50 Years Ago Today: Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty” Is Born

Calling it a “country song” doesn’t seem to do it justice, and almost inadvertently downgrades the impact and importance of the artistic work known as “Pancho & Lefty,” because few other songs can make us feel like this one can. It’s transcendent of country, or song, or even music. It’s “Pancho & Lefty.”

The writer of the song, Townes Van Zandt, would likely agree with this assessment, though he may bashfully cast off its importance. After all, he always considered himself a poet, with the whole music thing just getting in his way. He also once said, “There are only two kinds of songs; there’s the blues, and there’s zip-a-dee-doo-dah.” “Pancho & Lefty” is certainly not the latter.

What makes this composition send chill bumps up our arms and down our spine, and immediately will make you stop down your day and transport you to some other place, is as indefinable as the song itself. It’s the richness of the words, which are both about something very specific, yet somehow about nothing and everything all at the same time. It’s the chord movements—curious and unique, but intuitive and natural as well.

It would be Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard who would take this obscure andcompletely commercially-inapplicable song on the surface to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1983 on its way to becoming one of the most important and iconic country songs of all time. But it was 50 years ago today that Townes Van Zandt stepped into the studio and recorded the original version of the song for his 1972 album, the presciently-titled The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, captured at the Jack Clement Studios in Nashville, Tennessee.

At the time, and for many years to come, “Pancho & Lefty” was just an album cut on a rather obscure record from a rather obscure songwriter. Townes Van Zandt was still a few years away from becoming the highly-respected writer that he’s considered today. But he did know he had something with the song, and when other people in the studio insisted the track needed drums, Van Zandt vetoed the decision.

Don’t let anyone tell you they know what “Pancho & Lefty” truly is about, because not even Townes could tell you. It’s the opening lines that resonate the most:

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath as hard as kerosene

Weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

It seems to describe us all in some way—forlorn, ominous, acute with its diagnosis, and with its prognosis. But then the song takes a sharp right turn into giving a rather historically inaccurate portrayal of the life of Mexican bandit and paramilitary leader Pancho Villa, mixing a bit of realism with mostly fantasy. Townes Van Zandt’s own interpretations confound the meaning and purpose of the song more than they helped.

Townes said on the PBS television Series Austin Pickers in 1984, “I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it’s a real nice song, and I think, I’ve finally found out what it’s about. I’ve always wondered what it’s about. I kinda always knew it wasn’t about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant ‘Lefty.’ But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. ‘They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose’ and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated.”

Then in the same interview, Van Zandt recalls being pulled over in Berkshire, TX and ending up in the back of the police car. “We got stopped by these two policeman and…they said ‘What do you do for a living?’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter’, and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful’, and so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ You ever heard that song ‘Pancho and Lefty?’ I wrote that,’ and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty … so I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys … I hope I never see them again.”

Emmylou Harris never receives enough credit for her role in making “Pancho & Lefty” a song known well beyond the country music sphere. She was one of the first to see the power in the song, and recorded it for her 1977 album Luxury Liner, though never released it as a single. It wasn’t Townes Van Zandt’s original version recorded on August 24th, 1972 that piqued the interest of Willie Nelson’s daughter Lana, it was Emmylou’s.

When Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were recording their duet album together at the Pedernales Studio on Willie’s property outside of Austin in November of 1982, they were looking for a song that could really tie the album together. Lana Nelson suggested “Pancho & Lefty,” and those assembled fell so in love with it, they decided to record it right then and there. Merle Haggard had already crawled off to bed in his bus, and had to be roused to sing his part. Haggard doesn’t recall the recording of the song at all, and when he listened back the next day, thought it was dumb.

The synth-y opening with heavily gated drums most certainly dates the Willie and Merle version of “Pancho & Lefty” to the early 80s. But like everything else attached to the song, the intro has become iconic in itself. It ended up becoming the title track of the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard album released in early 1983. Later, Willie Nelson asked Townes Van Zandt point blank what “Pancho & Lefty” meant. Townes Van Zandt told him that he didn’t know. They had Townes play a Federale in the song’s video. Lana Nelson directed the video, bringing it all full circle.

The success of “Pancho & Lefty” took Townes Van Zandt from broke to flush, and from obscure to as famous and revered as just about any songwriter can get. Now there’s documentary films on Townes, he’s considered by many as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and if there’s any justice, his likeness should at some point adorn the wall of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But don’t discount “Pancho & Lefty” just as a country song. It’s a portal into pondering the mysteries and magic of life. And it all first came about—at least in recorded form—50 years ago today, to be enjoyed and marveled over for millennium to come.

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