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 .