This thing took me 19 years to record! That’s a lie. All combined it took about 2 weeks. It’s just that the beginning and the end were 19 years apart.
In fact, it was lost for over a decade. Found and saved, by my Dad, the morning of trash day in a Florida suburb. And if it wasn’t for the guitar solo, I probably could have cared less. Not about the song, of course, but of this particular version.
But first, the details:
|Written by||Townes Van Zandt|
|Covered by||Jack Yoder|
|Jack Yoder||Guitars, Vocals & String arrangement|
|Recorded at||Rockin' 'Lil Space Pod Studios (2002)/Georgetown Sound (2020)|
|Mixed and Mastered at||Georgetown Sound (2020)|
Pancho and Lefty has been in my live set for over 20 years. Townes Van Zandt wrote Pancho and Lefty and originally recorded it back in 1972. I was 4. The first time I heard the song was from Willie Nelson’s version of it recorded in 1983. I’ll admit that I didn’t start to hear anything about Townes Van Zandt until the late 80’s (Likely through a Steve Earle interview in some magazine somewhere). But by then, Willie Nelson’s version and phrasing was completely ingrained in my head.
I recorded it when I was trying to put together a demo. For booking gigs. But the whole thing took a turn at the solo. The solo is the reason why it’s been stuck in the back of my head for almost 20 years. Had it not been for the solo, it would have stayed a demo and have been forgotten.
I was living in the French Quarter on the corner of Chartres and Iberville (I lived on the top floor of the Blue apartment building in the picture). On Sunday, January 20th of 2002, I had the apartment to myself and I started recording the rhythm track. The equipment I used is actually a big part of the story. When my Grandma on the Yoder side of the family passed away I took the inheritance money and bought items that I thought I would keep and use forever. I wanted something I could always remember them by. I bought 2 guitars and a good recording mic. The first guitar was a Fender Resonator I named John King after my Grandpa. The second was a Takamine EG 340 SC and named it Anita for my Grandma. The Mic was an Octava Vocal Mic, But I’m not sure which model.
I used the Fender Resonator, John King, for the rhythm track. One thing I had quickly learned about that guitar was that if you changed to mic placement, it took on a whole different sound. All acoustics do that to an extent, but not like John King. In this case, he sounded like a beautiful archtop.
The following Thursday (1-24-2002) I had the apartment to myself again and sat down with Anita to cut the solo. Now, I have no idea where the solo came from. It’s a comp for certain. I was in the habit of cutting several solos until I found something that worked. I’m not much for working stuff out for too long because I'm pretty lazy, but this solo employs a style and structure that I don’t really use. That's something I always found odd. What inspired me to play like that? I really don't know.
The harmony lines were accidental. I had a couple of passes unmuted on the playback and they inadvertently lined up in certain spots and naturally harmonized. In the end, it was one of the best solos I thought I ever did. Warts and all. Because it ain’t spot on perfection. And that’s half the reason I love it.
The timing of this is also part of the story. I recorded this around Mardi-Gras 2002. That’s significant because of two things. It was quiet enough to record acoustic tracks. A rarity itself for the Quarter during Mardi-Gras. And I always had a large amount of money after Mardi Gras.
I would always buy something substantial with that money. That particular year I bought a new desktop computer to record with. The old one, the one I originally recorded Pancho and Lefty on, I gave to my Dad. And fortunately, I didn’t erase the files on it when I copied them to the new computer.
Fast forward 3 years and 8 months and it's 2005. I was recording a new album. That version of Pancho and Lefty was going to be on it. This would be the first album I put out since I left San Francisco in 2001. At this point I was living in the lower Garden District of New Orleans. In late August of 2005 I took all the electronics and instruments in the apartment, wrapped them in plastic and packed them in an interior closet. The most protected spot in the apartment. I grabbed John King and some clothes and set out for 3 days in Memphis. An attempt to avoid the 3 days of no electricity (and no air-conditioning) as Katrina passed over.
Six days after Katrina, still in Memphis, I watched my apartment building burn to the ground on CNN.
I have a problem of never giving up on an idea when I think it's good. That notion, alone, is not always a good idea. But in this case I'm glad I never gave up on it. That recording had stuck in my head when I thought I had lost it. Somewhere I found an MP3 version of it that was poorly mixed. I think it was on a data CD but I'm not sure. So that was there to tease me. I tried re-recording it, but it never had the same "magic" (for lack of a better word).
Then, in 2014, I remembered that I had given my old computer to my Dad. At the time I was actually looking for an old loop library I thought was on it.
That conversation went something like this…
Me: “Hey Pop's! Do you still have that computer I gave you forever ago?”
Pop's: “Well, yeah. It's out on the sidewalk.”
Pop's: “(laughs) Well I ain't using it so I threw it out. Don't think the garbage truck's come yet.”
I talked him into retrieving it and we figured out how to pull out the harddrive over the phone. Eventually I received it in the mail.
I was really focused on getting the loops library in it, so when I looked at the files and noticed Pop's had erased almost everything in there I didn't bother to look any further when I found the files I was looking for (and only found them because they were buried deep in a file tree). It never dawned on me to look for Pancho and Lefty. I just figured it had been erased.
Say what you want about 2020 (it'll all be true), but I found I have a lot more time to do things like...dig through old computer files.
And then it was just there. It's a bit like turning a corner and running into an old friend. That kind of friend where you just pick up wherever you left off. The time apart doesn't matter, they're just there again after all these years.
Even though Anita had been lost in that fire, here she was again. In a waveform I could see and hear. I had eventually replaced her with a very similar version. Another Takamine. I bought the original one because I loved the sound and feel of the guitar. I could literally feel the guitar breathe and resonate. Her replacement was exactly the same in that respect.
And then the two Anita's finally met.
The only difference I could hear was in the microphone I recorded through.
So when you listen. The first guitar you'll hear is the new Anita. Followed quickly by John King as he sounded back in 2002. And then there's the original Anita at the guitar solo. She's boosted because, well, it's a guitar solo, but I find it virtually impossible to distinguish a difference between the two. They meet and pass the baton seamlessly.
This is a great time to mention that my old friend and bandmate from Elroy's big Machine, Ed Behan, is on the Bass. I finished this recording in Denver, but Ed cut his track for me from his studio in Atlanta. Ed always has the knack for playing just the right thing. It's an intentionally understated Bassline, but without it, the guitar lines simply don't move as well. Thanks Ed!
And as for the Strings? The strings wouldn't exist on this track if it wasn't for the solo. The melodic nature of the solo inspired every note of the string arrangement. And needless to say, that arrangement took the most time to put together. String arrangements don't come naturally to me. They stretch the limits of my limited knowledge of music theory.
It's a little weird to take such an incredible song from such an iconic songwriter and put your own spin on it. I don't play covers because I need an extra song in the set. Although let's be clear, I need more songs in the set when I'm playing a 2, 3 or 4 hour show. I play the covers I do because I love them. Because I am a fan of them. So when I record them for a release, I do my best to do them justice.
Oh, and for you guitar nerds, it’s played in “Drop D” tuning. Even the guitar solos. That way, every time I’d hit the Tonic, the D’s, the guitar would really resonate.