It’s easy to dismiss West Texas as just a vast, barren wasteland void of nuance or life. Those West Texans born and bred, they often daydream of escaping the endless miles of mesquite bush pastures, cotton field patches, and iron orchard oil wells. Still, something draws them back time and again. For millennia, its inhabitants have etched out corners and dugouts to break from the wind and fight off the sun. And through it all, they attempt to capture the brazen beauty of the land and the spirit of its people in song and story. It ain’t for the faint of heart. It’s a tough, bold country.
The Panhandlers are four native sons from the outskirts of Texas society, having spent much of their lives in the high desert and southern prairie. Individually, Josh Abbott, John Baumann, William Clark Green, and Flatland Cavalry’s Cleto Cordero have long pursued that Far West Texas mythos and Panhandle lore. Scattered throughout their solo catalogs, the four frontmen have delivered earnest anthems and endearing balladry that embodies a Flatland life and South Plains dreams.
Still, that hasn’t ever been quite enough for Abbott, Baumann, Cordero, and Green, who in early 2020 released The Panhandlers. Built around a collection of organic and visceral rural reflections, hardscrabbled character sketches, and a wide open spaces state of mind, The Panhandlers thrived under the guidance of songwriting scholar and album producer Bruce Robison. With a Who’s Who of musicians in tow and recorded on analog two-inch tape at Robison’s The Bunker Studio, the pairings fit hand-in-glove for the set of windswept vignettes and honky-tonk mosaics.Now, some three years later, they pick right up where The Panhandlers left off. Tough Country finds the four songwriters diving further into rough West Texas caliche and rich Panhandle soil, unearthing campfire compositions, forlorn ballads, romantic rendezvous, and charming singalongs. Like their previous efforts, Tough Country finds the four working with Robison together once again at The Bunker for a desert-swept sonic punch that offers hints of Western Swing, Flatland folk, and rollicking country ambiance.
Much like the plainspoken poets, dancehall desperados, iconoclast artists, and the cowboy wordsmiths they call heroes, The Panhandlers walk the fine line between romanticizing the rugged land and its hearty inhabitants with gentle acknowledgments and sincere homages, all the while blazing their own trails and reveling in the satisfaction of unveiling their own fresh spin on old traditions.