Here we go again with another “VERSIONS” in which our writers accumulate, disseminate, articulate and are frequently late with their musings about songs and how they are presented. This time Rick Bayles (a man who knows a thing or three) goes large with many people’s favourite dead outlaw poet.
Given the prominence Townes Van Zandt, rightly, holds as a writer of great Americana songs it’s surprising that more of his songs haven’t been successfully covered but perhaps that’s the measure of a truly great songwriter – it’s hard for cover versions to match the quality of the original.
The one big exception in Van Zandt’s case is ‘Pancho & Lefty’, a desert tinged country ballad about the outlaw life and the risk of betrayal. The Second-Hand Songs website lists some forty-three different recorded versions of this song, from artists as diverse as Hoyt Axton (Van Zandt’s own favourite) to Frank Turner and all points in-between; and live versions are almost limitless, even Dylan has included it in a live set.
We obviously have to start with the original. Van Zandt wrote the song for his 1972 album ‘The Late Great Townes Van Zandt’ like most of his output, a critical but not particularly commercial success in his own lifetime. He claimed that the song just came to him when he was in a Dallas hotel room with nothing to do, so sat down to specifically write a song, ‘Pancho & Lefty’ being the result. He wrote the first three verses and the refrain in that single sitting and played the song at a gig that same night. Someone commented that it was a great song but seemed, somehow, unfinished. Van Zandt wrote the final verse, “Poets tell how Pancho fell, and Lefty’s living in a cheap motel…..” the following day. It’s a song that immediately captures the imagination with just the right amount of storytelling to establish a plotline but just enough ambiguity to its meaning to leave the listener something to think about. Who were Pancho and Lefty? Why did Lefty betray our hero? Is it meant to be a thinly veiled comment on life on the road? Van Zandt always maintained he didn’t know the answers to any of those questions, it was simply a song he dreamed up.
Townes Van Zandt (1972)
The original and, for my money, still the best version of this great song. It sounds exactly as it should; sparse and haunting, you can hear the desert setting in the playing of the song, there’s a dry quality to the sound that owes much to Van Zandt’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar and the simple piano rhythm from keyboard player Chuck Cochran, who also contributes a simulation of a mariachi band around the chorus – and there’s some beautifully understated fiddle playing from the master that was Vassar Clements. The production credit goes to Van Zandt’s manager at the time, Kevin Eggers, assisted by Jack Clement, but Van Zandt clearly had a lot of say in how the song was put together. Eggers had wanted to add drums to this track but Van Zandt vetoed it, knowing that it would kill the song to tie it down to a drum pattern and that it was better to let the piano carry the rhythm. The vocal phrasing is terrific, playing around the melody line, rather than following it. How this wasn’t a huge success at the time is one of life’s great mysteries, though Van Zandt’s “erratic” lifestyle meant promoting his recordings was always an uphill battle. In June 2004 Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song as number 41 in its list of the 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time. I, personally, refuse to believe there are 40 songs better than this!
Emmylou Harris (1976)
Amazingly it took nearly five years before someone was prepared to cover this song and that someone was Emmylou Harris on her ‘Luxury Liner’ album, released at the end of 1976. It’s a very different approach to the song, as you might expect, taken at a slightly faster tempo and the desolation is gone, to be replaced by a more plaintiff tone. Unsurprisingly, Harris sings it beautifully, with that yearning in her voice that makes it seem like a song, not so much to a fallen renegade, but to a lost time – a past that has now gone. The harmonies, courtesy of Rodney Crowell and Albert Lee, give the song great dynamics and there’s that wonderful signature descending guitar/pedal steel riff that marks the end of each verse and chorus, courtesy of Lee and pedal steel maestro Hank DeVito. Here we have Emmylou and the Hot Band performing the song on OGWT, just after the album was released.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (1983)
The title track from Haggard & Nelson’s 1983 collaboration album, that was originally misspelled as “Poncho & Lefty” on the album cover and record label! The track was released as a single and both the single and the album went straight to the top of the U.S Country Charts, providing Van Zandt with some much needed royalties and giving him the pleasure of seeing one of his most famous songs finally make the commercial impact it deserved. Ironically, it’s one of the worst versions of the song! Of course, it has the iconic voices of Haggard and Nelson together on the same track and they’re both in fine voice. Haggard, in particular brings some real presence to his sections of the song – but the whole thing comes across as a bit cheesy, not helped by a video that sees Haggard playing Lefty to Nelson’s Pancho (and with composer Van Zandt featured as Captain of the Federales). The song was brought to Willie Nelson’s attention by his daughter, Lana; she suggested it could make a great single from the album, apparently neither Nelson or Haggard had ever heard the song before. The recording takes something of a Honky Tonk approach, which could’ve worked really well, with tinkling piano from Bobby Emmons, but the whole recording is just too polite, somehow it fails to tap into the heart and soul of the song.
Steve Earle (2009)
In 2009, Townes Van Zandt disciple, Steve Earle, released his tribute album to his friend and mentor. Earle has been a long-time champion of the man he considers to have been the finest songwriter the world has seen. He famously said, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” A quote that caused some embarrassment when it ended up as a sticker on Van Zandt’s 1987 album ‘At My Window’. Earle called his son Justin Townes Earle, in honour of Van Zandt and wrote one of his best songs, ‘Fort Worth Blues’ on hearing of Van Zandt’s death in 1997. It seems fitting that the opening track on Earle’s ‘Townes’ album would be ‘Pancho and Lefty’.
On the album, Earle takes the song back to its simple form, accompanying himself on fingerpicked guitar, backed up by Darrell Scott on resonator guitar. This is, for me, this song at its best, unencumbered by glossy arrangements and unnecessary instrumentation. Earle does the right thing by his departed friend, presenting the song the way it was meant to be heard.