Meaning Behind the Nostalgic “Always on My Mind”

In the 1980s and 1990s, mixtapes were all the rage. For many people, putting a collection of songs that themselves spoke to the listener was the next best thing. Some songs just say everything right. And one song that often ended up on many mixes and on the playlists of many apologetic men (and women) is the song, “Always on My Mind.”

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But what is the history of the song? Was it written for Elvis Presley, as some said? How did Willie Nelson enter the picture? We uncover the meaning behind the often covered “Always on My Mind” below.

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“One Long Apology”

The road to completing “Always on My Mind” was long. But it began with a phone call. Prior to finishing the song in 1971, musician Wayne Carson had been working in Memphis. The job was taking longer than expected. So, when he called his wife in Missouri to tell her he’d be delayed, she was upset. To which he replied, “Well, I know I’ve been gone a lot, but I’ve been thinking about you all the time.”

With that utterance, he had a new idea for a song. So, he brought the beginnings of the tune back to the recording studio and worked on it longer. Stuck, though, he asked his friend Johnny Christopher for help. Previously, the two had written the 1970 song, “No Love at All.” The two took turns at the tune but needed more help. They reached out to Mark James, who helped finally finish the song.

Elvis Presley

At first, rumors around Nashville were that the song was written for iconic pop star Elvis Presley, who at the time was dealing with marital issues. Presley, who had worked with Mark James before on the song “Suspicious Minds,” did not impact the song, however.

In fact, Carson said the song was for everyone, adding that it was one long apology. “It’s sort of like all guys who screw up and would love nothing better than to pick up the phone and call their wives and say, ‘Listen, honey, I could have done better, but I want you to know that you were always on my mind,'” Carson previously said.

The track was first recorded by Brenda Lee and then released by Gwen McCrae in March 1972. That same month, a few weeks after separating from his wife Priscilla, Presley recorded his version of “Always on My Mind.” He’d go on to release the song in October as the B-side to his single “Separate Ways.” Presley’s version became commercially successful, rising to No. 16 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles chart.

Willie Nelson

About a decade after Presley recorded the song, country star Willie Nelson cut his version, which is as famous or even more so than Presley’s today. Nelson’s version hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart and No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. His version also garnered Nelson three Grammy wins in 1983, including Song of the Year, Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

The Lyrics

The song is all about regret, especially the regret of not telling someone you love them enough or not treating them as they deserved. Truly, we often hurt the ones closest to us. Sings Nelson,

Maybe I didn’t treat you
Quite as good as I should
Maybe I didn’t love you
Quite as often as I could
Little things I should have said and done
I never took the time

You were always on my mind
You were always on my mind

Maybe I didn’t hold you
All those lonely, lonely times
And I guess I never told you
I am so happy that you’re mine
If I made you feel second best
I’m so sorry I was blind

Photo by Pamela Springsteen / Shock Ink

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