“The panhandle of Texas is a really forgotten part of the world. It’s not a pretty place; it’s dusty and it smells like cow shit, but it has its beauty. And the people are just the best,” says William Clark Green, who with three fellow Texas singer-songwriters is hoping to shine a light on an overlooked region of the state with their new group and album.
The Panhandlers — Green, Josh Abbott, John Baumann, and Cleto Cordero — released their self-titled debut in March, just prior to the world going to hell. Listening to it now, the LP has the uncanny ability to make you pine for a place you may have never visited. With its imagery of horses on the range, prickly pear cactus flowers, and hitting the road in a “12-bunk bus,” it’s a wide-open record for a constricting, even suffocating, moment in history.
Abbott, Green, Baumann, and Cordero wrote all of the songs on The Panhandlers except the opening track, the mournful “West Texas in My Eye,” penned by Lubbock songwriter and photographer Charlie Stout. “Lately I’ve been thinking/that I could leave this town/I’d cut back on my drinking/stop this running ’round,” it begins, voicing the escapist fantasies of some who live in the hardscrabble region. Abbott, the leader of the popular touring act the Josh Abbott Band and the brains behind the Panhandlers, was adamant about recording it.
“I pretty much stood on a table and said, ‘We can’t make this record without doing this song. It literally is the Panhandlers and if we don’t do it, we’re robbing this album of a great song just because we didn’t write it,’” Abbott says. The group premiered a music video for the track on Friday, one of a handful of songs on the LP that features each singer taking his own verse.
Originally conceived as a covers album tribute to the Flatlanders, the legendary Texas trio of Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the project evolved into a proper band record with all-original songs (save for the Stout tune). Abbott, Green, Baumann, and Cordero, who fronts the group Flatland Cavalry, rendezvoused in Marfa, Texas, for a writing retreat and emerged with the bones of The Panhandlers.
Tracks like “This Flatland Life” and “No Handle” bristle with a dusty energy, with the latter stretching out into a rambling jam session. Others like the hopeful “Lonesome Heart” are tear-in-my-beer weepers, offering a vulnerable glimpse behind the musicians’ testosterone-charged exteriors.
Green wrote “Lonesome Heart” with Cordero and Baumann during one inebriated night on their Marfa vision quest. “We were sitting out looking up at the stars, and Cleto and John were just fucking giggling and pissing me off because they wouldn’t stop. I started humming the song and John finally stops giggling and goes, ‘What is that? It’s really good; let’s write that,’” Green says. “It reminded me of my brother, who was homeless for a couple years, and I don’t really get to write many songs about that.”
Abbott lets his guard down too on “This Is My Life,” which stands as the Panhandlers’ mission statement. As the most well-known name in the band, Abbott was hesitant about recording his own star turn for the record. The LP’s producer Bruce Robison, however, insisted and Abbott went home and wrote the plainspoken “This Is My Life.” He sings about details he knows intimately: eating brisket for lunch, touring in a bus, playing music. But he also writes a heartfelt line about each of his bandmates: Clark is “loud but a good hang”; Baumann is “eloquent and pensive”; and Cordero is “a poet…who worries about the world.”
“The verse about all bandmates was really fun to write,” Abbott says. “It was a cool summary of each one of them and it’s pretty accurate.”
The Panhandlers had hoped to tour behind their album this year, but the pandemic shutdown has halted any gigs, at least for now. Abbott, who has a master’s in communication studies from Texas Tech University, thinks the Texas music scene is better suited to resume live concerts before other parts of the country.
“The way we operate traditionally and the businesses that we’ve all built will be easier to get going than the national mainstream artists. Because, for instance, we’re used to playing honky-tonks and bars. That’s how we do our thing,” he says.
“When is Eric Church or Miranda Lambert or whatever artists going to be able to roll into town and play to 20,000 people? They have X amount of trucks, X amount of employees, and stage lighting. They have really high expenses. But down here we operate on a very lower kind of level of budget. We don’t have $75 tickets. We have $20 tickets. So we don’t have to play to 10,000-plus people to make it work.”
Abbott is optimistic that will happen, but in the meantime, country fans will have to travel vicariously through the songs on The Panhandlers, immersing themselves in the descriptions of a landscape that may not be traditionally beautiful but is open and free.
“If you think of the history of West Texas and the people who’ve come out of there in every type of music, from rock & roll and country to Western swing…” Green says, “It is a special place.”