Of all the songs Townes Van Zandt wrote, "Pancho and Lefty" was perhaps the most well known in popular culture. Over the years, several artists have covered the tune, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who took their version to No. 1 in 1983. That same year Van Zandt was a guest on Austin City Limits and performed the song during a songwriters circle. Here's some footage from the vault of the performance.
A master songwriter, Van Zandt was able to tap into a sort of mystical place for inspiration. "Pancho & Lefty" is one of the mysterious songs in his catalog.
"It's hard to take credit for the writing because it came from out of the blue," Van Zandt once said. "It was like it came through me."
"Pancho and Lefty" was one of his most recognizable songs and certainly his most covered tune. Coincidentally, Van Zandt had a bizarre encounter involving the song years after it was recorded. While driving through Texas, he was pulled over by two police officers. Here's the story 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."