Pancho and Lefty

Merle, Willie and the song they made famous
By JOHN DUFFY, Correspondent
Sunday News

Published: Sep 02, 2007 12:03 AM EST

YORK – In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard recorded the hit album “Pancho & Lefty,” the cover of which shows the two country legends against a desert backdrop, Nelson smiling and Haggard working his characteristic stoic grimace. The best of friends.

The title song, however, was written in 1972 by the late Townes Van Zandt, and explores the consequences of betrayal. When Nelson and Haggard pull into the York Fairgrounds this Friday as part of their Last of the Breed Tour, they will no doubt perform the song along with numerous other hits.

Country-rocker Steve Earle once called Van Zandt the greatest American songwriter ever, “and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt is rumored to have replied that he had met Dylan and his bodyguards, and that there was little chance Earle would ever get near his coffee table.

Despite his well-known sense of humor, Van Zandt wrote some of the most hopeless and haunting songs in the country and folk songbooks. He was an American poet of the first order. Thorny, witty and relentlessly self-destructive, he was one of those artists who achieves ultimate recognition through the work of others.

Van Zandt was one of the songwriters every country crooner wanted to be, and “Pancho and Lefty” is the song everyone sang, including Emmylou Harris, Hoyt Axton, Delbert McClinton and bluegrass supergroup Old & In the Way.  

Nanci Griffith gave a teary version on national television shortly after Townes died of heart failure in 1994.  Dylan has even performed it on several occasions, the ultimate nod. Nelson and Dylan played it together on their recent tours together.

But perhaps the most memorable version of the song is the one Nelson and Haggard took to the top of the country charts. While the rest of the album is filled with workmanlike (though never unpleasant) efforts, the duo’s version of “Pancho & Lefty” remains strong today.

The song is the ultimate Old West fable, professing the lessons of loyalty and betrayal, the inescapability of consequence and the twisted nature of notoriety.

In 1983, Nelson and Haggard were near the zeniths of their popular careers, ensconced in middle age, though in fine voice, and rapidly approaching a time when they would seem anachronistic next to mainstream country artists. Together they sing “Pancho & Lefty” as if spinning a yarn from some lonely barstool: Pancho was a bandit boys/ His horse was fast as polished steel/ Wore his gun outside his pants/ For all the honest world to feel.

Pancho is finally killed, we are led to believe, by Mexican police with the assistance of a man called Lefty. Even if he didn’t pull the trigger, Lefty is somehow complicit in Pancho’s death.

Lefty escapes to Cleveland with money nobody can account for. There he grows old, forgotten and living in a cheap rooming house, while Pancho, whose dying words no one heard, is celebrated in song and verse: The poets tell how Pancho fell/ Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel/ The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold/ So the story ends we’re told.

The final verse implores the listener to say a few prayers for Pancho, but to save some for Lefty, too, because he “only did what he had to do.”

When Nelson and Haggard perform the song this week, some will be listening for the prophetic overtones of men growing old and passing their winter years with memories of triumph and regret. But unlike Lefty, the sacrifices of these two performers have yielded great results.

Haggard has always been candid about the twists and turns in his life: how he fought off temptation when offered the chance to escape from a California jail, having been in and out of correctional facilities for much of his youth. Haggard chose not to escape, vowing instead to turn his life around through music.

Nelson nearly gave up on music when he couldn’t fit in with Nashville’s “countrypolitan” scene of the early 1960s. He found refuge in Texas and the outlaw movement of the 1970s.  Nelson’s more recent public stand regarding his marijuana use and a fiercely anticonservative streak through his work with Farm Aid have no doubt cost him a few fans in Middle America.

But despite their choices, or perhaps because of them, Haggard and Nelson will themselves be the subject of song for future generations of poets like Van Zandt.

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