“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.’ I know that’s strange, huh?” –Townes Van Zandt
Sometimes a great song sits on someone’s shelf for years before it’s even recorded. Often one’ll barely make a dent in our collective skulls the first time we hear it, only to rise again later in some new incarnation, busting into our brains as we wonder from whence it came. Townes Van Zandt’s ballad of a favorite son and his blues-singing buddy was such a song. First recorded by Van Zandt himself in 1972, nobody paid attention then, and not even when Emmylou Harris recorded it again in ’77. Not until 11 years after its first release, did Pancho and Lefty get their curtain call, voiced by two legends of the country genre, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson.
Let’s get this out of the way first; the intro is just indefensibly bad. Maybe it worked in ’83, but it sounds to me like a 10 year-old beating on his first Casio, and what is weird is that the rest of the song sounds nothing like it. We can only wonder why this bouncy beat opens up a cautionary tale of woe. The good news is that with today’s digital technology, I can edit away that awful anachronism, and pretend the curtain is raised on this story with the gentle acoustic strums that lead into Willie’s understated delivery.
Speaking of Willie, some find his voice too much of an acquired taste. I think that here, his nasally notes are perfect for such a story of bandits on the run. He doesn’t show his hand too early either. His opening lilt to the words “Livin’ on the road my friend…” is regretful, almost reverent, and the tone continues during this rueful retrospective delivered directly to someone, though we have to imagine who.
The production stays basic during that first soliloquy, until it finishes on the word “dreams” when the drumbeat kicks in with an organ padding out the sound, much more subdued than that hideous keytar from the intro (Okay I don’t know it’s a keytar, but I can just imagine some perm-coiffed virtuoso grimacing earnestly as he bashes out that cheesy riff…. Sorry, back to the good stuff).
A processed triad on a plucked guitar adds drama coming into the chorus. By the time it hits with “All the Federales say…” an accordion has squeezed itself into the mix. Following verse two and the chorus again, we get an intriguing instrumental break. The organ still has that processed synth sound to it, but its descending notes make an almost creepy vibe until the plucked guitar comes in again to lead into Merle’s third and final verse. Interestingly, neither of the lead vocalists sings the first part of the chorus this time, leaving it to the backup singers. It’s almost like Willie forgot to come in on time. It lends a village vibe to the proceedings, almost like a Greek chorus giving affirmation to the claim about what the Federales say. Willie and Merle then harmonize for the only time before a clean piano sound pushes us out the playhouse doors to ponder what happened.
This being a ballad in the true sense of the word (somehow it’s come to mean any slow song on a rock record), the story is in the song. In all the years I’ve listened to this one though, I didn’t really catch the complete tale of these two characters until researching for this post. Without giving too much away, I’ll say pay close attention to the line “how he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows” and leave it at that.
Van Zandt starts in second person voice, his character speaking directly to the listener. After this “prologue”, he switches to third person narration, though it’s clear our balladeer is not completely objective. The plea for sympathy towards Lefty in the last verse makes me wonder if it’s Lefty’s voice we’ve been hearing all along, first talking to himself, then telling his version of the tale.
This is an example of a song so good it refused to be denied an audience. Almost 28 years since its peak on the country charts though, it’s now no longer a given that even today’s die-hard country fan would know it. Give it a spin down the lane of your early 80’s memory or drop down the digital needle on it for the first time. Either way, you’ll get pulled by the sounds into the deceptively short story, just try to forget that ugly intro!!!.Preview Pancho and Lefty