On This Day: Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard Top the Chart With ‘Pancho and Lefty’ in 1983

by Jim Casey
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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.

The tune, which was penned by songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt, served as the title track to Willie and Merle’s 1983 duet album. However, if not for an eleventh-hour recommendation by Willie’s daughter, Lana, the tandem would have never recorded the tune.

Burning The Midnight Oil

By 1983, it was no secret that Willie Nelson loved to collaborate. A quick look at Willie’s discography in the five years prior makes the aforementioned statement crystal clear. Willie’s collaborative albums included 1978’s Waylon & Willie with Waylon Jennings, 1979’s One for the Road with Leon Russell, 1980’s San Antonio Rose with Ray Price, 1982’s Old Friends with Roger Miller, 1982’s In the Jailhouse Now with Webb Pierce, and 1982’s WWII with Waylon Jennings.

When Willie and Merle teamed up in 1983, they weren’t messing around. 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.

“I’d been asleep about an hour and I was completely bushed,” said Merle Haggard to Country Weekly in 1998. “I couldn’t get my bearings, and [Willie] had this song. And it seemed like it was a half a mile long. It had more words than any song I’d seen in my life.”

Of course, the song Merle was referring to was “Pancho and Lefty.” Willie’s daughter, Lana, found the song on Emmylou Harris’ 1976 album, Luxury Liner. She played it for her father around midnight. By 4 a.m., Willie was ready for Merle.

“I said, ‘Great, I’ll learn my part in the morning,'” Merle recounted. “And he said, ‘No, let’s do it, now.’ I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’ll have to do this over when I wake up.’ But, I never did have to do it over.”

Willie & Merle Hit The Top

“Pancho and Lefty” has since become one of country music’s most famous duets. The tune was released as the album’s second single (following Top 10 lead single “Reasons to Quit”) in April 1983. On July 23, “Pancho and Lefty” ascended to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

In addition, Willie and Merle joined forces to film a music video for the single, which depicted the tandem as the titular characters. In fact, eagle-eyed observers will also notice Townes Van Zandt as a Federale in the clip, which was directed by Willie’s daughter, Lana.

The RIAA certified the album Platinum in 1984 for sales of 1 million units.

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