John Baumann, Cleto Cordero, William Clark Green and Josh Abbott team up as the Panhandlers to deliver a rough-edged homage to the Panhandle of West Texas, and while it won’t compete with the best of their individual albums, it’s a neat side-project nonetheless.
Country music is inherently corny.
That’s not a slight, of course, but rather one of its charming qualities. Truthfully, there aren’t many songs that completely fit that old cliché of “play a country song backwards and you’ll get your dog and wife back,” but the simplicity inherent in many tried-and-true themes does give it its main identity. And if we’re zoning in on just one of those examples, it wouldn’t take long to find out that Texas singer/songwriters really love singing about their home state.
Granted, there’s a difference between indulging too much in a cliché and letting the work stand on its own, without any qualifiers needed. The power always rests in the song and the writer behind it, in other words, and familiar or not, a good song is a good song. And sometimes the land speaks for itself, too, like how Kentucky, in recent years, has given way to some of independent country music’s most promising new acts, or how the Panhandle of West Texas has given way to some of the most promising musical acts of all time – from Buddy Holly to Waylon Jennings, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Terry Allen, Lloyd and Natalie Maines and more.
That, in a nutshell, is the inspiration for the Panhandlers’ formation, a supergroup comprised of John Baumann, Cleto Cordero, William Clark Green and Josh Abbott, inspired by the Flatlanders group of the ‘70s that included the aforementioned Gilmore, Ely and Hancock. And with Bruce Robison’s involvement in the project through his The Next Waltz outfit, the only question left was, could four of the heaviest hitters in the Texas scene actually make an album about the Panhandle – an (at least from what I’ve heard) undesirable land – be interesting?
Well, yes and no. I’ll admit I didn’t click with this album until a few listens in – in part for reasons I’ll lay out soon enough, but in other parts because of how much of a ramshackled, almost empty listen this is at points, especially compared to the members’ solo projects. Granted, given the vastness of the land, that emptiness is largely intentional, and while it’s a little too uneven to call it a great listen, as a side-project, it’s a fun listen that manages to offer a few surprises along the way.
Though to lay out the main criticisms early on, as a collaborative effort, it’s always a shame when there’s a lack of camaraderie between the group members. Sure, each member contributes their fair share to this project, both vocally and lyrically, but the trade-off of lead vocal duties on some songs often feels lacking and disconnected from the spirit of the record; as if it’s just four singers taking turns contributing to a track that only needed one voice. The only moment that comes close to offering that looser moment is the touring song in “This Is My Life,” and even then, it’s only Abbott who’s having fun discussing his fellow Panhandlers. It’s more of a wasted opportunity over a misstep, but tracks like that, “No Handle” and “This Flatland Life” really could have benefited from better interplay.
That’s not to mention that, to be blunt, all four artists are more known for their songwriting capabilities than they are their vocal chops, and considering the record is intentionally offbeat and lacking in real groove or punch, the tracks that push them to do more – like Baumann’s higher-registered performance on “West Texas Girl,” Cordero’s similar performance on “Cactus Flower” and Abbott’s lazier flow on “This Is My Life” – highlight those limitations and don’t really pan out, sadly.
But that’s not to say there aren’t some great performances: Green’s almost too at-home selling the role of the lonesome troubadour in “Lonesome Heart,” Baumann’s straightforward, earnest manner gives “Caprockin’” some real weight behind it, and Cordero’s warmer performance on “Panhandle Slim” is enough to make that twist at the end pretty sweet and endearing. Plus, even if I would have preferred more interplay between the members on “No Handle,” they’re all pretty adept at selling that lazier, natural energy (my initial review may have been lukewarm, but I’m surprised how much that song has grown on me).
Speaking of lazier energy, though (an oxymoron, yes, but work with me), the instrumentation and production basically thrives off of it. It may not always be the most tuneful listen in the world, but there are plenty of excellent moments here: the piano has a surprising amount of presence, and when combined with the tinges of reverb on “Lonesome Heart” or used for added warmth on “Caprockin’,” it’s fairly potent; “No Handle” is essentially one free-flowing jam session after a few minutes, courtesy of some sharper electric axes and plenty of pedal steel and fiddle to drive the groove; and the minor touches added to the instrumentation in “The Panhandler” help the darker, seedier atmosphere really sink in. Still, there’s a difference in free-flowing, rollicking fun and an uninspired, flat listen, and while “This Flatland Life” and “Cactus Girl” are opting for that same looser atmosphere, they’re also moments that don’t quite click together in other ways to make up for their off-kilter, ramshackled compositions.
As for the writing, the lyrical themes are likely obvious by now, but what always keeps this project grounded is a sense of perspective. The Panhandle is, at times, too frigid or too hot to handle, and a lack of topography means it’s a bleak area. The members, of course, know this and break down their reasons for staying and leaving. Some people who live there get to bask in the still beauty and find peace and stability on “Caprockin’,” while for others, the choice to stay isn’t theirs, but rather because of a familial or ancestral obligation or because they lack the resources to move on to something better.
But outside of “The Panhandler,” which paints this homeless drifter’s plight in a sorrowful manner with no hope in sight, the record is too loose and fun to say these characters are caught in “hopeless” situations. If anything, the beauty found is simpler and personal, like having or finding someone to love on “Caprockin’” and “Panhandle Slim,” respectively. At other times, poking fun at the entire situation is a needed coping mechanism, like on “No Handle” and “This Is My Life.” And while this record does lack a real “collaborative” feel to it, it does mean some individual moments stand out that much more, oddly enough. Take “Panhandle Slim” and “West Texas Girl,” for example, two tracks largely similar to one another – only it’s Cordero’s knack for clever wordplay (“the crabapple of his mother’s eye”) that fuels the former track while Baumann’s knack for simpler, yet fuller, details helps the latter track turn something corny into a legitimately endearing listen. And from afar, songwriter Charlie Stout’s contribution with “West Texas In My Eye” helps set the real dramatic stakes of what forces these characters to either leave or be tethered to this land.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the record doesn’t scan as hokey or contrived at points. There’s a difference between acknowledging the hardships evident in “West Texas In My Eye” and “The Panhandler” and casually brushing them off as things that just “happen” on “This Flatland Life,” after all. But there’s also a vibrancy to this record that, for as slow as it is, does eventually reveal itself. That doesn’t mean this album couldn’t have afforded a few more upticks in tempo (outside of “No Handle,” that is) or that it doesn’t feel like a missed opportunity in other regards, but it’s a slow burn of an album that’s surprisingly more layered than what initially meets the eye. And that’s likely the ultimate intent anyway.
(Very light 7/10)
- Favorite tracks: “No Handle,” “Lonesome Heart,” “Panhandle Slim,” “West Texas In My Eyes,” “The Panhandler”
- Least favorite track: “This Flatland Life”