By Sarah Rodman
August 22, 2019 at 03:02 PM EDT
Harper Smith/Big Machine Records

This is how Midland rolls: Within minutes of settling into seats backstage at the Grammy Museum for a recent chat with EW, the Texas trio has already name-checked and knowledgeably discussed George Strait, Garth Brooks, Brooks and Dunn, Dwight Yoakam, Chris Isaak, Bryan Adams, and the Eagles. (And also correctly declared that the 2013 Eagles documentary is one of the best music docs of all time.)

Smack dab in the middle of the punishment/reward cycle that is the first few years of success — enduring the rigors of touring and promotion in exchange for the appreciation of a growing audience — the Texas country trio is a walking-talking-joking-singing embodiment of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” road weary but still amped to play shows and geek out about their heroes while discussing their own new music.

With its profusion of songs about cheatin’, drinkin’, yearnin’, and honky-tonkin’ — particularly the mission statement rave-up “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” — Midland’s sophomore album Let it Roll, out Friday, is a natural extension of its acclaimed 2017 debut On the Rocks, which spawned the hits “Drinkin’ Problem” and “Burn Out.” Every element is rooted a little deeper: the lyrical imagery, the crispness of the instrumentation, and the harmonies of members Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, and Cameron Duddy that toggle between pristine precision and gloriously raggedy edges like artfully-ripped jeans.

“Sonically, I can tell you that just from a pure singing standpoint, everyone has gotten way stronger, Mark included,” says bassist-vocalist Duddy. “Now, from a harmony standpoint, we also now have how many shows under our belts? We’re way more confident in what our voices sound like and how to sing and execute stuff. So, it’s really just a matter of experience.”

The group also wisely reunited with On the Rocks producers Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Dann Huff to continue tinkering with their polygamous vision of marrying classic ‘90s country to Eagles-esque harmonies and unabashedly wistful pop. Which is how they arrived at the dreamy “Amarillo by.. Tequila Sunrise” sound of Let it Roll. Standouts include the pragmatically contemporary spin on an age-old issue “Cheatin’ By the Rules,” the gauzy, Tex-Mex-inflected “Put the Hurt On Me,” and the wrenching ode to the not-quite-perfect-fit “I Love You, Goodbye.”

The band wrote and recorded at four locations over the course of 2018 and 2019 between tour dates, which helped light a fire under the proceedings. “Even though it was two years, it was like two years of stop and start growth spurts and at the end there’s no room for the overthinking sh—,” says Duddy of the process. Adds frontman Wystrach: “The thing about it is that we are such a finely-tuned, well-oiled — usually quite lubricated — machine at this point that when we were going into these studio sessions, although it was tough to find the time for it, it was super focused and also therapeutic.”

And while the road has been the grueling counterpoint to that therapy, Midland has been tapped by several major acts, what Carson calls their “cast of heroes” — Strait, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, and Little Big Town among them — to serve as an opener which proved both humbling and challenging. Brooks, in particular, was a treat.

“It’s one of those things like Garth Brooks!,” says guitarist-vocalist Carson, still a bit incredulous. “When you play with Garth Brooks he’s not one of those invisible people who somehow get from their bus to the stage and back and you don’t ever see him. He comes in your dressing room and he’s funny. He’s got a walkie talkie on. He’s like coordinating with security and sh—. He’s fully running the show.”

Harper Smith/Big Machine Records

Although they confess to some exhaustion going from tour dates to the studio to TV appearances to awards show performances to video shoots (with Dennis Quaid!) — Wystrach says he’s been nursing a cold for a week — there are no plans for the sartorially spiffy group to take a break anytime soon. The Midland tour rolls on throughout the summer and fall with headlining dates across the U.S., a trip down under with Tim McGraw, and then across the pond to Europe.

The trio understands the bargain they’ve made. “When we saw our year ahead of us when we first started having success in 2017 we were like, ‘Where does it stop?'” says Wystrach. “And they’re like, ‘What do you mean stop, kid?’ It was very much ingrained in us from early on: ‘Oh, you can stop whenever you want but, you know what? There’s another guy and he’s going to raise his hand.’ And we were like ‘f—.’ So they really scare you in the beginning. And then you get used to the lifestyle. So the machine becomes this beast that needs to be fed before it bites your hand. But we’re still a band on the come up and our goal is to get as many people listening to our music as possible so you’ve gotta go out there and make hay while the sun shines.”

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