“Pancho and Lefty” is a song written by country music artist Townes Van Zandt. Often considered his “most enduring and well-known song,” Van Zandt first recorded it for his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
In 1983, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson adopted it as the title track of their duet album Pancho & Lefty, and was a number one country hit .
The song is a ballad of four stanzas which use a 2-verse refrain: “All the Federales say they could’ve had him any day/ They only let him slip away out of kindness I suppose.” The first two stanzas are sung consecutively followed by the refrain. The first introduces Pancho as a young idealist and his mother’s favorite son, who left home imagining that being on the road would result in freedom and purity of heart – but only resulted in having “skin like iron” and “breath as hard as kerosene”. The second stanza adds that he acquired a fast horse, had become a bandit, made no excuses about what he now was, and was ultimately cut down in the deserts of Mexico. After the refrain, the third stanza introduces Lefty who was negatively impacted by Pancho’s death but also indicates he was directly responsible – that he fled to the US the same day using funds from an unknown source. The final stanza is an epilogue which depicts Pancho’s life being glorified by others while Lefty’s fate is to just grow old in ignoble circumstances. A line from the last stanza implies that the betrayal was most likely due to Lefty’s disillusionment with the life of being an outlaw and needing the reward money to break free – “He only did what he had to do”.
Single by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
from the album Pancho & Lefty
B-side “Opportunity to Cry”
Released April 30, 1983
Songwriter(s) Townes Van Zandt
Producer(s) Chips Moman Willie Nelson Merle Haggard