he says. He’s confident that they’re mature enough to tend to their group dynamic and draw energy from it, because it’s the key to their success.

Midland members, from left, Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson. (Harper Smith)

There’s a lot of cool stuff in the world,” said Jess. We were sitting on folding chairs in late-afternoon sun on the grass behind Schroeder Hall, which proudly proclaims itself the second-oldest dance hall in Texas. In a few hours, a couple thousand fans in their best boots and hats would converge on this spot, 15 miles outside Goliad on Farm-to-Market Road 622. “We were just in Odessa, and I got in an Uber, and there was a young girl driving it,” he continued. “She said all she does is drive or watch Dr. Phil and this court show on YouTube.” It saddened him to think of being trapped in such a tedious round. “But there’s so much stuff in this world to discover. Like, I’ve been listening to Ry Cooder’s albums. ‘Married Man’s a Fool’ on ‘Paradise and Lunch,’ that’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.”

The Midland guys are all serial enthusiasts, completist nerds, catholic in their tastes and evangelical in their urge to share them. Music of all kinds, clothes, movies, food, drink, whatever it may be — they dig deep into connoisseurial arcana, bringing the others their latest finds like cats leaving meticulously beheaded birds on the welcome mat.

As Jess sees it, this kind of cultural scrounging helps them to continue evolving as artists. “It can’t be a costume,” he once said about wearing vintage clothes. “It has to exist in the modern landscape.” When I asked him to explain how that applied to music, he said, “You can trap yourself in a certain moment” and get stuck in a fantasy of the sort that produces tribute bands and Civil War reenactors. “I’m very into classic cars, and you do see people on that scene who are pretending it’s 1957. We’re not pretending it’s 1974 — we’re influenced by it. You gotta tweak. The harder you chase the moment, the shorter the shelf life.” Digging things is fundamental, in other words, but you dig a grave for your creativity when you latch on to one moment, one style, and settle for trying to reproduce it.

“Between the three of us, we listen to all sorts of stuff,” Jess said. “Me, I’m way into the American songbook, Broadway music. ‘Moon River,’ ‘Summertime,’ those are just about perfect songs. The three of us are tireless in chasing a perfectly written song that lasts.”

But back to digging things. Having discovered that somehow I had gotten through life to that point without knowing much about Gary Stewart, the Nashville outlier of the ’70s whose impassioned vibrato lent spooky majesty to songs like “Whiskey Trip” and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” Jess had been doing what he could to mend this flaw in my character. “I’m willing to admit that I like the fact that Gary Stewart is obscure now, but he’s legitimately my favorite country artist ever,” he said. Not satisfied with collecting every record and unreleased demo Stewart ever recorded, he got in touch with Stewart’s daughter, and she ended up sending him all of her father’s notebooks, some containing songs he never finished. She also sent one of his hats, which Jess wore to the Country Music Association’s awards ceremony. He said, “If you like Gary Stewart’s music, then you dress in a way that’s reminiscent of stuff he wore” — or actually is stuff he wore. “That’s not weird to me.”

“We thought at best maybe we’d be a writer’s-writer-type band, a critical darling,” said guitarist Jess Carson.

Jess, a slight, pensive guy who grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon, used to own a vintage clothing shop. “Reality is always different than you think it will be,” he said. “I thought it would be cool to just find vintage pieces, but there was accounting and all that.” Now in pre-gig mufti — sweats, sneakers, flannel shirt over black T-shirt, a bandanna rolled into a headband — he was deciding what to wear that evening. On a hanger on his tour bus was a jacket he had designed, which featured a yin-yang symbol and a smoke-blowing gator pointing at 4:20 on a clock face, but he wasn’t satisfied with how the fit had turned out. Maybe his electric rodeo jacket instead?

“We didn’t think we’d get here,” said Jess, meaning that he and his bandmates hadn’t expected to arrive in the promised land that now opened out before them: stadium gigs, radio airplay, brisk sales (“Let It Roll,” their second album, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country album chart last year), hit songs, country music awards, Grammy nominations, appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and the “Today” show and such, and the renown and serious money this might all generate. “We thought at best maybe we’d be a writer’s-writer-type band, a critical darling,” an esoteric pleasure handed from one discerning enthusiast to another. But, against all odds, it appeared that the long shot might pay off.

Mark Wystrach during a performance at the Palomino in North Hollywood, Calif., in October. (Timothy Norris/Getty Images for Big Machine Records)

It was just about showtime. Somebody was onstage warming up the crowd, which sounded pretty warm already. In Schroeder Hall’s cramped green room, the three members of Midland and the four musicians touring with them — guitar player, drummer, pianist, pedal steel guitar man — were putting in their earpieces and checking themselves in the full-length mirror, adjusting their hats. Jess had decided to dress down in old jeans and a blue shirt, but Cam was resplendent in a blue mariachi suit he had found in a vintage store in Santa Fe, N.M. Twin rivers of polished silver disks flowed down the arms and legs of the suit, which he wore without a shirt and open almost to the navel, Vegas heartthrob-style. Mark, in white pants and a shirt of many colors, convened the seven of them, plus their road manager and a couple of visitors, into a pre-show circle and made a little motivational speech.

They owed the crowd an especially rousing show on Texas Independence Day, Mark reminded them, and they were on the next to last night of this leg of their tour, christened the Road to the Rodeo. His main point was that the distance between tonight’s gig and tomorrow’s symbolized the distance they had traveled together. “You work hard your whole life, and then you wake up and all of a sudden you’re on the verge,” he had told me that afternoon. “You’ve done so much to get this far. You can taste it, touch it, you’re working so hard onstage and you can feel it’s out there. That’s once in a lifetime for an artist. It’s the rarest thing in the world to have these opportunities. Even better to be able to do it with people you respect and admire.”

A tall, muscular, telegenically unshaven, buoyantly confident and cartoonishly handsome fellow, Mark seemed to tower above his circled-up bandmates. Raised on a ranch in Arizona between Tucson and Nogales, he has the easy-does-it, slightly goofy stoner Lothario manner popularized by Texans Matthew McConaughey and Owen Wilson. His résumé includes underwear modeling, shirtless bartending and roles on the soap opera “Passions” and the no-budget CW4Kids series “Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight.” He had recently taken some time off from the band to step up in class as an actor, playing the part of Tammy Faye Bakker’s extramarital crush, the country singer Gary Paxton, opposite Jessica Chastain in the forthcoming film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.” As Midland’s frontman, it’s Mark’s job to carry the show onstage, and he had his venue-dominating magnetism dialed up high in anticipation.

Schroeder Hall’s sound system was playing Ennio Morricone’s theme music for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and through the green room’s closed door the band could hear the crowd’s excitement swelling. Mark was going around the circle addressing a few inspiring words to each man in turn, noting in particular that Luke Cutchen, on guitar, grew up an hour from Schroeder Hall and so would have family and friends in the house to impress. It was time for someone to intone the pre-show good-luck phrase “It’s mambo mojo time,” which Mark, having already obliged me to join the circle, obliged me to do. I wondered if he’d made it up on the spot as a joke, a bit of gentle hazing.

The band took the stage and launched into “Playboys,” which, like most Midland songs, has an ironic wrinkle in it. Despite its title, it’s not about being a ladies’ man; it’s about being in the doghouse with the missus for going off to have immature fun with the boys. At a casual glance, Midland seems like yet another bunch of guys’ guys celebrating a life of boozing and womanizing, but there’s a post-bro thread running through everything they do. Put-upon women oppressed by male jerks get their day in court in Midland’s songs, and a self-disarming gentleness takes the edge off their calculated cock-of-the-walk manner.

“They’re pre-bro,” Scott Borchetta told me, bundling their fussily curated brand of masculinity with their throwback taste in music and clothes. Perhaps he was swayed by the luxuriant ’70s-style mustaches they used to cultivate, especially Mark’s Yosemite Sam-at-the-Ramrod look. Whether they’re post- or pre-bro, the closer you examine them — from Mark’s green shoe company the People’s Movement (“eco-hip footwear and accessories that stand for reduction of single-use plastic”) to their gluten-free backstage fare to couplets like “Last call gets later and later / I come in here so I don’t have to hate her” — the more they seem like evolved hermit crabs occupying the shell of a far more conventional and less sensitive manhood that most people associate with hats and boots and barroom weepers. The Midland men are always sort of kidding about themselves, even when they’re also deadly earnest about their stylistic influences or their rock-star ambitions. The Twitter wag who wrote that all three of them look like Sacha Baron Cohen in various disguises nailed a deep truth about them.

The set rolled on through various stylistic shades and textures: the gorgeous despair of “Burn Out”; the Zeppelin-esque crunch of “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band”; the jaunty preening shuffle of “Mr. Lonely,” the ironic wrinkle there again being the implicit jerkiness of men, including the song’s narrating protagonist. He’s not lonely; the mistreated women who call him are lonely. “I ain’t Mister Right, I’m Mister Right Now,” sang Mark. Framed by Jess’s and Cam’s precise high harmonies, he exaggerates his drawl when he sings so that he seems to be chewing on the lyrics to extract all the emotional juice from them. He soon shed his shirt of many colors, stripping down to a light blue muscle shirt and taking a shot now and again from a bottle of Insólito, Midland’s proprietary brand of tequila from Jalisco.

After the final encore, the rest of the band headed back to the green room while Mark remained alone onstage for a while, using a marker to sign hats eagerly passed up to him from the pressing crowd. Musicians and crew unwound with a few drinks outside in the cool night air before loading onto three tour buses (Jess had his wife and kids along, so they had a bus of their own) for the overnight trip to Houston. Cam took a hefty dose of THC and climbed into his berth to get some rest, but Mark and Luke, the guitar player, were up late drinking Coors Light and watching Björk videos.

I treat this — touring, music — like sports,” said Cam. A compact, wiry guy with flowing dark hair who’s always ready to display some chest onstage, he was wearing sweats and sitting on a workout bench in the band’s portable exercise area, a green rug laid out between two tour buses and strewn with free weights and mats. The buses were parked in the VIP lot at NRG Stadium, having rolled in early that morning, and the band was now into its all-day pre-show routine of exercise, meals, sound check, meet-and-greets and interviews.

“Playing team sports growing up had a huge influence on me,” he continued. “You have to take care of yourself, don’t get too high, get your rest, eat properly, hit the weights, rally the troops but not act like the boss. ‘To lead is to serve.’ ” Every once in a while, as we talked, he took off his backward-worn ball cap and brushed his long dark hair, which is shot with gray.

Cam, the son of a cinematographer, grew up in Northern California. When he went all-in on Midland with Jess and Mark, he put aside a career as a director of music videos for Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson and Fifth Harmony, among others (he earned an MTV Video Music Award in 2013). A self-described “studio rat,” he may be the trio’s most meticulous crafter of look and sound. He directed the video of “Drinkin’ Problem” that helped make their name, and he has strong, nuanced opinions about the band’s merchandise, which flies off the shelves. “Their merch numbers are ridiculous,” Borchetta told me. “They average around $10 a head at shows, and that’s superstar numbers. They’re not playing for tens of thousands every night yet, but they will."

There would certainly be tens of thousands in the house this night. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is the largest spectacle of its kind — 20 days and nights of bull rides and roping and cattle auctions and junior market lamb competitions and marquee music, drawing 2.5 million attendees. Tractors and golf carts and black SUVs and pickups towing trailers went back and forth past the parked buses, swinging wide around men and women in hats and boots leading horses whose hoofs clopped ringingly on the asphalt.

Midland’s songs have a staying power that you might miss behind the gentleness of the melodies and harmonies, the easygoing midtempo grooves.

“We plan on doing this a long time, so we have to take care of ourselves and maintain our relationship,” said Cam. “We all want to be one collective team. Nobody has to be the dude. That’s why we all love baseball.” Harmony was the operative metaphor. “Harmonies are the first thing. If the harmonies aren’t good, everything suffers.” Jess sings a third above Mark’s robust lead, and Cam sings well above Jess, soaring into falsetto range.

So, I asked, did having Mark out front, dominating the stage show and attracting most of the attention and often doing most of the talking, ever strain the group’s harmony? “Being a frontman, Mark is doing a lot of frontman work,” Cam said. “But you look at the Stones, the Eagles, the frontman isn’t the man. Especially the Eagles. You got Joe Walsh, Don Henley, it’s not just Glenn [Frey]. Mick Jagger’s the lead singer of the Stones, but it’s not his band.” What’s Mick without Keith?

Still, he allowed, tension among members of the band was natural and inevitable. “Mark and I are extremely competitive, but we’ve learned to channel it,” Cam said. “There was a time when we let it get on the stage. There was a lot of fighting about you name it: someone’s guitar level, who drank the last sparkling water.” They had to get rid of their backgammon set because the games would put Cam and Mark at each other’s throats, fists up. And Jess? “Jess isn’t competitive or confrontational. He doesn’t like to fight, so when he does, you know it matters.”

“They find the balance,” Borchetta told me. “They know how to get each other through a tough day. Mark needs Cam, and Cam needs Mark, and they both need Jess.”

Midland at the Palomino. “Let It Roll,” the group’s second album, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s country album chart last year. (Timothy Norris/Getty Images for Big Machine Records)

An SUV and a couple of electric carts arrived to take the trio and their entourage to an appearance in a nearby building, where young farmers and ranchers were showing prize animals. In the SUV, “Cheatin’ Songs” was on the radio, KKBQ (92.9 FM): “Steel guitars are back in style / Like tears fallin’ over her smile.” The DJ urged listeners to come on down tonight to catch Midland at the rodeo.

The cavernous building was filled with stalls for bulls, cows, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits, giant guinea pigs, llamas, alpacas. All the animals seemed to be talking at the same time, as were the thousands of people in the building and the amplified voices issuing instructions to exhibitors and visitors. Mark, freshly showered after working out in the stadium’s weight room with members of the Texans, Houston’s NFL franchise, took the lead. After extemporizing on the fine points of primping purebred Herefords for exhibition, he explained that he had participated in livestock shows as a 4-H kid. “This is all in my DNA and my background, my family history,” he said. He was in head-to-toe denim, topped with a perfectly creased and tilted flat-crowned hat. Young exhibitors flocked around, taking pictures of him with their phones and shyly coming in close for selfies. Cam and Jess stayed off to the side, taking in the sights.

The trio played a quick acoustic rendition of “Mr. Lonely” for the stock show kids and their adult adjuncts. The crowd packed in close so that they could hear the delicately harmonized tale of a gigolo who obligingly takes on all comers, socialites and divorcées and mamas from the PTA, over the cacophony of mooing, bleating and human hubbub.

During sound check the band got acquainted with the stadium’s high-tech mobile stage, which resembled an enormous mechanical spider. The stage rolled out across the dirt to the center of the stadium floor, then rotated so that the band members could play in the round. During their cover of Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down,” an up-tempo truckin’ anthem made famous by “Smokey and the Bandit,” they worked on a bit of business in which the stage’s two pseudopod-like wings would extend and rise high above the crowd; Mark and Cam would run out onto one of them; and Jess and Luke, the guitar players, would run out onto the other. Mark was having trouble getting back to his mic at center stage in time to start the next chorus, and eventually they decided that a roadie should come to him on the raised wing and hand him a portable mic. While they rehearsed the sequence, a potent manure smell wafted over the scene and a small herd of rodeo calves appeared out of nowhere and started running around and around the stage, followed by wranglers who expertly hazed them into a pen.

On to the backstage meet-and-greets, a staple of the Nashville industry’s customer relations, which it conducts with unparalleled virtuosity. We are so glad you could make it, Nashville makes a policy of saying to its fans in a thousand ways. You are the rock on which we build our church.

Midland had the warm routine down cold. As each successive group of two or three peeled off from the long line of radio station contest winners, people who had paid extra, and people who knew somebody who knew somebody, the band would absorb the visitors in a brief but satisfying industrial embrace. An arm around the waist of a woman or the shoulders of a man, a smile for the phone cameras, a friendly word to each, and on to the next.

“I hope we don’t give you the virus,” a woman said as she reluctantly broke from a photo op clinch with Mark. Polite laughter all around. The pandemic didn’t seem quite real yet, but everyone could feel it coming. Public health experts suggesting that the rodeo should be canceled were still being shouted down by those claiming that this virus was a hoax or a New York and California kind of thing, blown out of proportion by media elites.

After the meet-and-greet, the band returned to its green room in the bowels of the stadium. It was actually a suite of rooms, equipped with makeup mirrors, couches, giant TVs, vintage video games, a juicing station and a spread of junk food so vast that it suggested a factional struggle between those who insisted on a juicing station and those appalled by such namby-pamby foodways. A crew of rodeo officials who resembled the booted-and-suited shooters who come after Steve McQueen in “The Getaway” arrived to give Midland ceremonial belt buckles. Jason Kane, the rodeo’s entertainment director, attended this rite. I asked him why he had chosen Midland for opening night. “Because it says Texas, and their popularity is gaining steam,” he said. “I’ve got to have some red-carpet pizazz. We have over 56,000 here tonight. The size of this venue, you either shrink the stadium or the stadium shrinks you. I need somebody that can make a fist, as they say.”

The bronco riders and steer wrestlers having wrapped up their show and cleared the stadium floor, it was time to get ready. The boys put on jackets embroidered with glittering figures of musical notes and playing cards and horseshoes and other such talismans. Mark, having walked around with his baby daughter in his arms until she stopped fussing, handed her off to his wife and stepped into a corner to do vocal warm-ups. Singing fragments of songs, working up his stage presence, he seemed to expand to the scale of the venue as he got more and more hyped up. Cam slipped into character as well: Smoldering Rock Star, tinctured with elements of Scheming Evil Genius and Utility Infielder. Jess remained pretty much himself, a slightly abstracted digger of beauty. On the back of his jacket under the cursive words “Electric Rodeo” was an image of a cowboy riding a guitar through a thunderhead studded with lightning bolts. The cowboy wore a red bandanna around his neck that now reminds me of a pandemic face mask.

Midland formed in 2013. “We plan on doing this a long time,” bassist Duddy says. (Harper Smith)

They went out and made a velvet-gloved fist. It was both a professional show and a soulful one — understatedly slick and heartfelt, which is not an easy split to pull off. They executed the rising-wings routine on “East Bound and Down” without a hitch, Jess smiling a little up there as he put some extra body English into strumming. Okay, this is a little hokey, his manner seemed to be saying, but it’s every guitar player’s fantasy come true. At one point, Mark recapped the band’s official narrative for the crowd: three best buddies who started out playing tiny bars and now got to headline opening night at the Houston Rodeo. “This is beyond a dream,” he said. He did a kind of drunken-master tightrope-walk dance during “Drinkin’ Problem,” their breakthrough hit, as the crowd sang along. When Midland’s set was over, the three of them came down from the stage and piled into an open truck, which circled the stadium’s dirt floor to waves of cheers and applause as Mark toasted the crowd with a bottle of Insólito.

Looking on from the tech deck below the raised stage, I was thinking about the rock-solid foundation of songcraft underlying the showbiz routines and the many layers of irony and earnestness that go into Midland’s performances, onstage and off. Cam, Jess and Mark collaborate with Josh Osborne, Shane McAnally and other exemplars of Nashville’s peerless concentration of song-making expertise to fashion deceptively deep and lasting work. “Cheatin’ Songs,” “Drinkin’ Problem,” “Electric Rodeo,” “Burn Out,” “Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song” — they all have a tensile strength and a staying power that you might miss behind the gentleness of the melodies and harmonies, the easygoing midtempo grooves, the touches that betray list-making nerds’ enthusiasm for this sub-subgenre or that obscure influence. These songs get in your mind’s ear and take root there, not just because the hooks are catchy but because they feel complete, almost excessively well-wrought, satisfying in a slightly new way each time you hear them.

Underneath the band’s let’s-enjoy-the-ride facade moves a serious rage to produce work of lasting, timeless merit. During my time with Midland, all three members of the trio lectured me on the importance of continuing to evolve as an artist. “When you start out, everybody says you should find your lane and stay in it, but we’re not interested in staying in that lane,” Mark said. “We’re ambitious. We don’t want to just compete with country bands. We want to be a great band.” Jess kept coming back in our conversations to “perfect songs” in the canon of American popular standards, like “Summertime” and “Georgia on My Mind.” That’s where he set the bar.

“It wasn’t until this band that I understood how to hold yourself to a higher standard,” Cam told me. For him, the Eagles set that standard. “They’re the pinnacle, master craftsmen,” he said. “There’s tracks on their records that aren’t great, but every album has, like, four perfect songs. For me, that’s where I aspire for this band to go. That’s my dream, to keep evolving, grow our songbook, cross into all genres. To be stylishly unique” — and make albums that each have, like, four perfect songs.

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.

Carlo Rotella is the author, most recently, of “The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood.”

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.

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