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How a Country Music Bassist Made ‘Magic’ With Bruno Mars and Nabbed Four VMA Nominations

At the moment, the freshman country band Midland has the most-played song in that format in the nation, according to Country Aircheck, with debut single “Drinkin’ Problem.” That would be cause enough for a celebratory cocktail, but Cameron Duddy, the trio’s bassist, has a lot more to crow about than that. On the side, Duddy is a celebrated music video director most known for his long-standing collaboration with Bruno Mars, including “24K Magic,” a video that has four nominations going into this year’s MTV Video Music Awards.

Saturday night, he’ll be at Gillette Stadium outside of Boston, as Midland opens the second of two Kenny Chesney shows there. Sunday night, he’ll be taking a seat at the Forum in Los Angeles, waiting to see if he wins the VMA for director of the year for “24K Magic.” Duddy could be back again next year, too: The ninth video he’s made with Bruno, “Versace on the Floor,” was just released. But aside from making these regular trips to Mars, Duddy is trying to keep the focus on being part of the fastest developing new act in country, which means no more one-offs with Britney Spears or Jennifer Lopez. With Midland’s full-length debut album due out Sept. 22, Variety caught up with Duddy to find out how he’s juggling two genres and careers.

You’re up for the MTV Video Music Awards again as a director. Meanwhile, Midland is doing so well in country all of the sudden that you could well be up for the CMT Awards next year as a performer. That would make some kind of history.
Who knows? I think I’m definitely the first country music artist to win a BET Award. I don’t think anyone could ever take that from me. (He won the BET Award in June, along with Mars, for co-directing the “24K Magic” video.)

Do people in your respective careers and genres know about the other career? Does Bruno Mars listen to Midland’s country music?
It’s not something that I offer up in conversation with other country acts and people in Nashville. But the word has gotten out. Everyone loves Bruno Mars, and I quickly realized that it’s a great thing to be associated with him, no matter what kind of music you play. And with Bruno, when we were getting record deal offers a couple years ago, he called one day and said, “I just heard your music. If I can help, I would love to sign you. I’m still trying to get my label up off the ground at Atlantic Records, but fly out here to Los Angeles with the band and let’s talk.” So we flew out and brought him a pair of cowboy boots as a sign of respect. We had a great time chatting, which led to a couple days writing tunes with him and Phil Lawrence at their studio out in L.A. I’m not sure how much Bruno already knew about country, but he certainly has his rock and roll roots figured out. He said, “Send me a playlist of songs I should listen to.” Of course he knew George Strait and “All My Exes Live in Texas” and was familiar with the monster hooks out there, but we sent him some deep cuts, and he immediately gravitated toward Dwight Yoakam and kind of obsessed over all of Dwight’s YouTube interviews and live performances. (Duddy’s band named themselves after a Yoakam song, “Fair to Midland.”) So it became this sharing of information and music, and it was a really fun, surreal experience for everybody. Because I’d been working with Bruno at that point for about six years and done a ton of videos with him, but to be able to sit down and write music with him was a whole ‘nother thing.

Cameron Duddy with Bruno Mars on Set

When did Bruno find out that you were in a band?
I do remember him being surprised that I was moving to Texas four years ago when we started the band. He and I were well into our collaborative efforts together at that point, and he was somewhat envious that I could just up and leave Los Angeles and get the hell out. He’s always been really supportive. We can fight like sisters when it comes to doing music videos. The best collaborations are always fueled by opposite perspectives or alternative ideas. We always find a common ground. But when it comes to my music, he’s always been really, really supportive of it. I don’t know if it tickles him or what.

You’ve worked with so many people as a director — J.Lo, Britney, Fifth Harmony, One Republic, Rod Stewart, Brandi Carlile, Awolnation — but you’ve collaborated with Bruno on nine videos, counting the two that were made for the Mark Ronson project. Why does it work so well?
Well, few people in this world, the entertainment world, have loyalty. And Bruno Mars is one that believes very deeply in loyalty. I also deliver for him, too. Had I given him bricks out of the gate, I don’t think it would have continued.

Your father is a cinematographer, but it sounds like you were more into music before you followed him into the family business.
Well, the family background thing was really only a license to dream big. I couldn’t get an internship, much less a job, through my parents… I was just kind of putting around California doing music. I had rock bands, Americana bands. I hit a wall in my mid-20s, and really couldn’t find any foothold with music to generate income through it. It was natural: Well, if I can’t make it doing bands, I’m going to do my friends’ bands’ music videos.

What made you get serious about music again?
I really got deep into country when I met my best friend Mark Wystrach, who is now the lead singer of our band. There was just an irrefutable magic when the three of us came together. So we put a name to it, and decided we’ve got to put all our chips in. So I kind of quit doing music videos, aside from the odd job with Bruno, and my wife and I moved to Texas, and I started back down at the bottom of the artistic ladder. I’d done a million dollar music video with Bruno the year before, and then come January 2014, I’m playing for two people again at a honky tonk dive in Nowheresville, Texas. But music videos started to lose their appeal to me. There are not a lot of people out there worth collaborating with, other than people like Bruno, and some of my friends like Grouplove.

So you haven’t been actively out there still trying to maintain a career as a music video director, simultaneously?
Oh, no. In fact, in the most scary way, I’ve been completely detaching myself from it. It’s been my only form of income. But I don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to do both. Music videos, anymore, not unless Bruno comes knocking; I can never say no to him. And then of course our own music videos. In fact, I’m editing our music video now (for Midland’s imminent second single, “Make a Little”) on the back of our bus, grabbing 20 minutes here or there to edit, and swearing to myself. I can’t do our own videos anymore, man! It’s too stressful… too much responsibility.

Midland seems like an unusual signing for Big Machine in that it leans more toward traditional country than most of what they’ve released before. With a few exceptions, it’s still surprising to see straight-up country at Big Machine — or any major label nowadays, really.
Well, there’s trendsetters and there’s followers, and Scott Borchetta didn’t wake up one day and say, “My life’s work is going to be to create bro-country,” or pop-country. I think he saw that as a viable trend that was gonna happen and was one of the first ones to double down on it. In the same respect, he saw what we were doing and the passion behind it, and he may have seen a tidal shift on the horizon. And to his credit, he was the only person to go hard in the paint on investing in our band, which is a modern-traditional country sound. He would not be stopped. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and has also been a great mentor to this band.

Ten years ago or more, I interviewed a major label head in Nashville who said, “There’s such a need for a real band to come along again in this format. If you know of any, tell me!” He wasn’t just saying that. He really wanted to know if I knew of any he could sign.
It’s a rare thing, man. We’re looking around and there haven’t been bands in years — except the Zac Brown Band, but even that is Zac Brown. It’s been a long time since the Alabamas of country music. It’s kind of weird, isn’t it?

It’s amazing how fast country radio got on board with you. You wouldn’t necessarily listen to your single and think it was money in the bank.
No one did, man. They told us that our single probably wouldn’t get played on the radio, because it didn’t sound anything like what was in the top 50. But our passion came through, I think, and a good song is a good song.

It was actually people at Big Machine telling you that Midland probably wouldn’t get played?
Yeah. I mean, everybody was cautious. But we look for partnerships in people that aren’t going to bulls— us. Everybody’s real in our camp, and the real warning at the beginning of this, when we went to radio at the top of the year, was: Don’t expect much. Give ’em hell, but God only knows what is going to happen.

Obviously they had to believe it would happen eventually or they wouldn’t have signed you.
Well, they believed in the odds. When we were in Vegas for the ACMS earlier this year, I passed Scott Borchetta in the hallway and said, “Are you up or down, man?” He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “Do you gamble? This is Vegas.” He said, “Only on artists.” So I think he’s finding angles and pursuing them with persistence and vigilance, and he doubled down on us. But when you bet, it’s never a sure thing. You’ve got to find the table with the best odds.

What was the initial reaction at radio? Were you embraced right out of the box?
In the beginning, it was like, “What a refreshing sound to come out of Nashville… We’ll try to find room for you.” But it still wasn’t a sure thing. We were getting overnights at first — you know, soft spins. People were testing the waters. But the reaction from the listeners was very strong. This only happens because the people like it. The days of payola are over. You’re only going to get radio play if it’s reaction-driven.

No one is allowed to use the term country-Western anymore, but there used to be more of that Western element once upon a time, and that’s there in the way you dress and, to a certain extent, sound. But you don’t always know whether that will be a turn-on or turnoff; some people will think it’s too nostalgic or retro.
It’s only a turnoff for people if you can’t pull it off and you’re not comfortable in your own skin. And the clothes we wear onstage and offstage, that’s the s— that we wear. It’s always funny walking into a hotel lobby the morning of a show where four bands are playing, when you’re all staying at the same Marriott, and you walk in and all the other bands are sitting around in their Nike sweatpants waiting to get checked in, and we walk in wearing what we wear all the time. And they go, “What the f—, dude? Is that what you f—in’ wear?” Like, “Yeah, this is us, dude!” It’s not an act; it’s not a costume; we don’t have a stylist. It’s just our vibe, and it makes us happy.

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