Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson teamed up on several occasions through the years and were able to release numerous collaborative albums. And without a doubt, “Pancho and Lefty” is the most iconic one out there.
Released in 1983, the song reached No.1 on both the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles and Canadian RPM Country Tracks. And ever since it became available for download, it sold over six hundred thousand digital copies in the United States.
Pancho and Lefty, The Partners in Crime
Originally written and performed by Townes Van Zandt in 1972, “Pancho and Lefty” was considered his “most enduring and well-known song.” It tells the story of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his partner in crime, Lefty. While the two started the song as clear associates in mischief, the lyrics tell the tale of how Lefty betrayed Pancho resulting in his untimely death at the hands of the “federals.”
“Poncho met his match, you know. On the deserts down in Mexico. Nobody heard his dyin’ word. Oh, but that’s the way it goes,” the song goes.
Most of the details in the lyrics mirror the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923. Villa’s dying words were, “Don’t let it end like this, tell them I said something great.”
“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,” Van Zandt once said on the similarity between the song’s Pancho and the famous revolutionary. “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.”
“Pancho and Lefty” Became One of the Most Beloved Country Duets
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson quickly popularized “Pancho and Lefty”, and it became one of the most beloved country duets of the 1980s. Earlier this year, the song was even included in the 2020 inductees to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
But did you know that Haggard and Nelson had never heard the song until Nelson’s daughter, Lana, suggested it? During that time, music videos were brand new, and the cinematic clip for “Pancho and Lefty” absolutely propelled the captivating story song to success. Lana was even the one who directed the legendary music video, depicting Willie Nelson as Pancho, and Merle Haggard as Lefty. Townes Van Zandt also appeared several times throughout the video.
Being two of the leading country stars of their era, it was basically inevitable that Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson would meet at some point. When that first meeting finally happened, it marked the start of a decades-long friendship.
Haggard and Nelson ended up having many great memories, from recording the legendary song “Pancho and Lefty,” trying to balance their “pretty hard” lifestyle by jogging two miles wearing their cowboy boots every time they smoked a joint together, and so much more.
Don’t miss Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson’s performance of “Pancho and Lefty” in the video below.