Pancho and Lefty

"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.[1] The song has been recorded by several artists since its composition and performance by Van Zandt, with the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard version selling the most copies and reaching the Billboard top hits list.

"Pancho and Lefty"
Song by Townes Van Zandt
from the album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt
GenreCountry, Folk
Songwriter(s)Townes Van Zandt

Content and compositionEdit

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".

Video releaseEdit

A music video was released for the song in 1983, depicting Willie Nelson as Pancho, and Merle Haggard as Lefty. Townes Van Zandt also appears in a supporting role. Willie's daughter Lana (who incidentally was the one that suggested the recording of the duet) directed the video, the first for Nelson and second for Haggard, the first being for "Are the Good Times Really Over?" a year prior (albeit as mostly a performance video).


The song reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs for chart dated July 23, 1983. In the Willie Nelson release, it has sold 648,000 digital copies in the United States as of October 2019 since becoming available for download.[2]

"Pancho and Lefty"
Single by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
from the album Pancho & Lefty
B-side"Opportunity to Cry"
ReleasedApril 30, 1983
Songwriter(s)Townes Van Zandt
Merle Haggard singles chronology
"You Take Me for Granted"
"Pancho and Lefty"
"What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)"
Willie Nelson singles chronology
"Little Old Fashioned Karma"
"Pancho and Lefty"
"Why Do I Have to Choose"


"Pancho and Lefty" was first covered by Emmylou Harris on her album Luxury Liner in 1976. The song has since been covered by various artists, notably Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson's title track of their duet album Pancho & Lefty. This was a number one country hit[3] and the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2020.[citation needed]

Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as the 17th-greatest Western song of all time.[4]

In June 2004, Rolling Stone ranked "Pancho and Lefty" 41st on its list of the "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time".[5]

Willie Nelson and Merle HaggardEdit

Chart (1983) Peak
U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles 1
U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary 21
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1

Notes and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ Beviglia, Jim (30 April 2012). "Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty"". American Songwriter. Retrieved 5 June 2012.
  2. ^ Bjorke, Matt (October 8, 2019). "Top 30 Country Digital Singles Chart: October 7, 2019". RoughStock. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
  3. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 148.
  4. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on 10 August 2014.
  5. ^

External linksEdit