Makin’ Tracks: The ‘Longneck’ Way: Midland Taps Jon Pardi For a Chaotic, ’90s-Branded Escapade

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When Midland shot its raucous “Longneck Way To Go” video with Jon Pardi at Nashville’s Eastside Bowl in April, the overnight assignment brought together two former touring partners who proved to be a good-time challenge for director Harper Smith.

“It was a genuine party, and literally Harper just yelling that we have to get these shots done,” Midland lead vocalist Mark Wystrach recalls. “The video itself was just kind of an inconvenience in the midst of this party.”

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That was a more natural setting for Midland than the Zoom setup they used to write “Longneck” in 2020. The band’s three-part harmonies — featuring bassist Cameron Duddy on high falsetto and guitarist Jess Carson singing between Duddy and Wystrach — are a key feature in its sound, but Zoom’s time lag doesn’t facilitate that kind of interaction. Thus, the writing relied on familiarity.

“Stuff with long vowels — that’s primetime for country music harmony,” Duddy says. “A lot of Crosby, Stills & Nash stuff and EaglesJackson Browne even — a lot of that stuff was over long syllables and long vowels. ‘Longneck Way To Go’ has got a few of those, so it’s easy to kind of imagine what it would be like as soon as you got into the studio, cutting harmonies. And that’s right there in our sweet spot.”

Rhett Akins (“Dirt on My Boots,” “Life Changes”), working alongside Ashley Gorley (“Take My Name,” “She Had Me at Heads Carolina”) at Gorley’s home, made the Zoom hookup easier by starting the day with a well-developed idea. He had written the title “Longneck Way To Go” in a notebook of concepts, and in advance of the appointment, he worked up a storyline about a heartbroken man trying to drown his sorrows at the local honky-tonk, alternately ordering rounds for his fellow patrons, chatting with the bartender and talking to the woman in the back of his mind.

“If the song was called ‘I Got a Long Way To Go,’ obviously, that can be anything,” Akins says. “But when you say ‘longneck,’ it just immediately put it in a bar for me: Some guy just sitting there pining over someone and the beer’s not helping. It’s like, ‘The more I keep drinking, the longer it feels like I’m never going to get over this person.’”

Akins led off with the title and the full chorus, echoing a classic country move that’s uncommon in the current marketplace. In that scenario, Akins dropped in a bridge before he even got to the second verse.

Midland was shocked when Akins submitted the mostly completed song as a writing project, though he also noted that it needed a bit of reworking to fully fit the group. The band members picked apart pieces of the lyric, adjusted some melodic elements and rebuilt it for their needs, mercilessly ripping each other — and amusing Akins.

“I just love hearing them,” he says. “They argue with each other like brothers. Somebody will say a line, and the other guy’s like, ‘That sucks, dude. We’re not singing that.’ And so even though it’s chaotic, I love it.”

Given the Zoom limitations, they were unable to make a work tape that involved everyone and did “Longneck” justice, so Akins and Gorley brought it to a multiple-writer demo session that guitarist Ilya Toshinsky ran at Nashville’s Station West and developed a full-blown version with guitars and drums.

The members of Midland, thinking they had perhaps overdone the drinking theme with their material, decided against cutting “Longneck” for their EP The Last Resort, released July 16, 2021. But they still had a strong sentiment for it, and “Longneck” was sent to Pardi — who liked it, but wasn’t slated to enter the studio again for a while.

So as the band reassembled for a full album, The Last Resort: Greetings From (released May 6), the group went back to the “Longneck” demo and decided it couldn’t be ignored. Midland recorded it on Aug. 17, 2021, at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios with producers Shane McAnally (Old DominionWalker Hayes) and Josh Osborne (Carly PearceLucie Silvas) focused on big-picture elements while Dann Huff (Keith UrbanKane Brown) addressed practical details.

One major point was the rhythmic feel: The band members decided to subdivide the beats evenly. “One of the biggest stylistic things that we talked about was trying to differentiate it from songs of ours like ‘Mr. Lonely’ and ‘Make a Little’ that have a shuffle and making this one a little more straight, a little more strumming,” Carson says. “We noticed playing live that we tend to write a lot of shuffles in that tempo.”

They played up their retro-built, West Coast roots with the production. Steel guitarist Paul Franklin used a distortion pedal to approximate the sound of Browne sideman David Lindley; a false ending — and the instrumental fade-out that follows — borrowed a page from the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” and Browne’s “Running on Empty”; and Toshinsky’s banjo part is reminiscent of Bernie Leadon’s role in the countriest Eagles recordings.

“To play it that fast is so stupid,” Huff says in admiration of Toshinsky. “He’s like a damn machine. He’s just built for speed.”

The orderly studio results emerged, not surprisingly, from chaos. “The way that they are comes out in their music,” Huff says. “Their sessions are just utter confusion, everything at every moment. It’s like an ongoing party that never stops. There are three producers in the room, and none of us have any control over anything.”

Carson and Duddy worked out the harmony parts later at a studio in Dripping Springs, Texas, where both of them live. And one more voice came into the picture as Pardi was brought on board. He cut a vocal for the entire song on his own and let Midland and the producers pick the sections that worked best. “When we heard Jon’s part, it was a treat — competitive, in one way or another,” Wystrach says. “Jon was like, ‘All right, motherf–kers.’ I think he gave one of his best vocal performances.”

Pardi sang it with swagger, but also injected his own subtle brand of chaos, singing loosely against the harmonies in a way that hints at the inexact mindset of a closing-time patron. “Actually, I’m surprised that it works,” Carson says. “If you’ll notice, it’s not perfect, because our harmonies were already there when he was singing it, and his delivery is different than Mark’s. So not everything lines up in like a perfect, natural way. But it kind of gives it a live band feel.”

Big Machine released “Longneck Way To Go” to country radio through PlayMPE on June 21, seamlessly injecting upbeat, old-school energy into the modern genre.

“In Austin, there’s a radio station that spins new country music against ’90s country,” Duddy says. “You’ll hear a Thomas Rhett song, and then the next song, they’ll play a Garth Brooksor a Brooks & Dunn song. And I believe you could put the song in the rotation on there and you couldn’t really tell if it was an early-’90s song or brand-new.” 

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