Album Review – “The Panhandlers” (Self-Titled)

The Panhandle of West Texas is not exactly somewhere one would choose to end up. Balls hot in the summer, frigid and windy as hell in the winter, with no shade or shield from trees or really any topography to speak of, “flatland” doesn’t even seem to do justice to just how incredibly still the swale of the earth is throughout the region. It’s only due to ample oil reserves, some decent grazing land, the ability to grow cotton in the crumbling ground—along with an Okie or two that broke down in Dumas during the dust bowl and never left (pronounced “doo-mus” not “dumbass”)—that you have enough population in the area to justify an outlet mall or two.

The landscape is bleak for sure, but since the beginning of recorded music, boys and girls from the Panhandle area have been making their mark, from Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings, to the second generation guys such as Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Terry Allen, to Lloyd and Natalie Maines, all the way back to Vernon Dalhart who was the first ever country artist to sell a million copies of a single in the mid 20’s before The Bristol Sessions even took place. Chalk it up to the lack of natural beauty in the area inspiring the inhabitants to make some of their own through song and rhyme, but the greater Panhandle region has produced more than its fair share on musical contributions to America.

The Panhandlers continue that rich tradition into the present day, though the respective pickers and singers were already doing so well before the formation of this supergroup. Josh Abbott is a bonafide headliner from the region, right up there with Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen for top billing in Texas music. William Clark Green who went to college in Lubbock is right on their heels. Cleto Cordero is the frontman and primary songwriter for Flatland Cavalry, one of the fast-rising groups from the region, and John Baumann is a revered songwriter who includes a cut for Kenny Chesney on his resume.

It all came together as a proposed tribute to the Flatlanders group from back in the early 70’s (Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock), inspired after watching a Dixie Chicks tribute perform at The Music Fest in Steamboat Springs, CO in early 2019. This escalated into a songwriting session with the respective members in Marfa, TX, and next thing you knew they were recording an album for Bruce Robison’s The Next Waltz outfit.

The Panhandlers aren’t just bound by their ties to the region. The geography and people of the upper portions of West Texas is what this music is all about. The set starts off with arguably the best song called “West Texas in My Eye,” not written by any of the Panhandlers members, but by noted West Texas songwriter Charlie Stout. This sets the table for ten tracks that run through the trials and tribulations of the region with such insight and clarity that you taste the grit between your teeth, hear the wind in your ears, and feel the sun on your back until you find yourself alone on the flat plain yourself, beholding the self-reflective mood of the surrounding nothingness.

From falling water tables to failing farms, this is an account of an unforgiving land nobody would ever choose to call home. Yet people still do, and find the beauty in the few places it lingers—the flower on the top of a cactus, a pretty girl in a truck with a good taste in music and a friendly smile. And no matter how unappreciative the rest of the world may regard this seemingly nondescript place, a deep appreciation rests in the heart of its residents, because it’s responsible for who they are.

Though The Flatlanders who inspired this project were known mostly for mixing country and rock with folk-style songwriting similar to other performers from the Panhandle region, this record is mostly a country affair, but with loose arrangements cut live to tape in The Next Waltz style. There are plenty of quality performances on the record, but don’t expect a slick product. That’s not what they’re aiming for here.

The stories and setting is what makes The Pandhandlers interesting, engaging, and significant. Though this should be regarded as a really cool supergroup and side project, it does feel like a side project nonetheless, if that makes sense. This is a record appreciated more being stumbled upon as opposed to highly-anticipated, just like that original Flatlanders material after the respective members went on to launch successful solo careers, and you found their albums lingering in the back of record stores until they became legendary. Sometimes the writing feels a little hokey, and the production flat on a few of the songs near the end. They do their best to harmonize, but these four as singer were probably not the ones you would hand pick to form a choir together, even if their respective singing talents are fine.

The loss of regionalism in recorded music has directly paralleled its decline. It’s also one of the reasons the Texas and Red Dirt scene remains so rich and vibrant compared to its mainstream counterpart. Performers bringing their personal stories and regional dialects to the music, even from this limited region is what has kept it so lush.

The Panhandle may not have much to look at. But it sounds amazing.

1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)

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