The four Texan singer-songwriters in the Panhandlers formed to pay tribute to another Lone State all-star group, the Flatlanders. But what the group’s Josh Abbott pitched as a covers album has turned into a self-titled set of originals, due out March 6 and including the track “Cactus Flower” premiering on Billboard today (Feb 13).
“We all went to Marfa for a little songwriting retreat and were like, ‘Let’s just try and write some songs for it’ and most of the songs we wrote out there ended up being 95% of the whole record,” says Cleto Cordero of Flatland Cavalry, who joins Abbott, John Baumann and William Clark Green in the band. “It’s been a really cool process to start from an idea to a record and going and playing with all those guys — and fun, too. The whole process has been authentic and organic, and that’s what we were hoping for. It’s not really big and polished, but I think it’s music that’s good for the soul.”
Cordero also credits Abbott, who fronts the Josh Abbott Band, with making the Panhandlers a reality. “Josh is a dreamer and a doer as well,” he says. “He rode herd on this and saw it through.”
The Panhandlers — which does include a cover of Charlie Stout’s “West Texas in My Eye” — was produced by Bruce Robison at his studio near Lockhart, Texas, and covers a wide swath of west Texas styles, flavored with plenty of pedal steel, fiddle, banjo, dobro and acoustic guitar — none of which should come as a surprise or a stretch, according to Cordero. “We’re all from that area, so the idea of trying to write in the style of the Flatlanders (Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock) was kind of natural,” he says. “The songs are about Texas, but I imagine they could be appreciated outside of Texas. People that aren’t from Texas can get a lot out of these; I think.”
“Cactus Flower,” meanwhile, is a song Cordero started as part of a songwriting group assignment from Abbott, whose prompt one week was “ladyfinger cactus.” “I didn’t even know what that was,” Cordero says with a laugh, “So I decided to write one called ‘Cactus Flower’ and showed it to Josh. Fast forward two years and I was throwing songs out [for the Panhandlers] and I pulled it out and said, ‘Man, this one’s really west Texas-y. I think it could work. Me and [Abbott] sat down in the bunker, where we recorded, and finished it off, which was really cool since he helped me start it.
“I wrote it for my fiancée. I was trying to imagine this kind of a rugged character who’s beautiful but so hard to figure out. It’s a west Texas love song, I guess.”
The Panhandlers have three Texas shows set for spring, staring March 19 at Gruene Hall — and are eyeballing future opportunities. “I think we all have genuinely crazy, hectic schedules with our full-time bands and families and stuff,” says Cordero, who’s recently off the road after the latest Flatland Cavalry tour. “We’ll try to play as much as we can, ’cause folks are asking. Maybe shows during weekdays or something. If there’s a demand I imagine we’ll play as much as we can.” More likely, he predicts, is more Panhandlers music in the future.
“Josh is pretty zealous; He’s like, ‘Oh man, we gotta get tattoos!’ and all this stuff. I definitely imagine there will be another Panhandlers album. There’s some songs we wrote that didn’t make the record, but they could be revisited for sure, and we all write a lot, so I’m sure the songs will be there when we want to do something.”
Listen to “Cactus Flower” below.