Always On My Mind

Always On My Mind

The story goes that Willie Nelson was in the studio with Merle Haggard—recording what eventually would become the duo’s 1983 album Pancho & Lefty—when producer Chips Moman played them an old song titled “Always on My Mind.” Both Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee had recorded their own versions of the tune in the 1970s, but neither had ever been more than a footnote. As it turned out, one of the song’s co-writers, Johnny Christopher, was playing on the Pancho sessions, and he auditioned “Always on My Mind“ for the singers in the studio. Haggard passed. But Nelson said, Hey, let’s try it. Nelson’s 1978 hit Stardust had mixed country, jazz standards, and early American pop in ways that exposed a common ancestry. But the 10 tracks on Always on My Mind—released in 1982—combined country with R&B and 1970s-style soft rock, crafting a sound that was just in time for the rise of 1980s adult-contemporary pop. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” was passionate, but reflectively so. And “Let It Be Me”—which had been a hit for The Everly Brothers 20 years earlier—was quietly yearning. (Nelson admittedly had no idea what to make of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” but said that the melody was good enough that it didn’t matter.) The production on Always on My Mind can be heavy-handed, and the atmosphere a little thick. But Nelson had willfully resisted the polish associated with commercial country and pop for years, so it’s easy to forgive him for tapping into the subtle, conversational phrasing that made him a compelling performer in the first place. Always on My Mind might find him settling into a comfortable pocket—but at least it’s one he stitched himself.

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