“Lefty, he can’t sing the blues, all night long like he used to…” But Jason Isbell can—his cover of “Pancho and Lefty” is, as the Federales would say, “kindness” for our ears.
In May 2018, the Country Music Hall of Fame celebrated the opening of their major exhibit, Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, with a star-studded concert. If you were lucky enough to attend, you got to see performances by the late Billy Joe Shaver (“Honky Tonk Heroes”), Colter Wall (“Red Headed Stranger”), Bobby Bare (“Marie Laveau”), Joe Ely (“I Had My Hopes Up High”), and more. Jason Isbell, alongside Amanda Shires, treated attendees to a cover of the Outlaw classic, “Pancho and Lefty.”
In Jason’s words, “Pancho and Lefty” is “one of my favorite songs in the whole world.”
The Hall of Fame recently shared the video:
Outlaws & Armadillos
Outlaws & Armadillos explores the era of cultural and artistic exchange between Nashville, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, that spawned artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Colter, Bobby Bare, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, Cowboy Jack Clement, Tom T. Hall, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Tompall Glaser.
The exhibit also draws parallels to some of the modern-day artists that were influenced by the Outlaw era, including Isbell, Dierks Bentley, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton.
After a four-year run, the Country Music Hall of Fame will close the exhibit on June 7. So you still have about a month to check it out. One of the coolest items on display at the HOF’s exhibit is a poncho owned by Townes Van Zandt that humorously has “… and Lefty” embroidered on it.
Pancho and Lefty
Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard scored a collaborative chart-topper when “Pancho and Lefty” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on July 23, 1983. Of course, songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt penned the tune. It served as the title track to Willie and Merle’s 1983 duet album.
The duo reportedly recorded the album in a mere five days, mainly working until 3 a.m. while the rest of Music Row was sleeping. However, if not for an eleventh-hour recommendation by Willie’s daughter, Lana, the tandem would have never recorded “Pancho and Lefty.” Lana found the song on Emmylou Harris’ 1976 album, Luxury Liner. She played it for her father, and Willie was hooked. He and Merle recorded the tune in the wee hours of the morning.
In addition, Willie and Merle joined forces to film a music video for the single. The clip depicted the tandem as the titular characters. In fact, eagle-eyed observers will also notice Townes Van Zandt as a Federale in the clip. The RIAA certified the album Platinum in 1984 for sales of 1 million units.