Trying to rank the 10 greatest country songs of all time would be a nearly impossible task.
There are just way too many great ones and everyone’s lists would be subjective to their own tastes… however… you could probably make a pretty strong case that “Pancho and Lefty” needs to be on there.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson might have popularized the song when they released it in 1983 and it soon rose to #1 on the charts, but neither were the mastermind behind the song.
One of the greatest songwriters of all time, and an overall underrated country music legend, Townes Van Zandt penned “Pancho and Lefty” and released it originally in 1972 on his album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.
For those of you who may not be familiar with Townes, he is one of those musicians who never quite hit the mainstream, but instead was more concerned with the art of songwriting, an art with which he was masterful. And while not everyone seems to appreciate it, I guarantee most of your favorite artists would cite him as a large influence in their songwriting.
A peculiar character, Townes came from a long line of high profile and influential people in Texas. His great-great grandfather was an influential member of the Republic of Texas and the namesake of Texas’ Van Zandt County. Buildings on the campus of the University of Texas are named after other family members, too. But Townes never cared much for the fraternities or law schools his family pushed on him, and instead turned to a life of music and simplicity.
A contemporary of Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Earle, Blaze Foley and others on the outlaw music scene in Texas in the 1960s and 70s, Townes had a special mix of melancholy and humor that defined most of his music. Unfortunately, he battled addictions to heroin and alcohol throughout most of his adult life and career, and passed away in 1997 at 52. Nevertheless, his music has lived on, especially “Pancho and Lefty.”
A captivating story, the song follows the two outlaws, Pancho and Lefty, until Pancho is caught and hung by the Federales in Mexico. Lefty, who all of a sudden has enough money to move to Ohio, grows old playing the blues in cheap hotels without his old friend.
While it is never explicitly stated in the song, some believe Lefty may have tipped off the Federales on Pancho and regretted it as he grew old. A lyrical masterpiece, this isn’t only one of Townes Van Zandt’s greatest songs, but one of the greatest songs ever.
Ever since its original release, it has frequently been covered by other artists.
Here are the seven best “Pancho and Lefty” covers you can find on Spotify.
7. Tennessee Jet – The Country (2020)
6. Jason Isbell and Elizabeth Cook (2013)
5. Steve Earle – Townes (2009)
Steve Earle, famous for hits like “Copperhead Road” and “Guitar Town,” was a longtime friend of Townes Van Zandt, and the two spent a lot of time together throughout their careers.
So much so that Earle’s late son, Justin Townes Earle, was named after Townes Van Zandt. In 2009, Earle released a cover album of some of Townes Van Zandt’s greatest songs, and this one was on it.
4. Justin Clyde Williams – Preamble EP (2019)
3. Shane Smith & the Saints – Live from the Desert (2021)
2. Emmylou Harris – Luxury Liner (1977)
Emmylou Harris was the first big artist to cover “Pancho and Lefty,” introducing it to a new audience in 1977 as part of her album Luxury Liner.
1. Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty (1983)
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson teamed up for a duet and released the song’s most widely known version in 1983 on their album Pancho & Lefty.