Not many bands have the benefit of having their origin story recorded on film for posterity by a documentarian. Cases are fewer still where said documentarian puts down the camera (or at least sets it on a tripod) midway through the process so he can actually join the band. This was all the case, though, when the country group Midland came together in 2014. That footage has been put together for a forthcoming documentary, “Midland: The Sonic Ranch,” as well as a soundtrack album that compiles the tracks the group laid down in those very first formative sessions.
“Midland: The Sonic Ranch” debuts March 19 on ViacomCBS platforms including CMT Music and MTV Live, with a Big Machine soundtrack due the same day that includes a dozen original tracks laid down by the nascent group back in 2014, only one of which ever got re-recorded for a subsequent Midland album. (See the trailer, below.)
Variety talked with co-directors Cameron Duddy and Brian Loschiavo — the former of whom is the filmmaker who became the band’s bassist; the latter was charged with assembling the footage in 2020 — about making something of the fly-on-the-Texas-wall footage seven years later.
All three members of the critically hailed trio — Duddy, singer/guitarist Mark Wystrach and band leader/lead guitarist Jess Carson — had played together in bands in L.A. previously before settling into a studio near the Texas/Mexico border to woodshed what turned into Midland. They’d gone on to extramusical pursuits, though, with Duddy already on his way to becoming a noted music video director — he’s done many of his pal Bruno Mars’ celebrated videos — before they met back up at a wedding and decided to give music one more shot.
“Showing up there in the first place with a camera in hand, and not an instrument in my hand,” Duddy says, “was a demonstration of the fact that I just thought I was going to be filming my buddies getting together for posterity, and using that footage down the road in some sort of documentary form, I come from a video background, so you’re just constantly filming things with the idea that maybe maybe down the road, it’ll be something to use. And before the end of the trip — a couple of days in, in fact — you’ll see there’s a slagging of good footage halfway through that first week that we were there, because I kind of stopped filming.” (He did, as previously mentioned, at least keep the camera rolling on a tripod.) “And I just, through the process of osmosis, got pulled into the project on a musical side.”
There was no certainty about what would come out of the Sonic Ranch laboratory. “It started as exploratory,” Duddy says. Seemingly cutting down on band prospects, he trio were living in three separate places (Carson having already moved to Texas, with Duddy and Wystrach in California), “and we were best buds, but everyone was getting pulled in separate directions, all of which were non-musical for the most part, living somewhat ordinary lives, having given up on music. Because it just got to a point living in L.A., when we’d all been in bands in our twenties and teens, that it was just like, ‘Oh man, this just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.’ You gotta keep the lights on. And so showing up was kind of this experiment — three friends getting together and just seeing what would happen. By the time we left, it was like, ‘This is a band. Everything else that we have going on in our lives, business or creative, is just not important. It’s going to have to take a backseat.’ And we all felt that way, flying home from Texas.”
The group’s career took off when Midland released its debut album, “On the Rocks,” via Big Machine in 2017 and immediately had a top 10 country single with “Drinkin’ Problem.” An even better sophomore album, “Let It Roll,” came out two years later (see Variety‘s review here). With the business of career establishment continuing apace, no one thought much about that making-of footage, or the songs that they professionally cut at the time but set aside in favor of fresher material. (Only one song on the new/old “Sonic Ranch” album, “Fourteen Gears,” ended up being re-recorded for a proper Midland project.)
“Once we started going, so many other things became more important — the songwriting, the rehearsing as a band, moving to Texas, getting gigs, playing for beer money on Tuesday afternoon,” Duddy says. “All that stuff we took as serious as we had in our teenage years or our early twenties, but all of a sudden it breathed this new life into us as men, and this time, fortunately, we had the hindsight of experience to know how to hunker down and do things the right way, as far as a commitment level and staying focused.” Meanwhile, “the footage just sat on a shelf at that point and collected dust,” he notes.
“It wasn’t until we found ourselves in whatever you want to call 2020, not being on the road, really just looking back retrospectively on the things that we had done… which you can’t do when you’re on tour nonstop for four years. You just don’t have the benefit of pausing to look around. Suddenly here we are without tour dates on the books, thinking, wow – what an incredible ride we’ve been on. Why don’t we just take a look at this footage, just for nostalgia’s sake? And then it just became really apparent: this stuff had a magic that was undeniable.”
It was self-evidently magical enough that Duddy “picked up and moved my family from California to Texas in a matter of two months because of these songs. People thought I was absolutely nuts. I’m from Los Angeles, all my life. Friends and family, and they were just flabbergasted that we were moving to Texas to… start a country band? It was science fiction,” he laughs. “But when you revisit those songs and then the footage, it puts you back immediately into this place, where the spirit is tangible and you can see these three guys coalescing into a band before your eyes. What would have taken normally years of forging a relationship and a dynamic happened in 10 days.”
Loschiavo had been commissioned to shoot a mini-doc on the band after the Big Machine signing, and heard about the Sonic Ranch material then but never saw it till the idea arose of revisiting the footage this past year. “I kind of knew what to expect,” says the co-director, “but it wasn’t until we sat with the footage that we were blown away with what they had. It’s just kind of this treasure trove that you don’t normally get to see kind of the big bang moment — the inciting incident of a band. And Cam was there to kind of capture all of it. We at first thought we were going to need to supplement it with interviews or voiceover or reshoots, but the verite feel of everything really worked, and I think it came together really beautifully with just the existing footage.”
Looking at that 2014 material, Loschiavo was struck by “just the honesty of it and the perfect storm of where each of the guys were in their lives when it was happening, and the fact that they were self-aware enough and Cam was self-aware enough to have those moments where they’re reflecting on where they are in their personal lives, and what a risk this would be. It’s kind of undeniable, this magic that’s happening. Just the honesty of it is really what struck me, and almost feeling like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to.”
Midland will be giving a live premiere to some of that “Sonic Ranch” material in a mini-tour of Texas coming up… with shows that do involve social distancing, even though the governor has just declared that unnecessary. “We’re playing some minor league stadiums out here in Texas, socially distanced concerts, where everyone has enough room to breathe and enjoy music,” Duddy says. “Then we’re streaming three nights at Billy Bob’s with NoCap, which is a really cool platform for watching shows. We’re going to be playing a lot of these Sonic Ranch songs for the first time since… since before we had children, let’s say that. Since we were cobbling together the beer money for a couple of drinks after our set at Pooties Roadhouse. It’ll be fast and loose and kind of a trip memory lane for a lot of us in the band.” (Information on the Billy Bob’s livestreams happening April 8-10 can be found here.)
A full track list for the “Sonic Ranch” album:
1. Fourteen Gears (Adobe House Version)
2. Cowgirl Blues (Mark Wystrach Vocal)
3. Worn Out Boots
4. Champagne For The Pain
5. Will This Life Be As Grand
6. Fool’s Luck
8. She’s A Cowgirl
9. Runnin’ Wild
10. Texas Is The Last Stop
11. Cowgirl Blues (Jess Carson Vocal)
12. This Town