Townes Van Zandt and the Truth of Pancho and Lefty

“Pancho and Lefty” is the best known song from perhaps the greatest songwriter you’ve never heard of. It was written in 1972 by the hallowed pen of Townes Van Zandt. Hardly known outside the realm of the music connoisseur, Van Zandt is admired by other musical artists and revered among songwriters. Mickey Newbury, a songwriting legend himself, once said: “Anybody who can’t recognize the genius of Townes Van Zandt, I don’t want to spend more than five minutes talking to them”. Sadly, Van Zandt died in 1997 from a cardiac arrhythmia brought on by years of self abuse. He was 52 years old.

The song “Pancho and Lefty” has taken on a mystical status in the annals of country music. In a 2007 interview, musician and songwriter Steve Earle stated, “You won’t find a song that’s better written, that says more or impresses songwriters more”. On the surface, “Pancho and Lefty” tells the tale of two friends south of the border where one man sells out his bandit compadre and then is forced to live with his decision. The lyrics are as graceful as they are haunting:

The dust that Pancho bit down south

Ended up in Lefty’s mouth

The true meaning the song was never really known, especially by the one who wrote it. It is a wonderfully melancholy tune that features a dazzling musical structure. The powerful imagery and poignant story rival any great story song of the twentieth century. It was first released on Van Zandt’s 1972 studio album “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt”. His fellow musicians recognized the brilliance of the song but the initial release of “Pancho and Lefty” received underwhelming fanfare.

The first cover version of the song occurred in 1976 when country artist Emmylou Harris included it on her album “Luxury Liner”. Although the album was an undisputed success and gave Harris her second successive number one country album on the Billboard charts, it did not yield a hit single. Fast-forward to 1983, country superstars Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were recording a duet album. The project was nearly finished but, according to Willie, it was missing a key ingredient; “that blockbuster, that one big song for a good single and a video, and my daughter Lana suggested that we listen to ‘Pancho and Lefty’. I had never heard it and Merle had never heard it.” Nelson’s daughter produced a copy of the song and played it for her father. Willie knew instantly that he had found what the album had been missing.

Nelson immediately set about arranging the music for a duet version of “Pancho and Lefty”. When the track was completed, Haggard remembered that “Willie came and knocked on my bus, late one night, about four in the morning. And he said, ‘I think I’ve found a title [song] for our album’. I said ‘you guys go ahead and put it down and I’ll put my voice on in the morning. ‘No’ he said. ‘Let’s do it all at once’. Both Nelson’s and Haggard’s performances were flawless. Their version of the song was one of the biggest hits of the 1980s. It reached number one on the country Billboard charts, crossed over onto the pop charts and sold more than a million records. The resulting music video also became an instant classic. It stars Nelson and Haggard as Pancho and Lefty and features a cameo from the unfamiliar songwriter.

The iconic Nelson/Haggard duet version brought the song into the mainstream, though it has always been a venerated piece of work. The song is nearly as legendary as the troubled troubadour that wrote it.  It contains lines like “His horse was fast as polished steel/He wore his gun outside his pants/For all the honest world to feel”. As songwriting virtuoso Rodney Crowell remarked, “who wouldn’t want to write that line?” Crowell also describes “Pancho and Lefty” as “perfectly written”, characterizing it as “elevated poetry, and melodically perfect”. Emmylou Harris commented that “the older I get, the more that song resonates for me, because the weight of our lives, it gets heavier and lighter at the same time”. But the song is also steeped in an almost mythical ambiguousness.

Van Zandt’s friend and fellow Texas songwriting savant Guy Clark said it like this, “‘Pancho and Lefty’ was one of those songs that you really can’t pick it apart…and have it make sense. You have to just let it be”.  Willie Nelson said that he once asked Van Zandt what the song was about. Townes replied that he didn’t know. If there is a true meaning to the song, it is fairly clear that Van Zandt never figured out what it was. He did however elaborate on the origins of the song in interviews and in stage commentary over the years. From Billy Graham and Gurus, to run ins with the law, to actually meeting Pancho and Lefty, the story of the song is almost better than the story the song tells. What follows are Townes Van Zandts’ firsthand accounts of “Pancho and Lefty”.

“I was playing one time a three-day show in Dallas, TX. And it so happened that the same three days, Billy Graham and the Guru Maharaj Ji were both playing three days in Dallas. Billy Graham drew like 500,000 young Christians from all over the world and the Guru had about 250,000 young gurus from all over the world and I had, you know, seven winos from downtown”.

Townes went on to explain that he and his traveling partner, Daniel, had to take a room way outside of town due to a complete lodging shortage: “There were no hotel rooms anywhere around Dallas. And my friend Daniel and I ended up in this crummy, little run down place with no Coke machine, no T.V., no telephone and it was like 50 miles out of town. It was the closest we could get…every room within sixty miles of Dallas was taken”. The Billy Graham event that forced Townes out of town was a seminal religious gathering of the 1970s. It would come to be known as “The Christian Woodstock”.

Van Zandt continued, “And I sat there for three days, we had a three-day gig, and we’d drive into Dallas, play the gig, and drive back to this hotel room. And about the second or third day I decided ‘what I’m gonna do is sit down in this chair and write a song and I’m not gonna move’. Which wasn’t terribly difficult because there was nowhere to move to. And I sat there for about three or four hours, and through the window that first line came: ‘Livin’ on the road my friend is gonna keep you free and clean’. And then, something took over.”

Townes remembered that the song “took one day and then I played what I had that night at a gig. And a songwriter told me, ‘Man, that’s great. But I don’t think it’s finished.’ So, I went back to my hotel room the next day and wrote the last verse”. Van Zandt was once asked if he had ever conceptualized the characters of Pancho and Lefty before the dreary day that he penned the tune, to which he replied, “before that day, I’d never thought of either one”. He liked to joke that, “I kinda figured that Billy Graham and the Guru co-wrote the song”.  Townes later asserted that “the only conscious thought or particular thought I had about that song was, ‘it’s not about Pancho Villa’. I knew that for a fact. Other than that, it just kind of came”.

Those Dallas shows certainly were a fateful engagement for Townes. In fact, he and his buddy were nearly arrested and missed the last night of it. Van Zandt recalled that Daniel “had hair about to his elbows and I didn’t look too straight myself, I’m sure. The only ID that Daniel had was a Georgia drivers’ license that had been expired for like 11 years. And the only ID that I had was a record album, it had my name and my picture right there on it. I figured, that’s alright. Anyway, we’re driving into the last night of the Dallas job and Daniel’s driving and we’re in this old broken down car and he’s swerving all over the highway…he’s missing all these young Christians that were all hitchhiking in to see Billy Graham. Thousands of em‘ on the side of the road”.

“Anyway”, Van Zandt went on, “a big Dallas cop sees us swerving down the road in this broken down car. He pulls us over and comes to the window and looks in. He looks down and sees Daniel and he looks over and sees me and says ‘I better see some ID boys’. So Daniel hands him his expired, out of state driver’s license. And the cop is just scowling at it”. Townes remembered, “And Daniel, out of the blue, looks up at the policeman through the window and says, ‘Excuse me, sir, do you know Jesus?’ And the cop looks at him, hands him back his driver’s license, and says, ‘You boys best be careful.’”

Van Zandt claimed he didn’t know what “Pancho and Lefty” was about, but he thought he may have known who they were. It was in the middle of the night en route to a gig, years after the song had been written, when, as Townes related, “Me and the band were going to Houston, and the car that I was in got stopped by these two policeman. And they asked me if I’d been drinking and I said, ‘No sir, not since last night’. And they swallowed that. 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.” Van Zandt could hardly believe what happened next.

As Townes told it: “They looked back around, and they looked at each other and started grinning. It turns out that their squad car, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty…And they look around at me, grinning, and this policeman looked at me and said, ‘You Promise!?’ And I said ‘Yeah, for sure’. So, I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys… I hope I never, ever see them again.” As for the violations, Pancho and Lefty let Townes off with a warning.

When Townes Van Zandt was once interviewed for the PBS series “Austin Pickers”, he was asked to comment on his most famous song. Townes said simply, “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”.

In 2020, “Pancho and Lefty” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame of Recordings.

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