Willie Nelson’s Daughter, Lana, Convinced Him To Spend $45,000 On The “Pancho And Lefty” Music Video

Willie Nelson country muisc
Youtube/Willie Nelson

Quite a budget for a music video in 1983.

On a recent episode of the Texas Monthly One By Willie podcast, Willie Nelson’s oldest daughter Lana stopped by to talk about one of his most famous songs “Red Headed Stranger,” and also touched on her father’s duet with Merle Haggard, “Pancho and Lefty.”

It was of course the title track to their collaborative album Pancho & Lefty in 1983, becoming a classic country hit and reaching #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.

And you’ll definitely want to read about the wild story of how it came to be HERE, but in addition to the iconic single, there’s an equally great music video to go along with it.

Lana explained that she created and directed the video in the early 80’s, which was initially rejected by CBS because she wanted such a big budget for it… $45,000, to be exact, which was a lot for the time and unheard in the country genre. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit since then…

And since they couldn’t get any big companies to invest and foot the bill, Willie funded the entire budget himself and let her do whatever she wanted.

At the time, music videos were just starting to get big, and they weren’t even a thing yet in country, which is why they were so hesitant to agree to spending so much money on it:

“I did the video. Yeah, when it came time and music videos were big—or getting big; there wasn’t any country music videos. And so I said, ‘Dad, you need to do a video on that,’ [he] said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ Well, okay.

And so we tried to get the money from CBS, and I’ll never forget, the guy said, ‘Little lady, you’re just ahead of your time. We can’t do that. ‘So Dad funded… it was $45,000, and Dad funded every penny of it.”

What a guy… while obviously one of the greatest musicians to ever do it, Willie seems like an equally incredible and loving father which makes him all the more endearing.

And of course, like Lana goes on to mention, Willie made that money back in many different ways and the song obviously became an iconic classic country song, so it was a great investment and CBS eventually figured that out, too (money talks…):

“I think they paid him back eventually. And, of course, he made his money back many ways, many times. But it was so early on that you couldn’t talk a label into really doing something like that.

Later on, I got flowers, I got all that stuff, and they realized that it was a good idea. And I was ahead of my time, I guess. I mean, he was right.”

Ahead of her time, indeed.

And now, we have this gem of a music video because of it… check it out:

Merle Haggard Barely Remembered Recording It

Merle and Willie… what a pair.

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.”

Listen to Merle tell the story himself:

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock