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The Story Behind the Song "Always On My Mind" by Willie Nelson

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

1974 publicity picture of Willie Nelson

1974 publicity picture of Willie Nelson

"Always On My Mind" is a beautifully written apology for love gone wrong. A cross-over song, it achieved success on both country and adult contemporary music charts. And when it came to the countrified version, nobody did it better than Willie Nelson.

Who Wrote "Always on My Mind"?

"Always On My Mind" was truly a collaborative effort. Songwriter Wayne Carson -- responsible for The Box Tops' 1967 hit, "The Letter" -- had written two verses for the song, but he didn't have a bridge, the part of a song that provides contrast to the rest of the composition, and then leads you back to the verse or chorus. He simply didn't think the song needed one.

In late 1971, Carson went into the studio to work on the song, but producer Chips Moman took one listen and told him it needed a bridge. So, off he went to create a bridge. Carson was sitting at a piano in an upstairs office when singer-songwriter/guitarist, Johnny Christopher, came by. The two men were familiar, having written "No Love At All" together, a Top 20 country hit for Lynn Anderson in the summer of 1970.

Christopher was intrigued by the track, so he offered to help write the bridge. The two men weren't making much progress, when along came songwriter Mark James, best known for writing "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis and “Hooked On A Feeling” for BJ Thomas. With all that amazing songwriting talent in one room, it wasn't long before they had their bridge.

Anyway, the three of us sat there and finally wrote those two lines--you know, the bridge. 'Tell him that your sweet loving ...'--that part. Hell, a hit's a hit.

— Songwriter Wayne Carson Thompson on the addition of the bridge in the song.

Elvis Recording "Always On My Mind"

The Evolution of "Always on My Mind"

People in music circles believed the song had been written specifically for Elvis, who was having marital troubles, but that wasn't the case. Elvis recorded the song on March 29, 1972, but it wasn't released until November of that year. Singer Gwen McCrae released her version in March 1972 and Brenda Lee followed with her own single in June, topping out at #45 on the country charts.

Elvis' version was finally released on Halloween 1972 as the A-side of a single, the B-side being "Separate Ways." The latter song actually got most of the airplay, as DJs across the country figured the song was about Elvis and Priscilla. Still, "Always On My Mind" did respectably well on the charts, reaching the #16 spot.

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It would be a decade before the song entered the charts again, when Willie Nelson released it as a single on March 6, 1982. Johnny Christopher brought "Always" to Nelson and Merle Haggard to see if either would be interested in recording it. Haggard didn't care for it, but Nelson was "bowled over."

Nelson's soulful version of the song spent 21 weeks at the top of Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart, while also hitting #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song won three Grammy Awards, including Song of the Year and Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The trio of songwriters grabbed the Grammy for Best Country Song. Nelson's album, Always On My Mind, also won Album of the Year.

Willie Nelson - "Always On My Mind"

Who is Willie Nelson?

Born on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson was raised by his grandparents after his mother left home when he was six months old. Music just seemed to be in his blood. His grandfather taught him how to play the guitar and he wrote his first song at the age of seven. He joined the Air Force in 1950 after graduating from high school, but was discharged after only nine months due to ongoing back problems.

Nelson worked as a disc jockey in Texas and the Pacific Northwest in the '50s and early '60s, while continuing to write songs and perform. It was during this period that he wrote several tunes that became hits for other artists. Those songs included "Crazy," made famous by Patsy Cline, and "Pretty Paper," recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963.

Nelson moved to Nashville in 1962 to be closer to the music scene, recording his first LP that same year. At the urging of producer and guitarist, Chet Atkins, Willie signed to major label RCA Victor in 1965. That's when his own singles started gaining traction, beginning with 1966's "One In A Row."

But, Nelson was growing weary of the business side of Nashville, and a series of troublesome events made him realize that he needed a break. Pressure from the record label, a divorce, and pumping his own money into tours that made no money took their toll. After 13 LPs with RCA, Nelson headed to Austin, Texas, in 1972, where he became a star in the progressive country music scene.

Critics began calling his music "outlaw country" in the mid-1970s because it was too rebellious for Nashville radio. That all changed with the release of "Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain" in 1975. The unassuming ballad from Red Headed Stranger was a #1 smash and finally put Willie at the center of mainstream country. By 1981, he'd recorded 11 post-RCA albums. 1982's Always On My Mind was the twelfth.

Front cover of the "Always On My Mind" LP (1982)

Front cover of the "Always On My Mind" LP (1982)

Five Fun Facts

  1. One of the song's co-writers, Johnny Christopher, also worked with Nelson on the Always On My Mind LP, playing guitar and singing backup vocals on several tracks.
  2. B.B. King once said that "Always On My Mind" was his favorite song.
  3. The song has been recorded over 300 times, by artists as diverse as Chris de Burgh, B.J. Thomas, Anne Murray, Julio Iglesias, Michael Bublé and the Pet Shop Boys.
  4. In 2004, Levi's jeans used Nelson's version of the song in a commercial, where a fellow's girlfriend has dumped all his belongings out the window, and he finds a way into the apartment they had presumably been sharing to retrieve his jeans from a tree.
  5. In a 2014 BBC Music poll, the Pet Shop Boys version of the song was voted the top cover of all time.

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© 2022 Kaili Bisson

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