Written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James
By the time that Willie Nelson recorded “Always on My Mind,” it had already been tackled by several major pop and country acts. Brenda Lee took it to No. 45 on the country charts in 1972, and Elvis Presley soon followed, having a No. 16 country hit with it in 1973. Given the proximity of the song to Presley’s divorce, it was widely read as his confessional to Priscilla Presley, and in the King’s reading, it sounds like a broken man pleading for forgiveness from the woman that he’s lost.
But in Nelson’s hands, the song became something else entirely. By 1982, Willie Nelson was already a superstar, and every time it seemed his career had peaked, he seemed to go one better. Red-Headed Stranger, Waylon & Willie, The Outlaws, Stardust, and “On the Road Again” had collectively made him an icon. When he recorded “Always On My Mind”, he did so in his trademark idiosyncratic fashion. Against a piano and light acoustic accompaniment, he read the song to a soft female voice who responded to him. As he sang “If I made you feel second best,” she lovingly replies “You did, you did”, he tells her “Girl I’m sorry I was blind, but you were always on my mind.”
In his reading, the song becomes a heartfelt apology not to a woman who has left him because of his failings, but a woman who stood by him in spite of them instead. A song that once served as divorce anthem now served as an anniversary song for marriages that had survived some ups and downs over the years.
In a career with over a hundred chart entries, “Always On My Mind” became Willie Nelson’s biggest hit. Along with topping the country singles chart for two weeks, it reached the top five of the pop charts. Nelson had never even earned a gold single with his previous hits, but “Always On My Mind” went platinum, which signified two million sold in those days.
A bevy of awards followed for both the artist and the songwriters. Willie Nelson won the CMA and ACM awards for Single of the Year and a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The songwriters earned even more extensive honors, winning Grammys for both Song of the Year and Best Country Song and the ACM for Song of the Year, along with two consecutive CMA wins for Song of the Year. Only “He Stopped Loving Her Today” pulled off a similar repeat at the CMA awards, though rule adjustments have since made such a feat impossible.
Nelson’s career continued to soar in the eighties, finishing as the decade’s most successful singles artist and second most-successful albums artist. Meanwhile, the songwriters received another wave of royalties when the Pet Shop Boys turned it into an international dance smash in 1988, topping the pop charts in England and Germany and reaching the top ten in the United States.
“Always On My Mind” is the the latest in a series of articles showcasing Classic Country Singles. You can read previous entries at the Classic Country Singles page.