The duo released their iconic song, “Pancho and Lefty,” as the title track to their collaborative album Pancho & Lefty in 1983. It became a classic country hit and reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles chart that year.
It was originally a song written and recorded by Townes Van Zandt for his 1972 album The Late Great Townes Van Zandt, and then later by Emmylou Harris in 1976.
But back in 2021, Eric Church was on Zane Lowe’s “At Home” podcast to discuss some of his favorite music of all time, and he told the crazy story of how Merle and Willie ended up recording the song in the first place.
Of course, Eric is a huge fan of The Hag, dedicating an entire song on his first album Sinners Like Me, “Pledge Allegiance To The Hag”, to the greatness and legend that is Merle Haggard.
He even told Zane:
“I believe Merle Haggard is the greatest country singer, of his songs, of all time.”
Which is due in large part to Merle’s authenticity…
“You know why you believe him? It’s true. Everything he did. That’s him. Merle dying was a really hard day for me, because Merle is the quintessential country music singer.
At least of my generation, of my life. His interpretation of songs, the interpretation not his own songs, but other people’s songs.
I mean the ‘Yesterday’s Wine’ record between George Jones and Merle Haggard is the most fun record I’ve ever heard. You can tell they’re completely blitzed out of their mind and it’s awesome. It’s awesome.”
And Eric has the greatest example you’ll ever hear about the legend that is Merle Haggard:
“I heard Willie tell a story one time. This will put it in perspective of that era…
So ‘Pancho and Lefty’ is a big Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson song. They’re partyin’, they’re at Willie’s studio, they’re at Willie’s house and they’re goin’ hard one night.
And Willie convinces Merle to record this Townes Van Zandt song called ‘Pancho and Lefty’.”
Seems like the perfect time to record a hit country song if you ask me:
“Merle hears it, Merle loves it, Merle goes in and does that last verse, which I think is a classic last verse of any Merle Haggard performance. Well, Merle goes to his bus, which is parked at Willie’s studio, he passes out.
He gets up the next morning and walks in and goes ‘Hey Willie, what did we do last night? We recorded, what was that thing?’
Willie says, ‘We recorded the song called ‘Pancho and Lefty’ Townes Van Zandt wrote.’ Merle goes, ‘I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to do that. I wanna re-record it.’
And Willie goes, ‘Hoss, that’s already out of here on its way to New York. It’ll be on the radio next week.’”
Willie knew there was going to be some next-day regret from their wild night of drinking and sent the mix off before Merle even woke up… and these are exactly the kinds of stories that make country music what it is.
A lot of the time, the best music is raw and natural, not over polished and perfectly edited for the radio:
“And I thought, that is the purity of music right there. Merle couldn’t even fix it, it was gone. It’s classic. It sounds fantastic.”
I love hearing stuff like that, and it’s so cool to see Eric impart his wisdom of the genre on all of us.