The gracious and lovely ideath goaded me into a writeup about Willie Nelson the other day, and the whole time I was writing that I couldn't help but hear this song playing in my head. After careful consideration, and considering that Willie Nelson is one of the greatest songwriters of our age, I've decided that his vocal work on this song is the most moving thing I've ever heard him do.
Living on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean.
Now you wear your skin like iron, and your breath is hard as kerosene.
You weren't your mama's only boy, but her favorite one it seems.
She began to cry when you said goodbye, and sank into your dreams.
Merle Haggard did this duet with Willie, and I can imagine that Willie and Merle found this song particularly appealing since they both are prone to see themselves as "living outside the law" in many ways. However, the song was written by Townes van Zandt. Townes van Zandt was quite an item around Texas. He would write a good song every now and then, and he'd perform when he could. But his life was so corrupted by the bottle that it was hard to catch him sober.
Pancho was a bandit boy, his horse was fast as polished steel.
He wore his gun outside his pants for all the honest world to feel.
Pancho met his match, you know, on the desert down in Mexico.
And no one heard his dying word; ah, but that's the way it goes.
The last few years of Townes van Zandt's live shows were marked by three predictable events. He would either forget the lyrics to his songs, pass out on stage, or he would break down in tears and not be able to continue.
Lefty, he can't sing the blues, all night long like he used to.
The dust that's Pancho's bed down south, ended up in Lefty's mouth.
The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio
And where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows.
Van Zandt, at age 52, died on the first day of 1997 of an apparent heart attack. He was home in Smyrna, TN, recovering from hip surgery. His daughter, Katie Belle, discovered him. She ran into the family room saying, "Daddy's having a fight with his heart."
The poets tell how Pancho fell; Lefty's livin' in a cheap hotel.
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold, and so the story ends, we're told.
Pancho needs your prayers; it's true. Save a few for Lefty too.
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old.
A quote from Mr. Van Zandt: "Young people ask me sometimes, 'Well, Mr. Van Zandt, I would like to do what you do. How do I go about it?' Well, you have to get a guitar or a piano. Guitars are easier to carry. And then you have to blow everything else off. You have to blow off your family. You have to blow off comfort. You have to blow off money. You have to blow off security. You have to blow off your ego. You have to blow off everything except your guitar. Sleep with it, learn how to tune it and no matter how hungry you get, stick with it. You'll be amazed, Margit, at the amount of people that turns away."
A quote about Mr. Van Zandt: "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." --Steve Earle
And all the federales say, They could of had him any day.
They only let him go so long out of kindness, I suppose.
When Willie Nelson sings this last part, you can tell that he knows he's singing a tribute to Townes van Zandt, a man who lived a life that "There but for the grace of God...."