You've probably heard someone, maybe a friend, say something like this: “I like every type of music except for country music.” It’s all about beer, trucks and girls, they might say. Or it’s for inbred, backwater rednecks. It’s campaign music for MAGA conservatives.
Sadly, such snobs still exist, even today. Hillary Clinton might not have had country music fans in mind during her failed presidential campaign in 2016 when she said "you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables." She was talking about racists, homophobes and sexists lining up to support Trump, but she said it a fundraiser in New York with liberal donors and Barbra Streisand in attendance. It's a safe bet the people she had in mind weren't grooving to Funny Girl while tooling around in their F-150s.
But sometimes even the most benighted country music haters come to see the light. These naysayers hear an artist like Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Rodney Crowell or Waylon Jennings, then promptly come to the realization, “Hey, this isn’t for people who water their plants with meth bong water, after all.”
It's hard climbing down from a high horse, and these people deserve a little compassion and help. Besides, one of the greatest joys of music fandom is turning people onto the artists you enjoy. You want to help, so the question is this: Where should these newbies begin to give country music a fair shake?
That's a tricky one. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" by George Jones is a work of genius and widely considered one of the best country songs ever recorded, but country music noobs might need a little time to work up to appreciating it. Spoken lyrics are an acquired taste, and even Jones called the song a "morbid son of a bitch" at first.
Here's a better option for Country Music 101. If you come across a open-minded skeptic, or if you merely happen to know someone who has never decided to give country music a chance until now, it is your duty as an ambassador of the genre to introduce them to Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” before you even get into the Merles or Willies.
We say that in part because both Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson covered it together and made it the No. 1 country song in 1983. It was also covered by other country music royalty, including Emmylou Harris, Delbert McClinton and George Strait.
The song is consequently an iconic country music fixture in the same vein as “Coal Miner's Daughter,” “Whiskey River” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It’s far from Van Zandt’s best song, but it nonetheless serves as a master class of country performance and songwriting.
From the very onset of the track, you hear the legendary Fort Worth singer-songwriter take on a guitar picking style that has been a staple of country music since Maybelle Carter. Then a crisp snare and bass drum kick in, opening the floodgates with one of the greatest opening lines in country music history: “Living on the road, my friend / Was gonna keep you free and clean / But now you wear your skin like iron / And your breath’s as hard as kerosene.”
In other words, living the nomadic lifestyle was supposed to be a liberating experience, but now you have physical and emotional baggage, and your alcoholism requires its own USDA ethanol subsidy.
With those opening lyrics, we already have an encapsulation of a core identity of country music. We have a subject wandering the frontier with the open road being their one true home. We have a life of rough-and-tumble. We have habitual drinking.
Then Van Zandt focuses on another earmark of country music songwriting: mama being forlorn at your departure from home.
“You weren’t your mama’s only boy / But her favorite one it seems,” Van Zandt sings. “She began to cry when you said goodbye / And sank into your dreams.”
Van Zandt still leaves an aura of mystery as to who he’s singing to, but whoever it is, we know he's leaving mama to mope in her empty nest while he chases his youthful aspirations.
Does the subject leave to devote their life to music? Do they do it to live a life of hedonism? We’ll never know, as Van Zandt doesn’t give us the satisfaction of more exposition.
Instead, he tells a story of lawlessness and betrayal.
The second verse introduces us to Pancho, a bandit who nonchalantly whipped his gun around. Pancho drives down to Mexico, where he meets his demise while clashing with the law. (Van Zandt wrote the song in a few hours during a stay in a cheap hotel near Denton, according to an article on the texashillcountry.com website. “‘Pancho and Lefty’ drifted through the window,” he said, “and I wrote it down.”)
“Nobody heard his dying words,” Van Zandt sings, “But that’s the way it goes.”
Following the immaculate delivery of this bar, he goes into the song’s first chorus, which is backed by a Mexican folk-inspired trumpet.The trumpet’s F-C-G run sets a chilling ambiance for the brilliant and bitingly sarcastic refrain, delivered in an unconventional AABC rhyme scheme: “All the federales say / They could have had him any day / They just let him hang around / Out of kindness, I suppose.”
Once we’re told of Pancho’s demise, we’re told of the second named character in this tale. Lefty, Van Zandt hints, betrayed Pancho. The precise nature of how this went down is uncertain, but we know that when Pancho got buried, Lefty somehow gathered funds to move to a cheap hotel in Cleveland.
Van Zandt himself concedes that nobody knows how he got the money to do this, but he otherwise wields omniscience in his indifferent observation, “The dust that Pancho bit down south / Ended up in Lefty’s mouth.”
So what have we learned? Pancho died a criminal. Lefty survived, but at the expense of his loyalty and mental peace for how he betrayed someone we can only assume is a colleague, friend or criminal conspirator. The person Townes is singing to is expected to internalize this cautionary tale to know the dangers of life on the road despite the apparent luster it promises.
And what exactly are those dangers?
Well, Van Zandt says in the final verse, “Poets tell how Pancho fell,” which indicates that while he died young, he carries a strong legacy. And Lefty? Well, he’s simply living in Cleveland, left to meander aimlessly in obscurity.
But being the storyteller extraordinaire that he is, Van Zandt implores the subject of the song to feel pity for both Pancho and Lefty.
“Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true,” says Van Zandt. “But save a few for Lefty, too / He just did what he had to do / And now he’s growing old.”
The verse serves as a disconsolate end to a story where our two heroes embody two extremes: Pancho burned out, and Lefty faded away.
The story told in “Pancho and Lefty” hits on all the beats that frequently encapsulate country music while showing a more nuanced understanding of them. Any country music artist can sing about life on the frontier (and many, in fact, have), but only someone who truly understands the grating minutiae of fashionable nomadism can capture such granular bitterness in the form of a story about two fictional characters.
Indeed, Van Zandt understood the country music lifestyle on a personal level, playing dive bars for almost all of his career and living in abject penury while in the throes of a debilitating addiction to heroin and alcohol. This rough living has created something of a myth around him, but just as the life on the frontier of our heroes in “Pancho and Lefty” is nothing to glamorize, neither is Van Zandt’s tumultuous lifestyle.
Similarly to the message of the song, Van Zandt’s life was a sad, cautionary tale, which made the song unintentionally biographical in a way.
And that’s what can be at stake when you live life on the road. But ever the realist, Van Zandt’s lyric, “That’s the way it goes” surrenders itself to that reality without so much as lifting a finger.
The wisdom channeled in “Pancho and Lefty,” combined with its vivid-yet-nebulous storytelling, makes it the gold standard for what a bona fide country song is.
So listen to the song for yourself if you haven’t, or shut up about how you hate country music.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.