Stacie Hestand – Raised Rowdy Contributor
Formed by some of our favorite Texas singers and songwriters (see more about Josh Abbott, Cleto Cordero, William Clark Green, and John Baumann here), supergroup The Panhandlers officially released their self-titled debut album earlier this month. Given the respective talent of each of the members, this album was earmarked to be a standout from the moment it was announced; now that it’s finally here, it’s become even more clear that this is likely going to be one of the best albums to be released this year. The recording style (straight to tape, which is characteristic of anything recorded with producer Bruce Robison) and instrumental arrangements give the record a naturally comfortable feel, as does the vocal interplay of Abbott, Cordero, Baumann, and Green. Even as a side project for all of the artists involved, the supergroup’s debut features top-notch songwriting across the board that interweaves imagery and storytelling to capture the soul of a landscape. The ten songs on the self-titled album slide through vignettes of West Texas in a way that’s as vivid as watching the land itself pass by through a car window – bringing to life the faded hues of blue, green, and brown, along with the dust, weather, and characters that populate the unrelenting expanse.
The first track, “West Texas in My Eye”, was written by Charlie Stout and features vocals from all four members, opening the album with an absolutely stunning portrait of the land this record inhabits. Dust, wind, desert sage, and tornadoes (“I’ve seen the thunderheads descend and rip into the ground/the twisted hand of heaven spreading terror all around”) all color the narrator’s barely-stifled emotion at the thought of leaving his home: “I ain’t crying, that’s West Texas in my Eye”. Also featuring vocals from all four members, “This Flatland Life” fills out the everyday experience of life in “a place that looks like time’s forgotten”, picking up a tempo that mirrors the heartbeat of the region’s politics and economics while also highlighting the similarities that tie West Texans together in spite of their differences.
While much of the album’s character comes from the combination of the members’ vocal styles, several of the standout tracks feature lead vocals from only one member. Green’s voice on “Lonesome Heart” cuts a longing, solitary figure that complements the entire album’s wistful overtones, while Baumann’s spotlight in “Caprockin’” and “West Texas Girl” puts the striking and poetic nature of both his songwriting and vocals on full display. Cleto Cordero’s soft and sentimental vocals lend themselves perfectly to the album’s love song, “Cactus Flower”, which Cordero wrote with Abbott; Cordero’s fiancée, Kaitlin Butts, also lends background vocals to the tune that she inspired. While the supergroup’s other members, including producer Bruce Robison, contribute to “This Is My Life”, Josh Abbott takes center stage in the lighthearted and seemingly autobiographical insight into life as a “rowdy group of dreamers, drinkers, and has-beens”, complete with spot-on introductory quips about each of the group’s members.
Many of the project’s songs send listeners on a ride through the land itself, but the other defining theme of the album – the people of West Texas – comes into sharper focus with the album’s remaining tracks. With Baumann and Cordero’s lyrics set to a floating, steel-guitar laden melody, “Panhandle Slim” tells the archetypical tale of a hardened lone wolf, while “The Panhandler” (solely written by Cordero) adopts a more high and lonesome sound, evocative of the intrigue and suspense of a classic Western film. The storytelling elements of both of these tracks add another layer of complexity to the album, making the project even more well-rounded as it highlights the narrative aspects of the respective members’ songwriting abilities.
All in all, The Panhandlers’ self-titled debut paints a richly layered portrait of one specific location – West Texas – but will speak to anyone whose heart belongs to the great wide open. Imbued with the sense of rugged pride that comes with choosing to make a home in a sometimes inhospitable place, the sweeping, all-encompassing view it presents creates both a sense of home and of wanderlust. Overall, The Panhandlers’ self-titled debut also puts a spotlight on the best attributes of each artist as both a writer and performer, while classic Texas country stylings maintain a cohesive feel throughout the complete project. Bottom line, this is one album that simply gets better every time you listen to it. Check it out below, and if you like what you hear you can buy it here, or follow along on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to stay updated on future live performances.