All roads lead to Townes – PANCHO AND LEFTY


Townes Van Zandt never achieved fame and fortune, but his influence will be felt by songwriters for generations to come.

As Steve Earle 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.”

I agree.

In my line of work, I have the opportunity to visit with songwriters on a regular basis. Almost all of them list Townes as one of their most important musical influences. During a recent telephone interview, legendary folk singer Tom Paxton recently said he had “all day” to talk about Townes.

Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was born in Fort Worth. He was raised in privilege, but decided against a legal career like his father. Instead, he chose the life of a troubadour. He battled mental illness, drug and alcohol dependency. He followed the coffee house circuit, sometimes playing to only a handful of fans. He never really had a permanent home and was never a household name, but man, did he leave a deep catalog of work.

My plan is to post a Townes song each week … if you’re already a fan, maybe these blogs will be a pleasant stroll down memory lane. If you’re not familiar with Townes, maybe these posts will help you discover one of music’s greatest talents.

Perhaps Townes’ best known song, PANCHO AND LEFTY, was released in 1972 and then covered by, among others, EmmyLou Harris in 1977 and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983.

The lyrics tell of two outlaws  … As for the rest of the story, Townes it to us to figure out …


Livin’ on the road my friend
Is gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron
And your breath is hard as kerosene

You weren’t your mama’s only boy
Her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said
Good-bye, sank to your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boy
His horse was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel

Pancho met his match, you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dyin’ word
Oh but that’s the way it goes

All the Federales, they say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down South
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth

The day they lay poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the Federales they say
We could have had him any day
We only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Poncho fell
And Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet, Cleveland’s cold
And so the story ends we’re told

Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true
Save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do
And now he’s growin’ old

All the Federales, they say
We could have had him any day
They only let him go so long
Out of kindness I suppose

A few gray Federales, they say
Could have had him any day
We only let him go so long
Out of kindness I suppose

*  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here’s a link to a young Townes doing P&L from the outtakes of the DVD “Heartworn Highways.”

Click here to watch Willie, Merle and Asleep at the Wheel’s cover.

Click here to watch EmmyLou perform the song at Farm Aid.


Many thanks to Darrell Scott for giving me the title of this series years ago. Truer words were never spoken.




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