The late Townes Van Zandt was one of the finest (arguably the finest) tellers of stories in song of the past few decades. Many of his songs such as “If I Needed You,” “To Live is to Fly,” “No Place to Fall” and “Tecumseh Valley” have become standards, recorded by artists like Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss, to name a few. Which makes it surprising to find that during his life he never had a hit single or album, and that he spent most of his career playing bars for enough money for a cheap motel and a drink. Actually if you read any biography of him you will find that he wasn’t the most reliable person in the world. Throughout his life he wrestled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, some people would argue that he embraced his addictions rather than fought them. So perhaps it isn’t so surprising.
Townes’ various addictions isn’t really what this post is about. I want to celebrate his talent as a singer and especially as a songwriter. The song “Pancho and Lefty” is probably his most famous song and arguably his best. It tells the story of the life and death of two Mexican bandits, actually it’s probably easier to let Townes explain the story
Just about every country singer worth listening to has covered the song.
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson do a particularly fine version of the song as does Emmylou Harris. She may have been the first person to record the song, possibly even before Townes had got round to it.
Pancho and Lefty a song of death and betrayal in the Mexican sun. A song that I love.