“Pancho and Lefty,” written by the great cult country singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is one of those supremely evocative songs that is both touching and enigmatic. Obliquely telling the story of Pancho, a Mexican bandit similar to the legendary Pancho Villa, and Lefty, a broken down singer who may or may not have set up Pancho to be taken and killed by the Federales, the song saw its biggest success on Willie Nelson & the late Merle Haggard’s 1983 collaboration, Pancho and Lefty. The title track reached #1 on the country charts and it’s easy to hear why today
With Willie Nelson’s inimitably reedy talk-singing laying out the story in touching but unsentimental manner for two-thirds of the track and then Haggard’s instantly recognizable Bakersfield baritone coming in for the last verse and joining Willie for the last choruses, their “Pancho and Lefty” is a world weary tale of a bandit’s rise and fall and the more nuanced discontents of an aging singer. Miles away from the ultra-slick country confections of the time, it’s easy to see how the song’s bittersweet story arc would appeal to these gritty veteran country music outlaws.
But there is an even earlier version of “Pancho and Lefty” that gives the song’s moving mini-saga an achingly beautiful feminine retelling. One of the highlights of the supernaturally gifted vocalist Emmylou Harris’s 1977 standout album, Luxury Liner, her version of “Pancho and Lefty” was actually the first cover of this much-covered song. It’s also arguably still the best.
Famed as a great duettist and muse, most notably on Gram Parsons’ best solo recordings, Harris shows that she is more than up for leading a band and dominating a tune as a solo artist. With her utterly unique and ethereal soprano front and center, Harris’s version not only puts forward the tale of the outlaw and the singer as written but also seems to be bringing forward an even deeper level of meaning as relates to the song’s author. When she sings: “The poets tell how Poncho fell/And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel/The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold/And so the story ends we’re told/Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true/Save a few for Lefty too/He only did what he had to do/And now he’s growin’ old” the connection that this is Van Zandt’s lonesome autobiography — and that he might think of himself as both the outlaw and the singer — really hits home. As great and enjoyably leathery as the Nelson-Haggard version is, it’s the lovely and soulful Emmylou Harris take that I’d pick to move me — and breath life into the spirit of Townes Van Zandt — every day of the week.