Texas is a wellspring of musical inspiration, and country star Aaron Watson has drawn from the well many times.
I recently spoke with Watson about the one Texas song that made the biggest impression on him during his formative years.
“Since I was a little boy, I always loved ‘Pancho and Lefty,'” Watson says. “I could still listen to it today just like it was yesterday. That song never gets old.”
Indeed. “Pancho and Lefty,” written by the great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is a timeless and strangely mystical song. It tells the story of Pancho, a Mexican bandito, and his pal, Lefty. The Federales capture and hang Pancho, and the lyrics allude that Lefty might have betrayal him.
Van Zandt once said, “It’s hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It was like it came through me.”
More on that later.
A number of artists have covered “Pancho and Lefty,” but Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s duet version left the biggest impression on Watson.
“Townes’ version is awesome, but you can’t beat Willie and Merle’s. Townes’ is great, but I just don’t know if his version would’ve captured me like Willie and Merle. I mean, everything about that song — from Willie and Merle, to the production of it, the guitar — they just knocked that one out of the park.”
Here’s the video for Willie and Merle’s version of “Pancho and Lefty.” Look for the first Van Zandt cameo at the 1:00 mark.
Still wondering where the elusive inspiration for the song came from?
Van Zandt had an idea. After he wrote it, he learned that Pancho Villa, the revolutionary Mexican general, had a close friend whose name translated to “Lefty.”
Were forces from beyond tuning into Townes? Who’s to know, but it makes one helluva story.
Van Zandt had another fortunate coincidence with the song later in his life, when he was pulled over by two Texas police officers.
In his own words:
“They said ‘What do you do for a living?’, and I said, ‘Well, I’m a songwriter’, and they both kind of looked around like ‘pitiful, pitiful’, and so on to that I added, ‘I wrote that song Pancho and Lefty.’You ever heard that song Pancho and Lefty? I wrote that’, and they looked back around and they looked at each other and started grinning, and it turns out that their squad car, you know their partnership, it was two guys, it was an Anglo and a Hispanic, and it turns out, they’re called Pancho and Lefty… so I think maybe that’s what it’s about, those two guys… I hope I never see them again”