“Living on the road my friend
Was going to make you free and clean
But now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene”
…And so begins “Pancho and Lefty” by Townes Van Zandt, and with those opening words “living on the road” Van Zandt qualifies this song as not only a myth about two enigmatic drifters, but also a bona fide Road Song, thereby making it eligible for inclusion on Jimmy Fallon’s fabled #truckplaylist.
Of course you could use Townes Van Zandt’s own version, from his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, or that of his protégé, Steve Earle, from his 2009 tribute album of Van Zandt songs, titled, Townes, but for my money I recommend the cover “duet” by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard from 1983.
Though the story in the song is told by an unnamed third person narrator, neither Pancho nor Lefty, Willie and Merle trade verses, and in a way, Willie is Pancho and Merle is Lefty. Politically, you could say that Willie was also Lefty, but visually, it is much easier to see Willie as Pancho. Besides, Merle has been portraying Lefty for his whole career, if you consider that Lefty Frizzell was the biggest influence on Merle’s singing. Lefty Frizzell himself was neither politically a Lefty, nor was he even left handed, but rather, as a boxer he had a mean left hook. Anyway, who knows what Van Zandt had in mind when he wrote the song. All I know is that a daughter or a niece of Willie or Merle suggested the song, and Willie enthusiastically said, “Merle, let’s do this song. I’ll be Pancho, and you’ll be Lefty.” This made more sense visually than in the actual song, but it made for a great album cover of the duo in the desert.
Merle sings only the last verses, leaving the opening verses and the chorus to Willie, who also plays a spectacular instrumental break on Trigger, his trusty guitar, in conjunction with Merle’s piano player from his group, The Strangers. Merle wasn’t too happy with his own contribution, and next morning he met Willie for some golf and asked if he could do it over, but Willie said the tape is already on its way to New York.
Mark Yeary is the piano player, and he also contributed the intro that sounds out of historical time, out of place, but allows the song to suddenly appear like a desert mirage of a bygone era, that like Pancho, sank into its dream. The instrumental break is majestic, as if it answers all the things left unsaid by the lyrics, such as what were Pancho’s final words as he died in the desert down in Mexico?.
Mark Yeary is no longer a Stranger and he has fallen on hard times himself. I just read on Mark’s Facebook that he is in Arizona and trying to decide if he should pay his electric bill or buy a car. He has had a stroke which made it difficult for him to pursue his occupation as a piano player, though with no other marketable job skills he has carried on.
Townes Van Zandt is gone, like Pancho, but Steve Earle, Merle Haggard, Mark Yeary, and Willie Nelson, are left to carry on, though none of them can sing the blues all night like they used to. The dust that Townes and Pancho bit down South didn’t all wind up in Lefty’s mouth. Pancho and Townes need your prayers, it’s true, but save a few for Lefty, Mark, Merle, Steve, and Willie, too. They all did what they had to do, and now they’re growing old.