Willie Nelson’s version of “Always on My Mind” is one of my favorite songs of all time.
Written by Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James, it was originally recorded by Gwen McCrae as “You Were Always on My Mind” in 1972. Elvis Presley has a famous version of his own that was recorded two weeks after his separation from his wife Priscilla in 1972, as well.
The idea for the song initially came from a conversation the late Wayne Carson had with his wife on the phone. She didn’t like that he was gone so much on the road pursuing his music career, and that’s when he told her:
“But honey, you were always on my mind.”
Not sure how the argument ultimately resolved, but that’s a pretty slick line in Wayne’s defense.
According to The Tennessean, Willie was offered the song as he was finishing up work on his collaborative album with Merle Haggard, Pancho and Lefty:
“Well, we were cutting the ‘Pancho and Lefty’ album with Willie and Merle Haggard in Austin out at Willie’s place.
And we were just about to finish the album that last night and I got the idea, you know they could do ‘Always On My Mind,’ the two of them together. And I said, ‘I’m gonna play it for ‘em.’ And I asked Willie, ‘I’ve got a song and it’s been a while since Elvis had it — can I play it for you?’
So, Johnny played it acoustically right there in Willie’s studio:
“And he said, ‘Sure,’ and I stood there right in Willie’s studio and played it on my guitar and sang it — ‘Always On My Mind.’ And he heard it and his wife at the time, Connie, heard it and the other people — the other guys, the producer Chips Moman knew it.”
Before he left that night, the producers asked Johnny to leave them with a demo so they could think about what they wanted to do with the song:
“So at the end of a little while later they said, ‘Johnny, can you put that down on tape for us? Willie and Connie want to take that back with them tonight and listen to it.’ And I did. I put it down.”
After less than 24 hours, Johnny got a call back the next morning that Merle had left town, as he apparently had no interest in including it on their album.
But, Willie had even bigger ideas for the song than leaving it as a deep cut on Poncho and Lefty.
Willie wanted to use it as the title track to his 27th studio album:
“The next morning I got a call and they said, ‘Merle’s left town. And we finished that album, the ‘Poncho and Lefty’ album. Now Willie wants to start an album on himself and he wants to do your song first.
Can you come over and write it out and teach it to him? And we want to do it.’ So, I said, ‘Sure!’ And I did. I wish that I had that piece of paper that I wrote it out on.”
Now, I’m not gonna sit here and say Merle made a massive mistake in not cutting this song with Willie, because hindsight is always 20/20. But, Willie still wonders what could’ve been had they done it together, as he explained in his 2015 autobiography:
“We’ll never know what would have happened if Merle had really heard the song right. ‘Always on My Mind’ bowled me over the moment I first heard it, which is one way I pick songs to record”
Damn. I can only imagine. Honestly, though, it seems to me that it all worked out exactly the way it was supposed to.
This version also won CMA awards in two consecutive years, including Song of the Year in 1982 and 1983 for the writers. In 1982, Willie won the CMA for Single of the Year for the track, as well as Album of the Year for Always on My Mind.
We all know and love it as one of Willie’s signature songs and biggest hits, and I always think about what it is specifically that allows this song to resonate with so many people across generations. Johnny summed it up perfectly:
“It’s a humbling moment when someone says, I’m sorry, and I love you and I wish I could take this back and do this better.”
I’m telling you what, this might just be the greatest heartbreak country song ever made: