Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson, “Pancho and Lefty”

“Pancho and Lefty”

Willie Nelson

Written by Townes Van Zandt

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

July 15, 1983


#1 (1 week)

July 23, 1983

Which is a better story about Pancho & Lefty, the first collaborative album from all-time greats Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson?

Is it that “Always On My Mind” almost ended up on the album, until Haggard vetoed that kind of love song as being inappropriate for the pair to record together?

Or is it that Haggard is barely a featured vocalist on their signature duet because Nelson recorded most of the track while Haggard was sleeping off a bender on his tour bus?

Both stories end with a defining record of the eighties, so it’s a win-win all around.  Nelson’s sardonic dressing down of the incompetent federales is one of his best moments on record, gently mocking them as he sings, “they could’ve had him any day. They only let him slip away….out of kindness, I suppose.”

Haggard blasting in for the final verse feels like a surprise with every listen, as the man with top billing cedes the spotlight for most of the song’s run time.  The consummate professionalism of this pairing, anchored in such mutual respect, is evident on the recording and its label.  Of course Haggard was deferential enough to Nelson to let him sing most of the song.  Of course Nelson was deferential enough to Haggard to give him top billing anyway.

There’s something so magical about the camaraderie between the superstar artists of this era, and we got a lot of great music out of it.

“Pancho and Lefty” gets an A


Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. This is a great song but I actually much prefer Emmylou Harris’ version. It was her version that Willie actually heard that made him want to record it with Merle.

    But the guys did a great job as well on the song.

  2. I agree with you caj! Once again, like multiple other hits before this emmylou has the definitive and best version. How she does it so many times I’ll never know, but proof of her importance to country music!

  3. It seems like you could either build a university seminar course around this song or just listen to it endlessly on repeat to try an crack the timeless appeal of Van Zandt’s lyrics.

    The song somehow seems simultaneously elusive and mystical and earthbound and historical. This might be as close to myth as country music storytelling gets. It is outrageously dense, the lyrics offer a surplus of meaning.

    Choose between Emmylou Harris and Willie and the Hag? Well, Darlin’, I refuse!

    The song almost stands alone, no? What other songs even keep company with it?

    This song is singularly special from the songwriting to the singing.

    Kevin, your observation about the special camaraderie between the superstar duets of the ’80s is worth discussing. There is a palpable admiration and respect between the the two stars here.

  4. There is much to say about this song, and the music video – and I have to say this is an absolutely classic music video no matter how you slice it – but I will just say I love it and the sense of betrayal is just palpable and yet I could never imagine it any other way.

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