The Panhandlers Interview: Texas Country Heavyweights Talk Group’s ‘Imperfectly Perfect’ Debut Album
Texas country musicians tend to be a pretty tight-knit group. Even though the Lone Star State is a truly massive place with tons of musically diverse artists, the bonds between the musicians who make a living touring its honky-tonks and other venues are strong, and they’ve produced some truly brilliant collaborations over the years.
The latest of these team-ups is the Panhandlers. Bringing together Josh Abbott, William Clark Green, Flatland Cavalry frontman Cleto Cordero and John Baumann, the band is a modern-day reboot of West Texas country legends the Flatlanders, an early ‘70s act out of Lubbock, Texas, that helped launch the careers of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock.
Inspired by the Flatlanders and the desolate vibes of Far West Texas, the Panhandlers came together with producer Bruce Robison to create a record that is truly stunning, and more than the sum of its parts. Ahead of The Panhandlers' release on Friday (March 6), The Boot sat down with the band’s Baumann and Cordero to talk about how the project came together, the sonic influence of the Flatlanders and West Texas itself, and whether or not this is a one-time-only collaboration.
When did the idea for this project really start to come together? And, perhaps more importantly — how much booze was involved?
Cleto Cordero: Josh Abbott was really the guy who “assembled the Avengers,” so to speak. He called everybody with this idea to record an album of covers -- that’s how the project started out.
Then Baumann and Will thought they’d like to write some song for the project, that it might be more impactful if we put pen to paper and try to say something ourselves. We all got on Josh’s bus and drove out to Marfa, Texas, to this place called the Yacht Club, and that’s where the beer drinking came in. We’d pick a corner, hack at these songs, and as the evening came in, we’d have a few beers and look at the stars.
John Baumann: Honestly, we just wrote songs and hung out and kept staying up too late working on music and having some laughs. It was a little getaway and a bonding experience for all of us, and definitely a great time to write because there’s no cell phone service out there.
As you all came together to write, what story did y’all want this record to tell, ultimately?
Baumann: The record’s about rural life and appreciating where you are in your life, and tying it back to these origins we share. We’re all from West Texas: Josh is from Idalou, I’m born in Amarillo, and those guys went to Texas Tech in Lubbock. We wanted to pay homage to the great songwriters and musicians and bands that come from that region.
It was a big departure for all of us in terms of sound, making this raw and imperfect record just to tip our cap to something the Flatlanders might have done in 1970.
Cordero: We weren’t exactly sure what it was going to be, to be a hundred percent honest. Bruce’s philosophy on everything is to just let the song win — the best songs get cut. We started writing about things in the area, and, in our mind, we wanted it to be snapshots of this dusty plains country in West Texas -- just snapshots from home.
How would you describe the sonic influence of West Texas? What kind of musical vibe does it inspire?
"You don’t need much else if you have a good story." -- Cleto Cordero
Cordero: It sounds like it feels: dry and dusty. If it was a silent film, and music were to come in after the first scene, there’s a tumbleweed that rolls across the plains with an oil pump jack in the background. The songs on the album sound like that.
Less is more in the creation of these songs, and we really focused more on telling a story. In West Texas, there’s not much to look at, so people are good at telling stories to keep each other entertained. You don’t need much else if you have a good story. All that production is nice, and you can make a really beautiful, polished record, but there’s just something about people gathered around a campfire telling old stories, and these songs are recorded in that style.
Baumann: There’s a lot of steel guitar, a lot of banjo, there’s no reverb anywhere. It’s very much like you and your buddies got together in a barn and made a record and tried to have it reflect the natural surroundings of West Texas.
That was the cool thing about working at Bruce’s studio. It’s no frills, the headphones don’t always work, and there’s no AutoTune. You get one chance to cut a take, and that produced what I keep calling an “imperfectly perfect record.”
How did all of you decide to trade off vocal duties and handle the writing and instrumentation on the record?
Cordero: We’ve done it rather gracefully, I’d say. You get four guys in the same room with four opinions and four directions to go in, you don’t have any direction. But everyone kind of let the songs lead where they were going to go. Nobody threw a hissy fit over everything, nobody was too arrogant, and everyone had an open mind about songs and ideas we were pitching to each other.
It was such a special project. It’s not perfect, it’s recorded on analog tape with some of the best musicians in Austin, and us four jackalopes singing on it. I think we made something that’s homespun and comfortable that’s also a good listen. It doesn’t sound like four arrogant dudes trying to battle over everything.
“This Flatland Life” seems a little bit more political than the typical Texas country song. What are the Panhandlers trying to say on this song?
Baumann: Josh and I, that was the first song we wrote for the record. I guess it’s really just like, there’s some people who go one way and some people who go another. Out here, there are some people who are pro-wind and pro-oil or pro-left and pro-right. At the end of the day, I don’t have an opinion about you one way or the other. I’m just happy to be here in this life and in this place, because everything can go both ways. They both work, and they both have their drawbacks.
Cordero: Whenever I listen to it, I think it’s kind of like being on the knife’s edge of oil and petroleum as they make their way up into the caprock. That could change people’s way of life in a real way. Families might not have to work as hard, but there’s also the environmental pollutants and the traffic and the oil trucks in town — all the bad stuff.
It’s just something humans argue about. People are always going to argue about politics.
What was it like working with Bruce Robison on the record? How did he influence the sound?
Cordero: His presence is so gentle and stoic. He’s kind and he’ll shoot you straight, but he’s not negative or pessimistic. He’s a good leader in the room, and when he’s in there, people are listening to what he has to say because it carries weight. When we’re out of the bunker and we’re just sitting there, he’ll B.S. with us and talk about life.
Just being around him, he’s like the mature older songwriter role model guy that we all look up to. He’s just got an ear for stuff.
Baumann: Bruce has been my north star. I hate to sound corny, but, for so many years, I’ve just been a huge fan of his. It’s really cool to be in his orbit and his presence. He’s got a leadership style that’s a little different than most: He delegates well, and he doesn’t say no to ideas. He’s open to a lot of different approaches, but he’s been around a lot, and he was coaching us up. We’re four lead singers, not harmony guys, and he was coaching us and laughing at how bad we were.
Just sitting down and having a beer with him is such a cool thing to do. He’s so laid-back and full of experience and knowledge, and just a really brilliant songwriter and musician.
Are there plans in the future for more music from the Panhandlers?
Baumann: I think so; that’s the plan. It’s the first record, and we’ll see how it goes, but all of us have bought in emotionally. I think there will be a different project, with Josh at the helm. He’s so excited and motivated — he’s the captain of our ship.
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