I’ll start by saying I don’t like country music. I always change the station when I hear it on the radio, and it doesn’t make me want to dance, party, or do any of the other things that country songs seem to be about. Somehow I stumbled upon Midland and their first album, On the Rocks (2017), on Spotify, and went in without knowing what I was listening to. In hindsight, the rhinestone cowboy outfits the band wears on the album cover should have tipped me off like a “Here There Be Country” sign, but that didn’t matter because the songs inside were plenty rock and roll for me. From boogies that would fit right in with Exile on Main St. (1972) and mellow, Eagles-esque ballads, it certainly didn’t feel like country music.
So, when their new album, Let It Roll, came out with a glitzed out pink frame for the trio in cowboy boots and hats, I wasn’t too fazed.
Even if the cover art had caused me any trepidation that this might not be totally rock and roll, the lead single for the album, “Mr. Lonely,” would have alleviated any of those fears. It comes storming out of the gates with a bouncing guitar riff and launches into a three-minute romp structured like an advertisement for a “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” service started by Bruce Springsteen’s “gun for hire” character in “Dancing In The Dark.” The drums, the riff, the story telling, the tempo, the whole thing makes for a great rock song.
One of the best parts of the song is when lead singer Mark Wystrach yells out “play that steel, Paul,” and Paul, presumably, obliges and rips into a solo on the pedal steel guitar. It’s an instrument I first remember hearing on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children Well,” and I became enamored with its smooth, melodic tones. The instrument features heavily in Midland’s sound, and, I have since learned, in a lot of country music. When I discovered that Jerry Garcia had a side project called New Riders of the Purple Sage where he played this beautiful instrument, I ate it up. One thing lead to another and I found the Flying Burrito Brothers too. However, the bands are both country-rock, not just straight country. I certainly wouldn’t listen to them if they were, obviously. I don’t like country music.
Some of the tropes in this album can border on being country cliches, sure, but they don’t feel like the pick-up truck and pretty girl song that country radio is panned for having. Almost every song is about a pretty girl, but she’s not hopping up and coming along for a ride. Well, except for “Fast Hearts And Slow Towns,” which actually has the lyric “I’d swing by and she’d climb in,” but in it the car also turns into a set piece, like the ‘60 Chevy of “Night Moves” fame. The other car/girl song, “Fourteen Gears,” has the girl far away, and the truck is the chariot that will bring our singer back home to his “baby,” after he gets to his gig and plays his music first.
There also are party songs, but instead of driving pick-ups to a field to drink and dance and play music, life on the road is the eternal party for the band. “Playboys” is all about the fun, or trouble, that can be had out on the road and that always occurs at the end of the night, especially one with a concert. It sounds fun too. “Playboys” has one of the best guitar solos on the album (again preceded by a command to “play boys!”) and grooves like a song that might come on at the party described in the song. In real life, too, a country song has been known to get a party going. Maybe, from time to time, I might sing along to “Country Roads” with a crowd, and I have spoken at length about why Billy Ray Cyrus had the best verse on “Old Town Road” while it was playing in a crowded room, but, I’m just into country music socially. I don’t listen to it normally, and I definitely only bought a banjo so I could play Pete Seeger covers and do a Kermit the Frog impression, and certainly not to try and learn “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or jam to Old Crow Medicine Show. I’m just expanding my repertoire of the great American song-book—not getting into country music. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is a bluegrass song, anyways. I would know. I don’t listen to country music.
Some other rock acts seem like they were inspiration for songs on this record. “Lost In The Night” sounds like the alternate title of any number of Springsteen songs, featuring two young lovers together in the night, trying to find each other despite being together, and also trying to find themselves in the big world. The song even features a rock saxophone solo to go with Cameron Duddy’s only turn to sing lead on the album, taking a break from his regular bass duties.
Then there’s “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band,” which sounds like it could’ve been on Sturgill Simpson’s great A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (2016) with its steady riff and big background sound from backup guitars instead of a brass section. I liked Simpson’s album because it rocked pretty hard, and there was a lot of pedal steel guitar with that Otis Redding-like brass section. There’s no way it could be a country album, right?
This summer I took a trip to an amusement park on an August night and ate ice cream and rode rides. Over the course of the night, I ended up going on the bumper cars four times. There is something so exciting about a ride that you are in control of, able to drive like a maniac and ram into people. On the third time through, with all the lights in the park just coming on as I got in my cart, The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” started playing over the ride’s speakers, and it was perfect. The lights, the smells, the sounds, and the smiles all felt right for three minutes and then the ride was over, and the song ended, and we got off the ride. Nothing special happened, none of the carts broke through the barrier and raced off like “Thunder Road,” it was just a good time and then it was over.
In Let It Roll there is always a chance that the big, Springsteen kind of break is right around the corner, or sitting in a booth in the back of the bar with a record contract. And it probably won’t work out, but at least you had some fun and made some new friends in a new place, and like the title suggests, that’s okay.
The last song on the album, “Roll Away,” sung by electric guitarist Jess Carson, is about a night and a trip with his partner that seems to go on forever. Once it ends and they get back home, there is a guitar solo that can only make you think of Duane Allman playing something sweet and sad with his slide. Then the band plays a chord that hangs in the air for a long time.
Then the drums are back, and the acoustic guitar, and then the pedal steel, and we’re right back where we left, in the middle of a happy sunset just taking it easy, letting it roll, having fun. That’s what Let It Roll sounds like, and even if it is country music, that’s more than enough for me to play it over and over again.
Whether you want to call them rock or call them country, Midland is a fun band, and Let It Roll is a fun album. It sounds like any number of warm summer nights with parties or with drives with the windows down or with someone you love, or even all three. Had it come out in June and not August, it probably would’ve been what I had playing in my car instead of Bandana (2019), and as much as Freddie Gibbs is a great story teller and Madlib a great producer, that is a heavy record, with heavy themes and heavy beats. Let It Roll is as bright and warm as a sunset.