Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Willie Nelson, “Always On My Mind”

“Always On My Mind”

Willie Nelson

Written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher, and Mark James

Radio & Records

#1 (1 week)

May 7, 1982


#1 (2 weeks)

May 8 – May 15, 1982

When looking for material for their first album together, Willie Nelson suggested to Merle Haggard that they cover “Always On My Mind,” which had been recorded by Gwen McCrae, Brenda Lee, and Elvis Presley, among others.   

Haggard didn’t bite, and Nelson decided it would work better as a solo single anyway.  So Nelson cut it himself, and ended up with the biggest hit of his career, a full twenty five years after releasing his first single in 1957.

As good as some of the earlier recordings of “Always On My Mind” had been, they all pale in comparison to Willie Nelson’s definitive version.  There’s a sense in previous versions that when the protagonist is asking for “one more chance to keep you satisfied,” they’re already been shown the door and are trying to get back in.

Nelson’s version utilizes a female background singer who responds to him in the first verse, “You did, you did,” when he sings “If I made you feel second best,” so when he replies back, “Girl, I’m sorry I was blind,” the song becomes about a still committed couple with a man who is speaking up before it’s too late.  He realizes that she simply doesn’t know how much everything he does outside of the home is for her. She has no idea that she’s always on his mind because he’s never told her, but he’s not going to make that same mistake again.

It feels like we’re eavesdropping on a married couple who are working things out.  There’s never a sense that the second chance isn’t coming, nor is there a sense that he won’t take full advantage of it. 

Released in 1982, I can only imagine how many men (and women) over the last forty years have used this song to express the feelings that they were never taught to articulate. Perhaps one of Willie Nelson’s unheralded legacies has been saving relationships through the power of this song.

“Always On My Mind” was Nelson’s biggest crossover hit, reaching #5 on the Hot 100 and selling over two million copies.  Nelson won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and its songwriters picked up Song of the Year and Best Country Song at the same ceremony. 

Following “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” it was the second song to win CMA Song of the Year twice in a row, prompting a rule change that excluded previous winners from being nominated again.  Nelson also won Single of the Year and Album of the Year for the set titled after “Always On My Mind.”

Every single honor was deserved. “Always On My Mind” is a masterpiece.  It’s the best No. 1 single of 1982, and one of the best records in country music history. 

“Always On My Mind” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. It is a testament to Willie being one of country music’s universal Ambassadors, one whose popularity knows no strict musical genres, that this song (which I believe had been written in 1972 specifically for Elvis himself, as his marriage to Priscilla was coming apart) was so mind-bustingly popular with pop and country audiences. Willie is a stylist par excellence, and he really cared about putting his own stamp on the song and getting it right. And voila, he wound up making it into a permanent standard.

  2. It’s a legit, deserved class but I can’t wrap my mind around voters voting the same song as Song of the Year two years in a row lol.

    • The CMA Song of the Year rules are so weird. I’m not sure if they’re still the same, but I remember a few songs in the nineties and oughts winning in their second year of eligibility: “When I Call Your Name,” “Chattahoochee,” “Independence Day,” “This Kiss,” and “Whiskey Lullaby.”

      “Name,” “Chattahoochee,” and “Lullaby” were nominated twice and won their second time out.

      A few songs were nominated twice and lost twice: “Here in the Real World,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” “Time Marches On,” and “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.”

  3. Is there any better example of how magical cross-over hits can be when done this wonderfully?

    This songs floats in rarified air for me. I wholeheartedly agree that it is a masterpiece.

    Growing up, I always considered “Always on My Mind” a guilty pleasure. Years later, it, along with Steve Wariner’s “Some Fools Never Learn” slips unexpectedly into contention for my favourite country song of all time.

    My college roommate at university couldn’t believe that I didn’t know this was a cover of an Elvis song. I had no idea anybody but Willie Nelson had recorded this even as of 1990.

    The entire “Always on My Mind” album still rings out as something very much unlike anything I had heard before. Nelson introduced me to most of the pop standards and adult contemporary music he covered. Chips Moman production is spot on and brilliant.

    Nelson is an interpreter and stylist every bit the equal of his idol Frank SInatra.

    This is a pure, timeless wonder to my ears.

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