The Epic Story Behind Townes Van Zandt's Song Pancho And Lefty

In the summer of 1972, the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was staying in a dingy motel room on the edge of Denton, Texas, when he sat down with his acoustic guitar and unbeknownst to himself began writing his biggest hit, according to Texas Hill Country. At least that's one version of how "Pancho and Lefty" came to be. Others claim that Van Zandt wrote the song in a hotel room in Dallas or in a hospital in Houston in 1971 while he recovered from a drug overdose, per "For the Sake of the Song: Essays on Townes Van Zandt."

However the song came into existence, it wouldn't be Van Zandt who made it famous, but two other country musicians a decade after Van Zandt wrote and recorded the song for his 1972 release "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt." Even so, the song saved Van Zandt from jail and got him a cameo on a music video, to boot.

A songwriter who took a hard path 

One probable reason for all the mysteries surrounding the song's origins was Townes Van Zandt's issues involving drugs and alcohol. Born John Townes Van Zandt on March 7, 1944, in Fort Worth, to a wealthy oil family with deep ties to Texas' history, it initially seemed that Van Zandt would follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer, according to The New York Times. But his path would be much different, and difficult. Diagnosed at an early age with Bipolar disorder, which kept him out of the military during the Vietnam War, Van Zandt decided to pursue a career in music.

Van Zandt believed the craft of songwriting required sacrifice and lived that philosophy, sometimes reduced to eating dog food and living in a shack with no running water, per The New York Times and "I'll Be Here in the Morning: The Songwriting Legacy of Townes Van Zandt." The addition of his overuse of drugs and alcohol made for rough living. But he would become a legend among his peers and later generations of musicians, from Bob Dylan to Emmylou Harris, with many, including Dylan, considering "Pancho and Lefty" to be the jewel in the crown of his output, per Dylan's "The Philosophy of Modern Song."

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Van Zandt claimed Pancho and Lefty came out of the blue 

"Pancho and Lefty," on its face is about a Mexican bandit and his sidekick who may or may not have betrayed him. Townes Van Zandt would claim he was less the song's creator and more of a conduit for its creation. "I realize I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue," Van Zandt told PBS in 1984 (via YouTube). "It came through me and it's a real nice song."

Similarly to how the tune came to be, its exact meaning is also obscured. In the PBS interview, Van Zandt said that for a long time, he did not know what the song was about. And while he denied the song was about Pancho Villa, the turn-of-the-century Mexican revolutionary, he pointed out in the PBS interview the similarities between his Pancho and Pancho Villa, including that Villa had a friend whose name in Spanish meant "Lefty." "But in my song, Pancho was hung," Van Zandt said. "The real Pancho Villa was assassinated."

Pancho and Lefty became a huge hit for someone else

In 1977, Emmylou Harris covered "Pancho and Lefty" on her hit record "Luxury Liner," which was the version that Willie Nelson first heard and wanted to cover with Merle Haggard, per the Houston Press. In the fall of 1982, Haggard was staying at Nelson's property outside of Austin while working on the album that would become "Pancho and Lefty." He hadn't slept in days when Nelson dragged him into the studio to record his vocals. "I just barely remember going in there. I was about half-awake," Haggard told the Houston Press in 2013. Their version, unlike Townes Van Zandt, which didn't chart, went straight to number one on the Billboard Country Singles chart.

After Nelson and Haggard's song became a smash hit, Van Zandt and his band were driving to Houston when the police pulled them over in Burton, Texas, for speeding. Van Zandt had also been drinking, per the PBS interview. The two officers who went by the handles of Pancho and Lefty let the singer go when they learned he'd penned the tune. Haggard and Nelson included Van Zandt in the song's video. "They didn't have to invite me and I made I think $100 dollars a day," Van Zandt recalled, per the Los Angeles Review of Books "I was the captain of the Federales. And plus, I got to ride a horse. I always like that." He died of a heart attack on New Year's Day, 1997, at 52 years old, per The New York Times.