The Panhandlers

REVIEW: The Panhandlers “Tough Country”


The Panhandlers — Tough Country

There’s a lot of country music on the radio written for (and by) people who haven’t lived the life – too many songs about horses, tractors and rough honky-tonks come from pens held by hands as smooth as the latest white-collar East Coast ex-pat. Well, that’s not so of the boys in the Panhandlers. The singer-songwriters in this supergroup (Josh Abbott, John Baumann, William Clark Green and Cleto Cordero) know the West Texas lifestyle well enough to pull stories of hard work and long roadies (most of which conclude with a stiff drink) and craft them into two albums’ worth of barroom stompers and bitter ballads. That second record, Tough Country, touches on magic mushrooms, homelessness and loyal pups (and, of course, love), painting a picture of Texas far more colorful than you’ll hear on your radio.

That portrait of Texas begins with a Charlie Stout tune. “Flat Land.” Told through the eyes of the non-human prairie inhabitants, looks at the damage that man has done to the land they claim to love – “I’ve seen your cities rise, I’ve seen the boom, I’ll see the bust” – while realizing that life will go one long after man has ceased to exist – “I will see your bones bleach in the sun and slowly turn to dust.” The harshness of that land is also felt in “Where Cotton is KIng,” where even the hardest working farmer is at the mercy of a stronger force – “Mother Nature, she’s the queen/She’ll grant your wish and haunt your dreams.”

But, really, what’s Texas music without some booze and big lovin’? “The Chilton Song” is actually both – a love song to the titular drink that doubles as an instruction manual to making the vodka and lemon-spiked beverage (like many of the songs on Tough Country, the guys share vocal duties, and the effect here is boozily collegial). Love is also explored via the best of Texas traditions – the long road trip. “Valentine, for Valentines,” graced by vocals from the always-excellent Kaitlin Butts, escapes the typical February 14th claptrap – “No rom-coms, candy grams/Champagne toast dinner plans” for a more private holiday. Likewise, “Santa Fe,” an unpublished Guy Clark tune, finds a couple hitting a road, but more in a last-ditch effort to save what’s left – “We got no one to blame/Honey this is self-inflicted pain/And we both know that guilt’s a waste of time.” “Lajitas,” meanwhile, is a banjo- and mandolin-inflected jaunt with a different goal in mind – “Just eat all of what I sell ya/Don’t try and take ‘em home/Them border patrol dogs know/Psilocybin like a bone.”

The most notable detour from radio country on Tough Country is “The Corner Comedian.” Josh Abbott’s song, spoken more than sung, is written from the perspective of a street performer who survives by juggling, begging and light thieving. Pedal steel and fiddle quietly underline the desperation, but it’s Abbot’s lyrics, full of hunger and dark humor – “I’ll write a joke on cardboard/The punchline is me gettin’ to eat again” – that portray a kind of empathy you won’t ever hear or see at a stadium country concert. On an album that serves up big, thick slices of Texas, it’s this small, intimate moment that shows the best of the Lone Star State.

Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “I-Got-Your-Back-Dog” – this loping ode describes a VERY good boy – “Been as loyal as long as the length of my dog-having life” while confirming that dogs do, in fact, go to Heaven.

Tough Country was produced by Bruce Robison and The Panhandlers, engineered and mixed by Steve Mazur and mastered by Pete Lyman. The Panhandlers are Josh Abbott, John Baumann, William Clark Green and Cleto Cordero. Songs written by The Panhandlers, with additional writing credits going to Charlie Stout, Erik Dylan, Guy Clark and Kyle Hutton. Musicians on the album include Logan Bowers (drums), Scott Davis (bass), Geoff Queen (guitar, Dobro, pedal steel, mandolin), Trevor Nealon (keys, piano, organ), Austin Davis (banjo), Jay Saldana (drums, percussion), Wesley Hall (fiddle), Kaitlin Butts (vocals) and Bruce Robison (harmonica).

Go here to order/stream Tough Country (out now):


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