Although country-folk singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt never achieved commercial success with any of his own critically acclaimed records, many other artists scored hits with his compositions, the biggest of which was Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard's duet version of "Pancho and Lefty," which topped the country charts in 1983. Van Zandt had originally recorded the song on his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and Emmylou Harris had included a gorgeous version on her 1977 smash Luxury Liner, but Nelson and Haggard captured the song's elegiac melancholy arguably even better than their predecessors. Harris' version is worth hearing just for the lilting heights her achingly sweet, pure voice reaches on the opening line of the chorus (and the lines in the verses which echo that melody). The pairing of Nelson and Haggard, though, echoes the bond between the title characters, and provides an intriguing contrast: Nelson's nasal, understated voice and unpredictable phrasing versus Haggard's rich, warm croon and mastery of old-school honky tonk. More than any other, their version allows the low-key, reflective sadness at the heart of the story to gradually wash over the listener, letting the characters take on a life of their own -- the song continues to haunt long after it's finished.
"Pancho and Lefty" opens with a typical country-song situation: a son leaves his tearful mother for the nomadic life of the open road. Feminine love and stability just aren't enough for his masculine sense of adventure and individuality, and so, as Van Zandt puts it, he sinks into his dreams of an ideal life with no boundaries or commitments. There's a romantic toughness in that lonely life, a man who "wear[s his] skin like iron" and has "breath as hard as kerosene." But what happens to men who never leave that fantasy once they've explored its reality, who never return to settle down with the comforts of love and home? In the case of outlaw bandits "Pancho and Lefty," they develop close masculine friendships, and find themselves shattered by loss when their exciting but precarious existence catches up with them -- in spite of all their efforts to avoid that pain, having created lives in which (they think) they have nothing to hold onto but themselves. Pancho initially seems an invincible, larger-than-life figure ("his horse was fast as polished steel/he wore his gun outside his pants/for all the honest world to feel"), but when he is killed in the Mexican desert (it's never explained precisely how), Van Zandt points out that "nobody heard his dying words" -- he is utterly alone, at the one moment when he truly needs companionship and support. But, as Van Zandt says, "that's the way it goes" when you've chosen this life. With no home and no lover, Pancho "left his living in a cheap hotel," dying in a desert that perhaps symbolizes his inner life. Van Zandt's lyrics only hint at the depth of Lefty's despair -- "Lefty he can't sing the blues/all night long like he used to" -- but on the day of Pancho's funeral, Lefty flees in grief to Ohio (perhaps wanting a predictable Midwestern stability?), alone. Unlike Pancho, Lefty still has his life, but it won't be much of one -- Van Zandt dispatches that future with the single line "Desert's quiet, Cleveland's cold." Now that he needs one, Lefty really has no home anywhere -- "and now," the final line of the final verse says, "he's growing old." In the duet version, Haggard sings this line as though he can barely get it out without choking up; it's the most tragic moment in the song. Lefty is utterly alone, away from everything familiar from his glory days, with nothing lasting to show from his youth, and no real future to look forward to except death." Pancho needs your prayers, it's true," says Van Zandt, "but save a few for Lefty too."
The song's refrain -- "All the federales say/they could have had him any day/they only let him slip away/out of kindness, I suppose" -- points to a complex code of ethics. That lawmen would be moved to show kindness to an outlaw and bandit suggests a long pursuit during which each side has come to be a constant preoccupation and presence for the other, and thus developed a sort of mutual respect. The final chorus is crucial to deepening this point, as it alters the first line to "A few gray federales say" -- revealing that the police are confronting their own aging and impending death as well. Perhaps their lives are similar too, full of danger and excitement (albeit on the opposite side of the law), but just as lonely. That's why the line is probably something more than an image of old men rehashing their glory days, talking about the one that got away. If the federales actually caught Lefty, imprisoned or killed him, they would lose his familiar presence, just as Lefty had lost his best friend; moreover, they themselves were growing old, holding on to whoever was connected to their lives, before those people too were taken away. Perhaps they'd come to respect Lefty, perhaps they pitied him, perhaps they didn't have the energy to continue to the struggle -- but perhaps, united with Lefty by the inevitable, rapid approach of death, it simply didn't matter enough anymore. Whether it's Lefty's perseverance or their own mortality that's defeated them, it's ultimately a touching, human gesture that only seems like indifference on the surface. None of the characters in the song ever admit to wanting connection or fellowship, yet their actions strongly indicate otherwise. "Pancho and Lefty" is rich in emotional complexity, a haunting meditation not only on mortality, but also a traditional American-male conflict behind the cowboy/outlaw legends: choosing between a life of adventure, rootlessness, and rugged machismo, or a more commonplace life of domesticity and predictable yet fulfilling relationships. And the song seems to suggest that only in death can a man isolate himself as much as his idealized fantasies about life demand; that those transcendent friendships -- and the pain of loss they inevitably bring -- will happen no matter what.