In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard teamed up to release the most enduring and well-known song, “Pancho and Lefty,” off their duet album of the same name. The two country legends quickly popularized the song as it soared the charts reaching No.1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles as well as on Canadian RPM Country Tracks.
It even took home the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2020.
The True Story Behind the Song “Pancho and Lefty”
Written and originally recorded by country singer Townes Van Zandt, “Pancho and Lefty” was first released off Van Zandt’s 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
The song tells the tale of two partners in crime; one goes by the name of Pancho while the other is called Lefty. As the two start the song as clear associates in mischief, the lyrics further tell in detail how Lefty betrayed Pancho, resulting in his untimely death at the hands of the “federals.”
The song ends with Pancho’s life being glorified by others, while Lefty’s fate is to just grow old in shameful circumstances.
“Well, the poets tell how Pancho fell. Lefty’s living in a cheap hotel. The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold. So the story ends, we’re told. Pancho needs your prayers; it’s true. But save a few for Lefty, too. He just did what he had to do. Now he’s growing old,” the song goes.
While there are some resemblances between Pancho and the Mexican revolutionary named Pancho Villa, Van Zandt said he did not have Villa in mind when he wrote “Pancho and Lefty.”
“I realize that I wrote it, but it’s hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue,” Van Zandt recounted in 1984. “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.”
He added, “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.”
Four years after it was originally released, “Pancho and Lefty” was covered by Emmylou Harris on her album Luxury Liner. Different artists have since covered the song, but Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s version was the most notable one.
The Song Features One of The First Few Music Videos in History
In addition to the song, a music video was released by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983. The short clip features Nelson as Pancho and Haggard as Lefty. Music videos were so rare at that time that it was the first for Nelson and second for Haggard.
Townes Van Zandt also made an appearance in the clip in a supporting role. He played as one of the Federales who took down Pancho, apparently with Lefty’s help, double-crossing Pancho. “It was real nice they invited me,” Van Zandt said. “They didn’t have to invite me, and I made I think 100 dollars a day. I was the captain of the Federales. And plus, I got to ride a horse. I always like that. It took four and a half days, and that video was four and a half minutes long.”
Nelson’s daughter Lana Nelson directed the video. It was actually Lana who suggested the recording of the duet.
You can watch Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in a legendary performance as “Pancho and Lefty” in the video below.