Since 1982, “Always On My Mind” has been synonymous with Willie Nelson. Ten years prior, Elvis Presley made the previously obscure song a crossover hit. The song has lived an eventful life apart from its best-known singers, existing as everything from a gospel-tinged R&B song to an unlikely synth-pop hit. Still, it remains relevant as one of the few, if only, instances where a country singer matched a cultural and commercial watermark set by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Wayne Carson wrote a majority of the song while sitting at his kitchen table in Springfield, Mo. Carson’s other hits include the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and Conway Twitty’s “I See the Want To In Your Eyes.” After legendary producer Chips Moman stated interest in the song a year after it was written, Carson finished its hook with two fellow songwriters with ties to Elvis hits, Johnny Christopher (“Mama Liked the Roses”) and Mark James (“Suspicious Minds”).
R&B and gospel artist Gwen McCrae and Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee released the first two versions of the song in 1972. Both recordings had a similar sound and cadence as the better-known Presley and Nelson interpretations that followed.
That same year, Presley cut his version, a double A-side with ” Separate Ways,” in Hollywood at RCA Studio C. It ranks among the King’s best songs to crack both the pop and country charts. Plus, it maintains a special, emotional significance for fans, as Presley recorded it just weeks after separating from his wife Priscilla.
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In between the King and the Red Headed Stranger’s signature versions hides perhaps the most Nashville-sounding recording of the song. John Wesley Ryles’ 1979 version, a top 20 country hit, is set apart by some impressive guitar picking.
From there, the song famously became the title track of Nelson’s Feb. 1982 album. It took Nelson’s incredible run of commercial success, dating back to 1973’s Shotgun Willie, to new heights. Further, it highlighted Nelson’s mastery of pop standards, as heard on his seminal Stardust album. Nelson’s three Grammy victories and total domination of the Billboard Hot Country Charts make his version a top contender for best country song of the early ’80s, whether the parameters be commercial or artistic.
The other well-aged ’80s version of the song became an unlikely hit for U.K. synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys. Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant’s recording debuted on an 1987 ITV special about the 10th anniversary of Presley’s passing. A single followed, as well as a spot on the group’s second most successful album, Introspective.
“Always On My Mind” is as much a Willie Nelson standard now as it is an Elvis classic. Nashville songwriters would have laughed at such a notion in the ’60s, back when Nelson chased commercial success and mainstream acceptance. Nowadays, such high praise seems normal and justified, as both men’s versions have stood the test of time.