Monday Muse: Pancho and Lefty

Sometimes it’s lonely being the only country music listener at the table. During a lull in last nights D&D game we indulged in a philosophical digression whilst the DM scanned the module we were battling, like you do. We were discussing religion, specifically the more toxic forms of Christianity and their doctrine of Hell. And I pointed out that my favorite liberal Christian blogger Fred Clarke had a great blog post about how he doesn’t believe in that kind of hell, and explained it using the classic tune Pancho and Lefty,  the signature song of late but legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

But still there was a stretch of several hours there where, willingly or not, I found myself thinking about the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” and especially about the lyrics of the final verse, the only one I remembered well:
The poets tell how Pancho fell

Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel

The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold

So the story ends we’re told

Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,

But save a few for Lefty too

He just did what he had to do

Now he’s growing old

This verse suggests something of the scandal of grace. The singer is willing to extend that grace to Lefty, to forgive him his greed, cowardice and betrayal. But what gives the singer the right to do this? It was Pancho who was betrayed, after all, so it seems that only Pancho should have the right to forgive that betrayal. By usurping that right, the singer seems to be claiming something like the divine prerogative.
This is, after all, what God is like. God is willing to forgive our enemies for wrongs they have committed against us, to extend mercy where we are unwilling or unable to grant it. That hardly seems fair. Not only that, but God is always going on about how we have to be willing to join in this prodigal grace, to join in the party for our prodigal brothers, to join the Ninevites in celebrating that the capital of Babylon itself can be spared. And if we insist on simple justice and responsibly refuse to join in this wanton confetti-showering of forgiveness, God has the nerve to suggest that we’re cutting ourselves off from that very same grace.
Some people, of course, don’t think that this is an accurate picture of what God is like. They believe that God is not as merciful as Townes Van Zandt. That seems to me to be a theologically precarious proposition, which is, I guess, my point here: If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.

When I got to the end of the anecdote I was surrounded by quizzical faces looking at me as if I had begun speaking in tongues. They’d never heard one of my favorite songs. We do this a lot, my friends and I. Despite having so many crossover’s in our various cultural tastes, there are acres of territory where we are still strangers in the other’s landscape.

I do think Fred makes a very good point. As an ex-Catholic it’s a take on God that is too generous by far. In Dante’s Inferno betrayal is the worst of sins. The wretched souls condemned to the 9th circle of Hell are trapped in the frozen lake Cocytus, forever bound as far from Gods love as can be. One can certainly see the appeal of a God who welcomes even Lefty into his grace in the end.

Ah well, The song’s been recorded by some of the greats, Emmylou Harris, Willie and Waylon, or Willie and Dylan. I’m partial Steve Earle’s take on the tune, from his album Townes, a tribute to his old friend and mentor. Enjoy…

Monday Muse: 2018 Favorites

2018 may have been a bit of a crap year, but I picked up some great music anyways. Here are my three favorites of 2018…

Last Man Standing, Willie Nelson

I grew up with country music. Dad was the news director at WUBE and our radio was always tuned to 105 FM. So even though it’s never been cool, I will always have a soft spot for the kind of smart ass honkey tonk vibe that Willie taps into here. The title track sets the mood for a romp through the country legend’s life as the 85 year old watches his fellow outlaws shuffle off the stage, wondering who’s next and will he be ready when his time comes up.

Love in Wartime, Birds of Chicago

We discovered Birds of Chicago at the first Nowhere Else Festival, a yearly shindig at a farm that Linford and Karin of Over the Rhine have turned into a musical Mecca of sorts. They just blew me away with an energetic mixture of roots, soul, gospel and rock. Love in Wartime continues to please the ears and feed the soul.

All that Reckoning, Cowboy Junkies

On All that Reckoning, Alan Anton and the Timmins clan; Margo Micheal and Peter, manage to craft an album that calls your mind back to 90’s college radio crackling through the ether to the stereo of your 5th hand car as you pick your way home in the dead of night down lonesome roads past quiet farms and abandoned quarries with the windows down to clear the heavy hot summer air as you pray the fumes in your tank get you home before the sun comes up…
Seriously… that’s what it’s like.