The Panhandlers - Tough Country
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Tough Country (Self-released, 2023)

The Panhandlers

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

You might say Panhandlers' "Tough Country" picks up and expands on where its "West Texas Is The Best Texas" EP left off. It includes that project's few songs, which were mostly lighthearted in nature, and adds a bigger dosage of lyrical seriousness. The quartet (Josh Abbott, John Baumann, William Clark Green and Cleto Cordero) all sing and write well. It's not an especially vocal album, with tight harmonies. Instead, it's made up of strong, Texas-centric country songs, and it's a winner.

The album's title cut is performed over a mostly acoustic arrangement, with a sound that mirrors the lyric's tale about wide open country. With its acoustic guitars and plucked banjo, it feels like a story being told around a back country firepit. It also includes a lonesome fiddle solo. Living in some of the harsher West Texas locales may be challenging, but these natives still love their home. It's where they choose to live, and they're fully up for that challenge. With "Valentine For Valentines," Cordero's wife, Kaitlin Butts, joins in for what's been described as a "love song for West Texas." The hushed, acoustic "Santa Fe," is a cover of a previously unreleased Guy Clark song. Yes, it's about a place, but it's also focused on a couple trying to find just the right place to make their relationship work.

The album closes with "Hank's Song," which – by its title – suggests something about that iconic country singer, Hank Williams. But it's not. Yes, it is a lovely, traditional country song, but its lyric is – in fact – about a dog. Even though it's about a dog, it's sung sincerely and lovingly – even with its barking sound effect at the end.

Much like The Flatlanders before them, Panhandlers find a way to make individualistic talents sound like a workable whole. By mostly focusing on regional-related songs, "Tough Country" holds together well as a sort of loose concept album. It'd still be good if these songs were, uh, all over the map. But making it all about Texas stuff just makes it all the better.

CDs by The Panhandlers

Tough Country, 2023 The Panhandlers, 2020

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