My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

Released in January 1983, Pancho and Lefty was one of the biggest selling albums of that year. Commenter Ken Johnson provided some details on the recording of this album, which can be read here. The album featured two singles, “Reason To Quit” and the title track. Pancho and Lefty was nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA, but lost to Alabama’s The Closer You Get.

Lead single “Reason To Quit,” a mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle, was solely written by Haggard. It peaked just outside the top 5 and featured Haggard and Nelson trading off on vocals. The song tells the story of two young men who are “rolling down the fast lane” where the reason to quit “gets bigger each day.”

Looking back now, it’s funny to hear Haggard and Nelson facing their demons in song. I especially enjoy the line where Willie sings about not being able to afford his habit, like that ever stopped him from his marijuana addiction. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the song works, but the vocal performances weren’t very engaging. They sound fine when singing a part but their voices don’t seem to blend that well together here.

The same can’t be said for the title track, which ranks among my favorite country songs of all time. Originally recorded by its writer Townes Van Zandt in the early 1970s and then Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album, it’s this duet between Nelson and Haggard where this song finally received its due. I love the expertly crafted story and the guitar riffs that open this song. The gentle and easy-going production helps this song age better over time than most of this album.

I grew up with both my grandfather and parents loving “Pancho and Lefty” so I got really turned on to it as a kid. While the interplay by Nelson and Haggard is missing here as Nelson takes the lead, that choice in crafting this a non-traditional duet never bothered me. I’ve always enjoyed when Haggard kicks in on the third verse, and the music video only furthered the legendary status of this song. I’ve been an unabashed fan for as long as I can recall and my love and appreciation of this song has only deepened overtime.

I can’t say the same for the rest of this album. From 2011 ears, this almost thirty-year-old album hasn’t aged well which is a shame considering the talent that created it. While the production is kept understated and traditional in nature, it doesn’t keep songs like “It’s my Lazy Day” and “My Mary” from coming off a bit cheesy. The former suffers from an attempt to come off light and breezy while the latter sounds foolish coming from Haggard. The way he gushes about Mary like a fetish object underscores Haggard’s talent for honest and hard-hitting country music.

Thankfully, “Half A Man” and “No Reason To Quit” see the album turning around and Haggard restoring the faith that he hadn’t resorted to keeping his career alive through material a notch below sub-par. The Nelson pinned “Half A Man” is the result of a bad relationship in which the man is now only “half a man” that “you made of me.” It’s a strong tale about the pieces left when relationships are over and features a nicely understated production of piano, drums, guitar, and flourishes of fiddle. And “No Reason To Quit,” a better song than the single “Reason to Quit,” finds Haggard lamenting about his drinking habits saying he could quit tomorrow but has no reason too. The blunt honesty that trademarked his best work is on full display here and the production matches that of “Half A Man” – the perfect amount of softness to allow Haggard ample ability to convey the lyrics, which were composed by Dean Holloway, who co-wrote “Big City” with him.

“Still Water Runs The Deepest” acts as a change of pace for the album, previously heavy on Haggard singing lead, this finds Nelson at the helm. Along with the change in vocalists comes an up kick in energy brought by Nelson to the track. Written by Jesse Ashlock, it’s a familiar tale of an ending relationship – the woman has done the man wrong and the couple has been together for too long. I also love the production on this song. The lead guitar gives it an almost Spanish vibe that I really dig.

“My Life’s Been a Pleasure” continues the change of pace through a very unique fiddle solo that helps the track stand out from the rest of the album even though it isn’t dramatically different in lyric or texture from anything else in the set. Also written by Ashlock, it’s a positive spin on love where life was enhanced because of the relationship, not beaten down by it.

Haggard’s wife Leona Williams composed “All The Soft Places to Fall,” and it’s a classic Haggard-type song. A true duet, it features a nice interplay between Haggard and Nelson and understated production that helps sell the lyrics. It’s one of my favorite songs on the whole project and grabbed me from the beginning. I like it because it feels like a return to form for the duo who are at home on a song in this vein.

Pancho and Lefty closes with “Opportunity to Cry,” a typical Nelson-style ballad he also wrote. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for the song because it’s too maudlin for my tastes. Nelson does what he does best here, but I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and don’t really get excited about hearing it again.

As an overall album, Pancho and Lefty is hit-or-miss with me. There were far too many places where the production, while understated and traditional, aged very poorly. On the strength of the title song I can see where this album garnered the love it received in 1983, but this just isn’t my type of thing. Too many ballads wore down this project and there wasn’t much I could be excited about.

The album was re-issued in 2003 with two extra tracks, an alternate take on “Half A Man” and the new song “My Own Peculiar Way.” The “Half A Man” reprise doesn’t offer much to differ from the original and “My Own Peculiar Way” is indicative of the rest of the album and features Nelson singing lead.

Pancho and Lefty is available in both hard and digital copy from Amazon and on iTunes .

Grade: B-

9 responses to “Album Review – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

  1. Razor X October 31, 2011 at 10:46 am

    I’ve got a very different take on this album. I prefer “Reasons To Quit” to “Pancho and Lefty”, which is probably my least favorite song on the album (I realize that probably puts me firmly in the minority). As for the rest of the album, I still enjoy listening to it today as much as I did when it first came out in 1983. I don’t think it’s aged badly at all. “Half A Man” is a remake of an old recording Willie made for Liberty Records in 1963. The remade version sans the Nashville Sound production excesses is much better. “No Reason To Quit” is a remake of a track from Merle’s 1971 album Hag. I’m lukewarm on the title track (which isn’t a bad song, I just don’t love it like most people do), but the rest of the album is outstanding and I wouldn’t give it anything less than an A or A -.

  2. Paul W Dennis October 31, 2011 at 11:23 am

    I would give this a solid “B” but nothing more than that. I concur with Razor X that “Reasons To Quit” is the standout track on this album. Frankly, if I never heard “Pancho & Lefty” again, that would be okay with me. “Half A Man” is a great song, but I think the best version of the song was by Don Gibson on his 1968 album MORE COUNTRY SOUL.

    For whatever reason, this wasn’t one of Willie’s better duet combinations (I wasn’t that impressed with SEASHORES OF OLD MEXICO either). Willie’s best duet albums were made with his idols (Ray Price, Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Faron Young), rather than his contemporaries such as Haggard, Leon Russell, Roger Miller, Julio Iglesias, Kristofferson, etc

    I think Merle’s 1983 Mercury duet album HEART TO HEART with then-wife Leona Williams would have been a more representative album to showcase Merle’s prowess as a duet partner (not to mention, it’s a lot better album)

  3. luckyoldsun October 31, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I’ll reiterate here what I posted to the video of “Pancho and Lefty”

    It struck me as a bit odd that Pancho and Lefty is always referred to as a duet, but it’s really a Willie Nelson record that Haggard contributed a few lines to. In fact, when you listen to the record, it’s quite apparent that the two of them were not in the studio together–that Willie recorded it and they threw in Merle’s lines later.

    There’s a slapdash quality about it. It seems like they tacked on Merle’s vocal to a Willie cut; it wound up becoming a big hit; so they then decided to make it the title cut of an album. If “Pancho and Lefty” was to be the centerpiece of a Willie-Merle album, they should have swapped vocals and shared the choruses to make it a real duet.

    (Another thing that gave it a slapdash impression is that Columbia/Epic couldn’t even figure out how to spell the song and album title. On some pressings it was “Poncho,” on others it was “Pancho” and there are some that contain different spellings on the front of the jacket and on the spine.)

    • Razor X October 31, 2011 at 7:54 pm

      It was spelled “Poncho” on the cassette copy I bought back in 1983, but sometime after that they seem to have changed it.

      As for the song “Pancho and Lefty”, I wonder if that was something Willie had been working on for one of his solo projects, that they decided at the last minute to make the title track of the duet album. That might explain why he sings the lion’s share of the song.

      • Ken Johnson November 1, 2011 at 1:21 pm

        Willie’s daughter Lana brought the Emmylou Harris “Luxury Liner” album that contained her recording of “Pancho & Lefty” to the studio where Wiilie & Merle were recording late one night. Emmylou’s version served as the template for their duet.

  4. Ken Johnson November 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Enjoyed reading Jonathan’s observations of this classic album and find myself in overall agreement. The basic weakness in this project was song selection. The tendency toward an excessive number of ballads turned this album into a predominantly low energy affair. However Willie and Merle cannot be faulted for the quality of their performances as both were in remarkably excellent voice.

    Several of the tracks were likely favorite songs from the duo’s youth.

    “It’s My Lazy Day” was written and first recorded by singer/comic actor Lester Alvin “Smiley” Burnette who first gained fame as Gene Autry’s movie sidekick Frog Millhouse in the 1930’s & 40’s. Smiley is more familiar to baby boomers for his role as Charley Pratt the engineer for the Hooterville Cannonball train in the 1960’s TV series “Petticoat Junction.” Burnette never recorded what could be deemed legitimate hit records but he did write numerous songs for Gene Autry and his own humorous recordings were a favorite of kids from that era. “It’s My Lazy Day” was recorded by Burnette in 1945 and performed by Autry in his 1949 film “Riders Of The Whistling Pines.”

    As mentioned Western Swing fiddler Jesse Ashlock wrote “Still Water Runs The Deepest” and “My Life’s Been A Pleasure.” For those not familiar with Ashlock he joined Bob Wills Texas Playboys in 1934. Two of his compositions “Please Don’t Leave Me” and the aforementioned “My Life’s Been A Pleasure” were recorded by Wills on July 24, 1941 and released as a popular two-sided single for the Okeh label. In 1947 Wills moved to the MGM record label where “Still Water Runs The Deepest” was recorded on November 10th. Though that single release did not chart nationally it was very popular throughout the Southwest and especially with diehard Bob Wills’ fans like Willie & Merle.

    “My Mary” was a songwriting collaboration between Stuart Hamblen and Jimmie Davis. Davis recorded his first version of the song for Decca in New York City in 1941. A second recording was made in Hollywood in 1946 with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra backing Davis. Hamblen released his own version for Columbia in 1953. Given that Haggard sings most of this song himself I’ll guess that one of those versions was a favorite of his back in the day.

    By the time this duet album was released, Haggard’s solo version of “Half A Man” had already been available for several months on the “Going Where The Lonely Go” album. Either someone at Epic missed the boat coordinating the repertoire for these two releases or they just wanted to reward Willie with more royalties for his almost 20 year old composition. Both versions are rather similar.

    Regarding the discussion of Haggard’s limited vocal contribution to “Pancho & Lefty” – I always felt that Hag’s arrival late in the song offered a dramatic surprise. The listener became used to hearing Willie tell the story but after a tasty instrumental break Merle unexpectedly breaks in to pick up the tale of Pancho’s final demise and Lefty’s end days. I love how Hag’s vocal catches the first-time listener off guard. I never knew that there was a hard and fast rule that dictated how the lyrics of a duet should be parceled out. In this case different is better.

    I too have to award this album a B rating for not enough musical excitement from two soon-to-be country legends.

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  7. Johnny OBrien June 10, 2014 at 1:12 am

    At the risk of drawing a lot of scorn, I have to say this: I hate the production on Pancho and Lefty (the album and, in particular, the song). What was that intro about? The bright piano backed with a disco beat? It has nothing to do with the (great) song, and only diminishes and dates it. I guess maybe they wanted the song to have wider appeal. I can stomach the production on the rest of the song, but I don’t like it much. I had to check that my speakers were in proper phase, because Willy’s voice, and the chorus voices sounded directionless. And what kind of “duet” has one singer sing the first two-thirds of the song and then the other the last third? I admit that I just don’t like any 80s-style production, but P&L is pretty dear to me, and I’m afraid that Willy & Merle’s version is my least favorite. Emmylou’s is probably my favorite, but Delbert McClinton’s is a close second.

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