Willie Nelson, ‘Always on My Mind’ — Story Behind the Song
Veteran music journalist Jake Brown spoke to a Who's Who of the top songwriters in Music City for his new book, 'Nashville Songwriter: The Inside Stories Behind Country Music's Greatest Hits.'
Brown got the inside stories about some of the biggest hits in classic and contemporary country, including songs from such top writers as Craig Wiseman, Bob DiPiero, Bill Anderson, Tom Shapiro, Kelley Lovelace, Rivers Rutherford, Tom T. Hall, Chris Dubois, Dallas Davidson, David Lee Murphy, Brett James, Ashley Gorley and Neil Thrasher, among many others. The book is available here.
In this exclusive excerpt, Wayne Carson talks about writing 'Always on My Mind,' which scored Willie Nelson one his all-time career singles in 1982. The song won the Country Music Association's 1982 Song of the Year and Single of the Year awards and took home three Grammy Awards that same year for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, Best Country Song and Song of the Year.
Elvis Presley also recorded a popular version of the song, among others.
I wrote those two verses living in Springfield, Mo. Pretty much the first two verses with 'Always on My Mind,' and I usually write from the melody. I’ll think of the melody or the chord structure or something I’ll come up with, and I’ll make -- I’ll see if that doesn’t fit the words or anything like that. If the melody is singable, the words are not far away. It’s only a story, you know. In this case, 'Always on My Mind' happens to be one of those things that, universally, everybody on the planet has been there, you know. And it struck all at one time. Everybody touched base with that one. It was just magic that it was so simple and so right on the button.
I purposely didn’t write a bridge or anything like that to 'Always on My Mind' because I didn’t think it needed one. We decided to cut that dude one night in Memphis, back when I was recording for United, I guess it was -- or whatever label I was recording for at that time -- and so, Tips Smallman, my producer and dear friend, lifelong friend, said, “Wayne, I think this thing needs a bridge.” And so I said, “Well, how do you want me to do it?” He said, “Why don’t you take it upstairs to my office; I’ve got a little piano up there, or a guitar -- whatever you want to use.” I said, “Well, actually, I used a piano, so I’ll go up there and see what I come up with.”
Well, in the meantime, Johnny Christopher comes wandering in, and he said, “Do you need some help?” And I said, “Well, it looks like I’m going to because I haven’t come up with anything as far as a bridge.” And I said, “Johnny, I never thought it needed a bridge, so I never did give it a second thought.” And we sat there and sat there, and nothing happened. Then pretty soon, here comes Mark James just picking up his mail at the publishing company, which was right next door to the studio. He said, “What are you doing?” and I said, “Tips wants a bridge for this song.”
Now Mark had never heard the song at that point. And we had a version of it cut already without the bridge. That’s why there had been some talk that Mark had wrote the song and cut me in on it at one time. So we got that dispelled real quick. Anyway, the three of us sat there and finally wrote those two lines -- you know, the bridge. “Tell him that your sweet loving ... ” -- that part. You might be a songwriter yourself, I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that. Hell, a hit’s a hit.
Anyway, I took it back downstairs, and we cut it, and all the guys in the band seemed to like it -- that was kind of my gauge. When I did something new, I asked my pickers, my buddies I played all those records with, like the Box Tops and all that stuff -- I did a lot of recording with that band as just a guitar player, you know. Myself and Bobby Womack and, of course, Reggie Young was the band. Anyway, we cut it. And a little session on it right there, and took it to Nashville. I was recording for Mongoose Records -- that’s who I was with, Fred Foster. We couldn’t wait to get here and play that thing for him.
Tips and I were convinced that it was a No. 1 record. We were just like two school kids with a new invention, you know. I played it for Fred Foster, and he said, “I don’t think the world’s ready for that.” I said, “You’ve got to be f---ing kidding me,” pardon my language. And Tips, ditto. We left there -- I mean, we were mad. We got back in his airplane, we had flown over here from Memphis; we got back in that airplane and flew back to Memphis, but this time it was storming, and I’m surprised we didn’t crash that airplane because we had to get out below the clouds and fly below the cloud coverage because Tips didn’t have an instrument ticket.
So we flew back to Memphis, and Tips said -- I remember the last thing Tips said about it was, “He’s going to rue the day he ever turned that song down, I’m telling you right now Wayne. That song is a big, huge song."