Saturday, March 31, 2012

Townes Van Zandt - "Pancho and Lefty" (the song remains the same)

In my previous post I introduced Ronnie Montrose to illustrate the concept of popular vs. influential. Continuing in that theme we now look at Townes Van Zandt, a songwriter's songwriter. You probably haven't heard of Townes, but he was an enormously influential on and respected by artists you do know, as we will see.

One reason Townes never achieved greater fame is that he was his own worst enemy, embodying all the cliches of "Bad Blake" in Crazy Heart, but without the happy ending. His death could be a movie by itself. Somewhere, Townes must have heard that you need to suffer to be a good songwriter... and he was a very good songwriter. As Steve Earle once said:
"[Van Zandt is] the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that."
My first introduction to Van Zandt's music was long before I even knew who he was. In 1983, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard released a collaborative album entitled "Pancho & Lefty". I had a lot of exposure to country music at the time because my mother played it 24-7 and even though I was into metal then, I knew "Pancho and Lefty" was a compelling song.

It tells the story of the two outlaws, Pancho now dead and Lefty retired (for the record: it is not about Pancho Villa). They live a hard life on the run, but perhaps their freedom is a farce:
All the Federales say
We could have had him any day.
We only let him slip away
Out of kindness, I suppose.
Eventually Pancho is "laid low" and Lefty escapes:
The day they laid poor Pancho low,
Lefty split for Ohio.
Where he got the bread to go,
There ain't nobody knows.
The exact details of what happened are never revealed. One reading of the song is that it is a retelling of the universal theme of betrayal, but even though the evidence suggests otherwise I like to think Lefty didn't flip on Pancho (read the rest of the lyrics to decide for yourself). The story that Townes tells is simple, direct, and powerful; there are no wasted words. It is a perfect match for Willie Nelson's voice, who absorbs the story and the way he sings the opening stanza gives me chills:
Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean.
Now you wear your skin like iron,
Your breath as hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only boy,
But her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye,
And sank into your dreams.
Before Willie and Merle recorded it, Emmylou Harris recorded it for her 1977 LP "Luxury Liner", and it first appeared on Towne's 1972 LP, "The Late Great Townes Van Zandt". As you can see below, you can take almost any combination of country and folk singers and find a live version. Some of the notable versions are:

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard: studio (1983), live

Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan: live

Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris: live (2000)

Emmylou Harris: live (1977), live (2008)

Steve Earle: studio, live (2009), live (2009)

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: live (1997)

and of course:

Townes Van Zandt: live (1993), interview + live (1984)

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