Sing One With Willie is a feature where I discuss two Willie Nelson duets with every edition: one from an objective viewpoint to explain the backstory, and another from a critical perspective to offer personal thoughts and commentary on the music itself.
The featured single: “Pancho and Lefty” (with Merle Haggard) (1983)
As I stated in a recent piece, it’s easier to generalize Willie Nelson’s appeal – and, by extension, other “outlaws” of the ‘70s – to fans outside of country music than to those within that inner circle. Here were country musicians that didn’t act like affable rubes, and went beyond the drinkin’ and cheatin’ clichés that outsiders typically associated with the genre. They behaved like rock stars, but made music rooted in tradition. Country fans may have gravitated more toward the music, but outsiders loved the mystique of the image surrounding the movement.
Perhaps it’s understandable, then, how, even as country music’s overall commercial image shifted in the wake of the Urban Cowboy movement, resulting in a commercial boom for the genre, an act like Nelson endured anyway. His deadpan delivery in song and life helped to establish him as an unlikely, but interesting actor during this time period, whether it be The Electric Horseman, Honeysuckle Rose, or Barbarosa. Still, it was the music that pushed his career forward, where Nelson indulged not only in a series of duets – providing an ample amount of discussions for this particular feature – but also in 1978’s Stardust, a collection of pop song standards that revealed his knack for interpretation without sacrificing any country music integrity.
Of course, that series of duets also resulted in a career effort in 1983, both for Nelson and Merle Haggard. The two artists had decided to collaborate on a duets album. Nelson was arguably at his creative peak; Haggard, meanwhile, had just released a notable comeback effort in Big City two years prior. The album’s eventual title track, “Pancho and Lefty,” came toward the end of the recording sessions. Nelson felt the album he and Haggard had recorded so far was missing the one track needed to anchor it. While in search of a song, Nelson’s daughter Lana brought a copy of Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner around midnight, eager for her father to hear that one particular song.
Nelson wasn’t familiar with the tune, but he was immediately enamored by it. As the story goes, Nelson knocked on Haggard’s tour bus at around four in the morning and insisted that he should hear the tune. Haggard accepted, but wanted to wait until the morning. Nelson’s persistence ultimately paid off. The two recorded it, but Haggard, unsatisfied with the entire ordeal, thought he’d just redo his part in the morning. In his words, “I got up the next morning and went in the studio and I said, ‘Can I do that vocal track over?’ And they said, ‘Hell, that’s on the way to New York.’ I don’t even remember singing it. I was asleep.”
The song was written by Townes Van Zandt, and its source of inspiration is up to interpretation. It tells the tale of a Mexican bandit named Pancho and his friend Lefty, who betrays him. Pancho dies young while Lefty lives to an old age, consumed by guilt and forced to live with what he’s done. It came, according to Van Zandt, “out of the blue,” but many of the lyrical details mirror the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was killed by unknown assassins in 1923.
It’s not surprising that neither Nelson or Haggard were familiar with Van Zandt’s tune prior to recording it. While a recognized name today, none of Van Zandt’s recordings were commercial successes; that his sixth album was titled The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt says it all, really. But he was the embodiment of the tortured soul – following in the wake of, say, Hank Williams – just trying his best to write the perfect song, even if it wasn’t the most well-known one. To many, “Pancho and Lefty” is that masterpiece.
The B-side: “Reasons to Quit” (with Merle Haggard) (1983)
“Pancho and Lefty,” however, was not the first single from the eventual album. After delaying the album’s release for about a year – due to Nelson flooding the market with his own solo material, including “Always On My Mind,” a song originally intended for the duets project but eventually rejected by Haggard – Epic selected “Reasons to Quit” as the first single. It’s less one-sided as a duet than the album’s title track, with both artists swapping stories of their personal demons in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner.
Unlike “Pancho and Lefty,” though, the track reflects one of the bigger criticisms of the album in general – that, being how Nelson and Haggard’s vocal tones don’t blend well together, nor are they all that effective at conveying the lighthearted nature of the track. Then again, perhaps conveying weary burnout is the point anyway. It’s just that, as “Pancho and Lefty” shows, the two were at their best when they were allowed to come alive.