“As Charley Pride, who played here two years ago, said, ‘There is enough room in country music for everybody.'”
That’s how President Barack Obama introduced the artists who were on hand to participate in a special In Performance at the White House, which turned the East Room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into a “country-music hall,” he told the invited audience and millions of TV viewers.
Airing on PBS, on November 23rd, 2011, the special episode of the long-running series showcased the genre famed for songs that tell a uniquely American story. Songwriting legends Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor and Lyle Lovett, bluegrass icon Alison Krauss, and contemporary country stars Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley, Lauren Alaina and the Band Perry all performed.
One of the highlights was “Pancho and Lefty,” a Number One record for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in the Eighties — both of whom had performed for presidents in the past. This time, however, it was given a 21st-century update from Rucker and Kristofferson. Written by the late, great Townes Van Zandt and first recorded by him in 1972, the rambling, enigmatic song has been covered by Hoyt Axton, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris, among many others. In 2010, members of the Western Writers of America chose the tune about a Mexican bandit and his mysterious associate as one of the Top 100 Western Songs of all time.
Although the formal setting of the White House, with Washington insiders, dignitaries and, presumably, several Secret Service agents present, may have caused the performers a bit of apprehension, it’s obvious Rucker and Kristofferson were relaxed enough to play off each other during their time on stage. After the two harmonized on the line “Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true,” Rucker broke into a huge grin and gestured toward Kristofferson as he sang, “But save a few for my man, Lefty, too.” Whether it was out of respect, wonderment or just the sheer fun of sharing the stage with one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Rucker’s joyful enthusiasm was shared by many of the guests in attendance.