At the end of 2019, if you tally up all the steel guitar playing that appeared on a mainstream country album released by a major label this year, chances are that at least 80 percent of it will have occurred solely on Midland’s new album. That’s not the only reason to buy “Let It Roll,” but it’s a start.
An even better rationale (not to negate the abundance of expert plucking by legendary guest player Paul Franklin) is how sharp the songwriting is on this second album by the Texas-based trio, which has basically perfected all the formulas they put into play on their bestselling 2017 debut. If you were to read a checklist of the classic country tropes this throwback-leaning outfit runs through on “Let It Roll” — including, but not limited to, cheating, drinking, road-dogging, leaving, and did we mention cheating — you’d likely groan. But there’s such cleverness to how they run through these potentially hoary chestnuts that you can’t help but chuckle along, and possibly two-step along, at how well they make everything old in country seem new again, adultery and accordions included.
The stuff has to be good for them to have pushed a style (or several styles, really) of country that’d been relegated into the margins back into the mainstream. On their first album, with “Drinkin’ Problem,” they had an extremely traditional song go to No. 1 on the Mediabase airplay chart, which as a development in modern country ranks right about up there with the probability of a skiffle tune becoming a Christmas No 1 in Great Britain. Since long before George Strait finally lost his hitmaker status, “traditional country” has been synonymous with “alt-country” — something for nostalgia-craving hipsters, not the genre’s modern exurban fan base. But “Drinkin’ Problem” and other high-achieving follow-up singles proved that, if it’s done well, and sure, if it’s done by sexy young guys, country’s classic sound can have an ineluctable appeal even to kids who can’t remember a time before Nelly was a country star.
Just about everything about “Let It Roll” is better than that first album, which wasn’t bad, but which maybe was as interesting for what it represented as the songs. Then, it was too easy to get caught up in the “authenticity” concerns: Had these three guys all grown up from birth wearing Nudie jackets, tight bellbottoms retro ‘staches and Austin ‘tudes? With all due respect to investigative reporting on country performers’ regional cred, it’s amazing how quickly those concerns go away if the songs are great. And there are some great ones on “Let It Roll,” whether they’re ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s pastiches or not,
Some hilariously silly ones, too — actually, “great” and “silly” split the difference throughout the album. The band was named after a Dwight Yoakam song, and that influence was never more apparent than in the leadoff single, “Mr. Lonely,” even if it’s a little more comically cocky than anything Dwight would have ever written. Listening to Mark Wystrach sing about his way with the forlorn ladies in lines like“You can find me in the book or on a bathroom wall / When they all wanna rendezvous, they call,” you may come to believe “Just a Gigolo” is the more direct reference.
That’s far from the only role-playing on the album. At least, we think the boys in Midland are paying tribute to an earlier lifestyle as well as sound on a song like “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band,” a song that puts a Southern country-rock spin on “We’re an American Band”-style tales of yore, with lyrics about “runnin’ off of cocaine / Couple hours of sleep” and “Little girl in Tallahassee said / Boy can I please you / We balled all night long / And I woke up with amnesia.” That’s far from the wittiest tune on the album, but you have to admire the chutzpah of anyone getting their Grand Funk on in music’s family-friendliest genre in 2019.
In that number, they allude to a classic country song with the couplet, “I don’t think old Waylon Jennings would’ve even done it this way.” Nothing is more tired in country than shout-outs to outlaw-era heroes, but Midland at least walks the musical talk when they’re doing it — and they’re playing it for laughs more often than not. One of the record’s best and funniest songs has the catchphrase “Every song’s a drinkin’ song when you’re drinkin’,” which should rank high in any list of obvious but previously undiscussed truisms. They name-check, amusingly, throughout the tune: “You don’t have to wait on Cash if you’re just here to get trashed… You don’t to wait on Cline if you just want some more wine…You don’t have to wait on Nelson if you’re tryin’ to raise some hell, son…” You’re either in or out by the time the tune reaches its low-comedy height: “The jukebox, it ain’t choosy / Me neither, when I’m boozy.”
It’s nearly a fact that any modern country song that’s self-conscious enough to put “cheatin’” in the title is going to be terrible, but Midland defy those odds with two songs that do that, and both of them are terrific. “Cheatin’ Songs” couldn’t be more meta in this regard: There’s not much mystery about the nostalgic intent when Wystrach is singing: “She’s bringin’ back cheatin’ songs / The kind of hurt that gets you singin’ along / Something circa 1973… Yeah it’s been a while since country music loved a fool / And runnin’ around was cool.” Is this an actual song or a rejected Saving Country Music website essay? Still, they — and their co-writer/producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne — have a gift for more finely tuned details, too: “She’s bringin’ back diamond rings / Slipped in the pocket of her tight-fittin’ jeans.” As a matter of fact, I do think Conway Twitty done it this way.
“Cheatin’ by the Rules” offers the band and veteran Music Row tunesmiths Rhett Akins and Bob DiPiero the chance to do something that’s even more rarely found in contemporary country records than steel: a pro-cheating song. Or at least a sympathetic how-to, as Wystrach: “Don’t call me after 5 o’clock / Change my name in your phone / Pay cash for all our drinks We don’t need those receipts followin’ us home / We both got somebody we lost the fire for / That ain’t no reason to treat ‘em cruel…”
The songs on “Let It Roll” aren’t all this quotable, which is probably a good thing: a couple more of these and the album would be eligible for the comedy Grammy. But there are gentler and more fidelity-friendly numbers that recall the halcyon, soft-rock stylings of an Alabama or Ronnie Milsap, even though it’s the provocative outlaw homages that are going to get the attention. One thing you won’t find a lot of here are tributes to the early Eagles or Flying Burrito Brothers, even though that’s the Joshua Tree/Laurel Canyon look they’re affecting with their long hair and flared pants. They’re down with country’s mellow gold era, too, on an album that, tellingly, has almost as many Rhodes keyboard licks as steel guitar riffs.
Is there a renaissance for this kind of stuff in the Nashville mainstream? It sure seems that way, although Midland are the only ones dressing the old-school part. Although not nearly as traditionally minded in his sound or as inclined toward sideburns, Justin Moore just invoked the spirit of this era with his terrific “Late Nights and Longnecks,” and recent neo-traditionalist hero Jon Pardi has another on the way. Then consider that Big Machine – a label that did as much as any to change the sound of country music in the last decade and a half — put Midland’s pendulum-swinging album out on the same day as Taylor Swift’s new one, which surely is unintentional counterprogramming, but worth noting anyway. That, with Moore and Midland, the label that put pop’s biggest princess on the map is also pushing this move back toward honky-tonk revivalism is a happy irony.