The songs that seem to stick around the longest don’t always have the most earth-shaking lyrics or melodies, nor are they sung by the greatest voices. Not that those things aren’t important, of course. But in the end, it’s often the songs with lyrics that so insightfully address situations of the human condition, and that are so universally written that they can be covered by just about anyone of any genre, that live on after their writers are gone. One song that has been covered by the biggest acts of the past two generations, but that also played a significant role in helping its writer forge a career as a performing artist as well as a writer, is Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind.”
This song was first recorded by Paxton for his 1964 album Ramblin’ Boy, and was released as a single. While it didn’t top the charts, it instantly got the attention of the music community, with such artists as Harry Belafonte and the Chad Mitchell Trio covering it shortly after its release. Then Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner took it to the top 10 of the country charts in 1967. And dozens of other acts, many of them legendary writers themselves (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, John Denver, Neil Diamond and others) have cut the song as well. Fast forward half a century, and the song was introduced to many new listeners under 50 when performed by Stark Sands as part of the Coen Brothers’ 2013 movie Inside Llewyn Davis.
The song’s concept admittedly isn’t unique. It’s about regret over the ending of a love affair, with the writer taking responsibility for perhaps not having held up his end of the emotional bargain and paying the price for it. He admits that maybe he hasn’t tended the love garden the way he should have with lines like You’ve got reasons a-plenty for goin’/This I know, this I know/For the weeds have been steadily growin’/Please don’t go, please don’t go. And he takes the blame with his apologetic Well, I could have loved you better/Didn’t mean to be unkind/You know that was the last thing on my mind. Again, maybe nothing new, but it was said in a way that has touched people for decades and made the song a standard, and helped garner the artist a 2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Though he, like most folksingers, never became a household name, Paxton hasn’t slowed down a bit since this song helped launch his career. His latest album, The Essential, was released in 2019. But now at 82, Paxton has announced that his days as a touring singer are over. With an extensive catalog that includes great songs like “The Last Thing on My Mind,” he’ll surely be remembered long after he’s gone.