Supergroups are a difficult task to undertake. They’re equally challenging to evaluate. The exploit of participating in a supergroup has rarely been done well. It falls flat more often than not. The exceptions being bands like The Highwaymen, The Highwomen, Traveling Wilburys, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and Velvet Revolver. Often the individual parts are greater than the whole. Flashes of brilliance streak across the vanity of the project and give glimpses of greatness while never quite ever achieving the overall brilliance that the solo artists had achieved themselves.
That brings us to the most recent supergroup and the first one to truly intercede our little scene in the modern era. There have been collaborations like Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen’s HMBWT, or Drew Kennedy and Josh Grider’s Topo Chico Cowboys, the salad days of Cody Canada and Jason Boland or Cory Morrow and Pat Green…even any number of Braun Brothers iterations. However, no group of artists has ever set out to make music as a collective quite like The Panhandlers (Josh Abbott, WIlliam Clark Green, Cleto Cordero and John Baumann). Working backwards from the template of the historic The Flatlanders (who found minimal success as a band before launching massively impactful solo careers and then coming back to the band as known legendary quantities), The Panhandlers are launching this project from the solid foundation of solo successes.
Baumann is perhaps the least known on the national scale, yet is arguably the best songwriter in the quartet. Green has become a scene headliner on the back of clever, gritty songs with big hooks and loud guitars. Cordero fronts Flatland Cavalry, a band with radio-friendly songs and enough folk tinge to satisfy any Americana lover. Abbott is one of the most commercially successful artists to ever spring from Texas.
You put all that in a blender and what do you get?
Well, as with most every one of those examples listed above you get a few good songs, some okay songs and some filler. If you think about it, The Highwaymen’s run was legendary…but the only song of theirs that everyone truly loves is the one that their name was derived from. The Traveling Wilbury’s had Dylan, Petty, Harrison and Lynne and still only managed two good songs (“Handle Me With Care”, “End of the Line”). Recency bias aside, The Highwomen’s complete studio effort is probably the best supergroup album from top to bottom of all time. Yet, I still only go back to 3-4 songs regularly. Songs like “Cocktail and a Song” or “My Name Can’t Be Mama”. I could go on listing, but you get the point.
It is difficult to throw all that talent together and focus on one singular artistic vision and goal. It’s akin to a basketball team in an All-Star game. You have five superstars out there on your side, yet just one ball. Everyone must play a role. There must be a point guard to dish and someone to slam it home. Again, not easy. Someone has to be the alpha. Batman and Robin. Shaq and Kobe. MJ and Pippen. Not to mention your complementary players.
It’s an admirable and worthy pursuit. The Panhandlers strike mostly the right notes. Lead single “No Handle” is a fun, rollicking song that doesn’t take itself too seriously while showing the vocal strengths and differences of the members. Nobody chooses where they’re from, but songwriters do choose what they write about. And with this project, no outside Jimmy Webb tracks came in to steal the pen.
Projects such as this stretch the artists while allowing them to flex their creative strengths. Green’s grit. Cleto’s charm. Baumann’s intellect. Abbott’s savvy. It’s all there. Some of the albums highlight’s come from the moments that sound like they could be a b-side to one of their day job bands. “The Panhandler” kicks off in the vein of Flatland’s “Coyote (Ballad of Roy Johnson)” but backed by the rolling banjo found on many of the biggest JAB tracks. “Caprockin’” finds Baumann at his best. It’s a song that would fit as a standout on any of his previous efforts. “Lonesome Heart” has all the elements of WCG’s more introspective work. “This Is My Life” is Abbott’s take on a “On the Road Again” type song and it features all of the hallmarks that have made him a radio hitmaking regional headliner.
There have been many memes and conversations over recent years discussing who would or should be placed on a Mt. Rushmore of this music scene. Even discussion spurred off that infamous GQ cover of having the likes of Stapleton, Isbell and Sturgill as a modern Highwaymen with a 4th member to be named later. It is my hope that we never stop having these fantasy discussions. They can be fun, thoughtful and ambitious. Like the music itself. Streaks of brilliance blend with absurdity and what remains is the heart and soul. The fact that these four guys took this artistic leap is to be commended. It doesn’t always fire on all cylinders as a collection of songs, but there are enough gears left in the transmission to make a statement.
The biggest takeaway should be that they even wanted to try this to begin with. None of them really needed to chase this muse, but they did because they thought it would make some damn fine music and memories. The first part is mostly in the can, and it will be interesting to see where they highways and fans take them with regard to the second notion. Here’s to hoping that no matter what, they do a round 2 and we continue to see collaborations such as this, Topo Chico Cowboys and HMBWT.