Country Jukebox Jury LPs: The Panhandlers and Matt Andersen & the Big Bottle of Joy

The Panhandlers – Tough Country

Midland made another of their regular trips over to Europe for Country2Country this month. Never forget that they are artificial: one of them directs music videos for Bruno Mars and John Mayer, and another of them was a model who lived with Fearne Cotton. Still, they filled a gap in the market a few years ago when pedal steel was in danger of being smashed by drum loops.

Thank goodness for The Panhandlers, a group of buddies from the Red Dirt scene of Texas who write and perform together when time allows. Cleto Cordero, who is from Midland the place in Texas, is the songwriter of Flatland Cavalry, while Josh Abbott, Josh Baumann and William Clark Green are all road warriors with enormous fanbases. Funnily enough, they wrote songs from this second album in Marfa, Texas, the same place that Miranda Lambert goes to in order to write songs that stand up with the best Red Dirt tunes but are heard by millions more.

The album follows their 2020 debut that was a hit with commentator Grady Smith. It was preceded by an EP last year, which included four songs: Where Cotton is King, which has a pleasant thump on every beat and a fiddle to accompany how Mother Nature is the ‘queen’; The Chilton Song, an advertising jingle that celebrates the West Texan tipple of lemon with vodka (‘maybe not Russian!’) and soda; Midland Jamboree, a delightful bit of Western Swing about sitting on a lawnchair with alcohol, ‘poking fun at all the Okies’; and the excellent West Texas is the Best Texas, which has a dig at Californians who are keen to leave the palm trees for the land of panhandling (my own cousin now lives in Austin, having made the move from San Francisco).

Three of those songs were written by the four Panhandlers, who all get individual lines in a sort of Musketeers feel. Cleto and John wrote two songs by themselves. Cleto’s are the sumptuous Moonlight In Marfa and album-closing canine ode I-Got-Your-Back-Dog. John contributed Valentine for Valentines, which hooks the Texan town with February 14 in lieu of ‘candygrams’ (and none for Gretchen Wieners!), and The Last Gentleman in Southwest Texas, which makes me think of Duncan Warwick, the editor of Country Music People, who would find his tribe with the character described in the classic speak-sing country style.

Josh offers The Corner Comedian, with a begging narrator stating his case. William wrote the tear-in-the-beer Last Hangover (‘the worst part about sober’) and, with Cleto, the album’s title track. The best American roots music has production that matches its subject matter: here it’s three-part harmonies and rhythmic plucking from pedal steel, dobro and fiddle.

The opening track Flat Land, as well as being akin to the opening song of a movie from about 1969, is a hymn to the earth, which is about as country as you can get given that without land, settlers couldn’t grow corn to eat. Lajitas, which ends Side A with a magnificently long fadeout and some studio chatter, is a piano-led narrative song about a guy who ‘gets his mushrooms up in Austin’.

Santa Fe, written by the patron saint of Red Dirt music Guy Clark, has the narrator thinking ‘self-inflicted pain’ can be healed by a trip to the beach. All four Panhandlers have a grasp of song structure, putting in middle eights which keep the listener interested. I love this album and hope you find an hour to sit down, maybe with a Chilton cocktail, and give it a go.

Matt Andersen and the Big Bottle of Joy – The Big Bottle of Joy

Country music is very elastic: it admits plenty of types of sound and if the creator calls it country then that’s what it is. The Canadian performer Matt Andersen offers roots music, blues and folk on his tenth album The Big Bottle of Joy, which is also the name of his band much in the way that Robert Plant had a Band of Joy and an album of that title. I also applaud the name of Matt’s imprint: Stubbyfingers.

Three Smiths – Reeny, Hailey and Micah – are on hand with backing vocals, while drummer Geoff Arsenault seems to follow nominative determinism: drums are described as arsenals. Nobody gets to ten albums without being deeply impressive musically and through this album Matt and his band sound competent and proficient, which is my way of saying they’re really jolly good at what they do.

Witness the track Golden, where Matt tosses in words like ‘acrobatic’ and ‘unfolded’ to demonstrate how he sees the light; musically there’s funky guitar lines and a Hammond organ punctuating how he feels. Conversely, Keep Holding On and Rollin’ Down The Road – which rolls on for six minutes and has a 16-bar piano solo with some rolling figures – are both songtitles that have been used many, many times before; it’s as if the words are far down the list from melodies and arrangements in this sort of music.

Let It Slide counsels the listener not to get caught up or ‘bitch about the news’, and its message makes it a grown-up version of that song from Frozen. Miss Missing You is a roadhog’s lament, comparing hotel rooms and ‘wanderlust’ with the pull of the loved one at home. So Low, Solo is another ‘you’ve got a friend’ song, while it’ll be impossible for anyone to turn off How Far Will You Go after its funky opening riff.

What’s On My Mind opens with a few bars a cappella from the three singers before Matt calls for ‘something real to write on’ and in the chorus for universal brotherhood, a typical theme of soul music. The vicious organ solo hammers the point home, just as it does on Only An Island.

The album ends magnificently. Hands of Time is an impressive cover of a song written by Groove Armada and Richie Havens, while there’s an accordion helping Matt on Shoes (‘we’re dancing in the shoes we’ve got on’) which he wrote with the great Canadian folkie Donovan Woods.

A lot of this album reminds me of other jazzy, bluesy acts like Tedeschi Trucks Band or Gregory Porter: there’s not much to say about it except to light a candle, lie back and bask in the grooves.

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