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 composed as a ballad of four stanzas which use the two-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 back-to-back with the refrain being sung only after the second stanza. The verses of the first stanza introduce Lefty as a restless young soul who leaves home and his loving mother to seek his fortune south of the border. The verses of the second stanza introduce Pancho as a Mexican "bandit boy", who "wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to fear." After the refrain, the third stanza tells of Pancho's eventual death in "the deserts down in Mexico" and implies that he was betrayed by his associate Lefty who was paid off by the Mexican Federales. Lefty then uses the money to "split for" Ohio, trying to return to friends and family who apparently have moved on. Lefty grows old in cheap hotels without his friend from Mexico. Following the refrain, the fourth stanza poetizes Pancho's life and appears to call for some sympathy for Lefty's attempt at going home. A final extended refrain extends the two verse refrain to three.

Although the lyrics are not exactly reconcilable with the historic details of the life and death of the famous Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Van Zandt does not rule out the idea. In an interview, he recalled, "I realize that I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it's a real nice song, and I think, I've finally found out what it's about. I've always wondered what it's about. 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.' But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. 'They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose' and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated."[2]

In the same interview, Van Zandt recalled, "We got stopped by these two policeman and...they said 'What do you do for a living?', and I said, 'Well, I'm a songwriter', and they both kind of looked around like 'pitiful, pitiful', and so on to that I added, 'I wrote that song "Pancho and Lefty". You ever heard that song "Pancho and Lefty"? I wrote that', and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they're called Pancho and Lefty ... so I think maybe that's what it's about, those two guys ... I hope I never see them again."[2]

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.[3]

"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[4] 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.[5]

In June 2004, Rolling Stone ranked "Pancho and Lefty" 41st on its list of the "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time".[6]

In 2021, the original version was listed at #498 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[7]

Willie Nelson and Merle HaggardEdit

Weekly chartsEdit

Chart (1983) Peak
US Adult Contemporary (Billboard)[8] 21
US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)[9] 1
Canadian RPM Country Tracks 1

Year-end chartsEdit

Chart (1983) Position
US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)[10] 6

Notes and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ Beviglia, Jim (April 30, 2012). "Townes Van Zandt, "Pancho and Lefty"". American Songwriter. Retrieved June 5, 2012.
  2. ^ a b 1984 PBS series, "Austin Pickers". Ed Heffelfinger.
  3. ^ Bjorke, Matt (October 8, 2019). "Top 30 Country Digital Singles Chart: October 7, 2019". RoughStock. Retrieved October 11, 2019.
  4. ^ Whitburn, Joel (2004). The Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits: 1944-2006, Second edition. Record Research. p. 148.
  5. ^ Western Writers of America (2010). "The Top 100 Western Songs". American Cowboy. Archived from the original on August 10, 2014.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Rolling Stone (2021-09-15). "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 2021-09-16.
  8. ^ "Willie Nelson Chart History (Adult Contemporary)". Billboard. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  9. ^ "Willie Nelson Chart History (Hot Country Songs)". Billboard. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
  10. ^ "1984 Talent Almanat" (PDF). Billboard. Vol. 95 no. 51. December 24, 1983. p. TA-24. Retrieved June 20, 2021.

External linksEdit