by Jessica Nicholson
Midland’s Cameron Duddy, Mark Wystrach and Jess Carson are giving music lovers a glimpse into the trio’s genesis, as the group formalized over the span of 10 days spent in relentless musical experimentation at the Sonic Ranch studio in Tornillo, Texas back in 2014. The three friends had never even performed a show together as a band at that point.
CMT will premiere Midland: The Sonic Ranch documentary, directed by Duddy and Riverside Entertainment’s Brian Loschiavo, on March 19th across ViacomCBS platforms including CMT Music, MTV Live, PlutoTV’s ‘CMT Equal Play’ channel, with a global premiere on CMT Australia. The documentary—mostly in grainy, black and white imagery—is an unprecedented look at the recording sessions and creative atmosphere that helped shape the trio’s blend of barroom-ready Bakersfield country, infused with relaxed Laurel Canyon vibes (and a complementary aesthetic) that broke through at country radio in 2017 with their Top 10 hit “Drinkin’ Problem.”
“It’s this unique moment where we’re looking at our beginnings and what we’re doing right now,” Carson told cmt.com. “There’s a lot of emotions that it brings up watching that. All of us had been playing music for years before Sonic Ranch, just not all together. So we had experiences playing music, but we had to learn a whole new set of skills in the music industry. I mean, none of us had had any success with our music before Midland. So that part of the trajectory, it’s just been such a rocket ship ride.”
A 12-song soundtrack, made of unvarnished demos and rough mixes crafted during the Sonic Ranch sessions, releases the same day as the documentary premiere. One of the songs on the new soundtrack, “Fourteen Gears,” was later re-recorded and included on the group’s sophomore album Let It Roll, fitting alongside songs including “Mr. Lonely,” a jolt of lighthearted ’90s country that begs for linedancing, or the laidback “Cheating Songs,” with its nod to Conway Twitty’s 1980s hit “Tight Fittin’ Jeans.”
As they are looking back with the Sonic Ranch project, Midland is also looking forward; Wystrach says another album of new music will follow in late April or early May.
“I can tell you that being in that head space creating the new collection of songs, a new album, while working on Sonic Ranch, it was very tempting to go back and sweeten things,” Wystrach says, “and we didn’t do any of that. We didn’t add anything. We just took those existing tracks 100% in their original form and mixed them. The DNA is there.”
Duddy’s role in the documentary is particularly compelling, as it chronicles his transition from videographer for those Texas sessions to rounding out Midland as its third member, alongside Carson and Wystrach.
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By the time they met up at Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, the three longtime friends had each already spent years pursuing music careers around Los Angeles. However, by the time they met up for Duddy’s wedding in September 2013 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, each had mostly put music on the backburner to pursue other careers. Duddy was fast becoming a celebrated video director, having worked on videos for Bruno Mars and other artists.
When they met for Duddy’s wedding, Carson and Wystrach began playing music again. By 2014, Carson and Wystrach decamped to Tornillo to woodshed for a few days, with Duddy joining as a videographer to capture footage of the sessions.
“I feel like it’s really peculiar and fortunate that we just happened to have been rolling a camera when we started a band. Not knowing that we were starting a band,” Duddy tells CMT.com.
“There’s less footage than you would think there would be,” Duddy explains. “I showed up thinking I was going to be documenting my buddies who were starting a band. But early on, Jess told me that because he was the one booking the auxiliary players to come and play guitar and drums and all that stuff, he didn’t have a bass player to come in. So I ended up doing it. And then just in that moment of collaborative spirit, and going over the songs, I got kind of pulled into being in front of the camera because I was becoming a part of the recording process.
“The trick was setting the narrative so that the documentary could play without talking heads,” Duddy says. “It’s voyeuristic, really. It makes it feel like you are part of the process. Cinema verite, right? You’re trying to tell the story without having to shove people’s faces in it and allow them to be kind of a fly on the wall and watch this thing unfold.”
The Sonic Ranch sessions represent more than simply three musicians in a studio bounding toward a fresh sound that could also reside comfortably alongside songs that dominated country radio a few decades ago. The documentary also offers an intimate look at the emotional labor of harmonizing three creative perspectives into a cohesive unit.
“It reminds me of maybe how a mountain climber gets to the top of Mount Everest,” Wystrach recalls. “There’s this joy, but there’s this incredible exertion that goes into it. There was crying, there was laughing. You are learning how to collaborate not just with one person, but with two different people and realizing that it was important enough that you had to go through all those steps. After those 10 days out there, I felt that I’d reached the summit. I think the three of us walked away from the sessions incredibly galvanized and kind of assured. We knew we were going to pursue this as a band.”
Once the recording sessions were finished and Duddy got on a plane to return home to his family in Los Angeles, he realized the group’s vibe and retro-progressive sound was something unique.
“I remember being on the plane and listening to the rough mixes, which they might have even been burned on to a CD,” Duddy recalls. “I felt just completely overwhelmed with emotion because when you’re in the mode of recording, you’re focused because there’s a ticking time clock and you just want to get as much done as possible. You’re not allowed enough time to marinate in it. Listening to those recordings, that’s when I knew that my life was going to be different.
“When I got home, I just kind of flat out announced to my wife that we were going to have to move to Texas and do this band thing again. She thought I was crazy, but I also think she saw the magic and how special this was. To her credit she just kind of followed the call as I did. We uprooted our lives, as Mark did, and joined Jess in Texas.”
For Wystrach, a moment of clarity came while recording vocals for the project.
“I remember this clear as day and some people might think that I’m fibbing, but I’m not. I remember doing the master vocals on “Fool’s Luck” toward the end of the recording process. And I had a vision at that moment. I wrote “Fool’s Luck” about growing up in a small town and having that wanderlust to see the world, and the entire recording session reminded me of the musical heroes I had as a kid. I had a vision right there about of Jess, Cam and I on stage performing the song onstage at this tiny little fairground. And I stepped out of that booth kind of wondering if I maybe had one too many swigs of tequila at that point, and if I was dreaming and if it was real.”
The documentary’s intimate, black and white studio scenes are bookended by footage of the Midland’s performance in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 70,000 fans as part of RodeoHouston in March 2020, just prior to the pandemic shutdowns, with its joyous final moments a fitting gateway to the band’s next project.
“I think it’s going to be an incredible evolution for our listeners and for people that have never heard of us to listen to The Sonic ranch, which is rough by its nature, it’s loose and jangly, but it’s very soulful. And it has a lot of elements of gospel, a lot of joy in it. And, and you’re going to see this, I think, giant evolution into the next album, but equally as joyful and, and kind of spiritual in a, in a very evolved way.”
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