This outlaw ballad about a Mexican bandit and his duplicitous sidekick eventually became a chart-topping hit when Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson covered it as a duet in 1983.
While there are some similarities between Pancho and Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, Van Zandt claimed he did not have Villa in mind when he wrote the song. He recounted to the PBS series Austin Pickers in 1984: "I realize that I wrote it, but it's hard to take credit for the writing, because it came from out of the blue. It came through me and it's a real nice song, and I think, I've finally found out what it's about. I've always wondered what it's about. I kinda always knew it wasn't about Pancho Villa, and then somebody told me that Pancho Villa had a buddy whose name in Spanish meant 'Lefty.' But in the song, my song, Pancho gets hung. 'They only let him hang around out of kindness I suppose' and the real Pancho Villa was assassinated."
In the music video for Haggard and Nelson's version, Van Zandt cameos as one of federales who takes down Pancho, presumably with the help of the double-crossing Lefty. "It was real nice they invited me," Van Zandt told Aretha Sills in 1994. "They didn't have to invite me and I made I think $100 dollars a day. I was the captain of the federales. And plus I got to ride a horse. I always like that. It took four and a half days and that video was four and a half minutes long."
Van Zandt could certainly relate to the opening lyrics "Livin' on the road, my friend." Most of his life would be spent on the road, playing dive bars, living in seedy hotels when he could afford them, and sleeping on abandoned concert stages or friends' couches when he couldn't. No road was long enough to help him escape his depression and various addictions, which cast a shadow over his repertoire of songs about loving, leaving, and often ending up alone.
This was also covered by Emmylou Harris and folk singer Hoyt Axton, both in 1977. Van Zandt told the Omaha Rainbow that one of the first songs he learned to finger pick was Axton's "Cocaine Blues."
Steve Earle covered this for his 2009 tribute album, Townes.
Haggard and Nelson's rendition was featured in the 1990 western Big Bad John, starring country singer Jimmy Dean.
Curd from Heidelberg, GermanyI first found this song long ago on an Emmylou Harris LP. I actually had bought the album for Albert Lee's guitar-solo on "Luxury Liner". But then this song caught my attention. Music is like a treasure chest. It's contents never run out. Today I try to popularize songs like this one on sessions, where I play them and teach them to my fellow-musicians.