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Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Pancho & Lefty – 2003 (Columbia/Legacy)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

After "Always on My Mind," surprisingly, Chip Moman's production isn't nearly as trite on Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's 1983 "Pancho & Lefty." The Townes Van Zandt title hit seems to have been purpose-built for Nelson and Haggard, and though Moman slips in strings, synths and stage cymbals, the earthiness of the vocals and Nelson's gut-string picking carry the day. The bulk of the album contrasts Nelson's unusual meters and Sinatra-like phrasings to Haggard's straight-ahead crooning with Moman keeping the backings suitably restrained.

Especially pleasing are laid-back renditions of western swing numbers from Gov. Jimmie Davis's ("My Mary"), Smiley Burnett ("It's My Lazy Day") and Bob Wills' fiddler, Jesse Ashlock ("Still Water Runs the Deepest" and "My Life's Been a Pleasure"). Nelson and Haggard's own tunes also provide winning remakes, including the emotionally stunning waltz, "Half a Man," a gospel-styled remake of "Opportunity to Cry" and the bender-ending "Reasons to Quit." A pair of bonus tracks offer an alternate, Nelson-sung, version of "Half a Man" and an unused take of Nelson's RCA-era "My Own Peculiar Way."

"Pancho & Lefty" shares the musical and personal camaraderie of Nelson's life.