West Texas. Rural and rugged, the area has inspired some of the most striking American roots music of the past 70 years. Its native sons include Buddy Holly, Terry Allen, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills, and the Flatlanders — a roster of country singers, western swing pioneers, and rock & roll originators whose songs affected an entire nation, even as they nodded to the artists’ windswept stomping grounds. Decades after those songwriters sang the praises of West Texas, a new group of musicians have begun proudly carrying the torch, creating music that’s both regionally-inspired and universal.
The Panhandlers aren’t your typical hometown heroes. Separately, the band’s four members — Josh Abbott, John Baumann, William Clark Green, and Flatland Cavalry’s Cleto Cordero — are acclaimed songwriters and road-tested frontmen in their own right. Together, they’re a true powerhouse representing some of Texas’ most beloved musical exports, rolling their talents into a band whose homegrown country music revisits and revises the classic influence of West Texas. Tracked live to analog tape by producer Bruce Robison, the group’s self-titled debut is a modern record for old souls — a record written by contemporary Texas-based musicians and recorded in the old-school, straight-to-tape spirit of their 1960s and ’70s influences.
“The sound is a sonic landscape right out of a hot afternoon in Lubbock, Texas,” says Baumann, who shares songwriting credits and frontman duties with his three collaborators. “It’s loose and warm. The lyrical pictures are all like something off an old postcard, each one with its own story to tell, with the backdrops being little vignettes of life on the South Plains Panhandle region of Texas.”
Initially envisioned as a collection of cover songs honoring the sound and spirit of West Texas (specifically area legends the Flatlanders), the Panhandlers’ debut grew into an original record during a songwriting session in Marfa, Texas. There, on a high plateau in the Chihuahuan Desert, the four songwriters began collaborating for the first time. Later, after reconvening in the recording studio with Robison, they reignited the creative spark by capturing each song in two or three takes, focusing on performances that mirrored the unpolished charm of the West Texas territory.
“It’s storytelling music,” says Cleto Cordero. “The songs are vignettes of West Texas life, but when you put them together, they make a mosaic. You’ve got honky-tonk songs such as ‘This is My Life,’ which Josh sings. You’ve got folky cowboy songs like ‘Panhandle Slim,’ which you could play around a campfire. I’m from Midland, TX, so I’m used to this sense of barrenness and nothingness, and I’ve learned there’s something beautiful about that. A lot of the songs reflect that imagery and spirit. A California record would sound like sunshine and beautiful people in sunglasses. That’s not what we made. We made a West Texas record.”
Laced with pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, dobro, guitar, and percussion, the Panhandlers’ debut mixes sharp-eyed songwriting with country instrumentation. “This Flatland Life” offer an overview of West Texas society over a loose, loping beat, while “Caprockin'” mixes upright piano and acoustic guitar into an evocative ballad about making the most out of simple surroundings. In addition to kicking off the album with a cover of Charlie Stout’s “West Texas in My Eye,” the four songwriters each sing a song or two apiece, while also combining their voices into rough-edged harmonies. The result is a love letter not only to a specific part of Texas, but also the characters, challenges, and triumphs that fill it.
“Country music is music for people with rough lives,” says Robison, a fellow songwriter whose hits include the Dixie Chicks’ chart-topping “Travelin’ Soldier.” “That’s what this album is all about. It aspires to be music that makes people feel better at the end of a rough week. It’s one step away from the honky-tonk and one step away from the roughneck oil house. West Texas really has an identity. It gets so damn cold, and for the people who stay there, it’s half pride, half resignation, and half something else. That identity has really drawn these guys together.”
In keeping with the album’s homegrown creation, The Panhandlers was recorded to two-inch tape, with all the musicians playing together in the same room. It will be released independently via The Next Waltz, Robison’s artist-driven record label.
“There wasn’t a computer in the building when we were recording, which was great,” remembers William Clark Green. “It seemed to fit with whole vibe of the album. We wanted to release a collection of lonesome West Texas songs, with that inherent vibe of wind, dust, and tumbleweeds.”
Make no mistake, though; The Panhandlers’ debut resonates far beyond the land of Lubbock, Marfa, and other West Texas destinations. It isn’t just a record for Texans. It’s a record for anyone who grew up in rural areas, learning to find the love in America’s forgotten pocketes.
“The album feels like a story many people have lived or heard,” Josh Abbott says. “It’s an honest rural reflection of life, voiced here from the panhandle and West Texas, but it’s not limited to those areas. Anyone from small town America can relate to the balance of blessings and hardships that life offers. People will love this album because it’s real.”