Casually dressed in jeans and a plaid, button-down shirt, Ronnie Milsap sits quietly in the Virgin Records conference room in Nashville, sipping bottled water. His son, Jason, buzzes around him trying to keep the day’s long list of interviews on schedule. The veteran singer is excited about his latest project and sometimes the enthusiasm can’t be confined to a 15-minute slot.
Milsap’s new album, 40 #1 Hits, is just that — with one exception. The collection of original recordings begins with 1974′s “Pure Love” and continues through 1991′s remake of the Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You.” The only song on the album that did not reach No. 1 is “Stranger in My House,” a Mike Reid tune that won a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1984. Milsap, 54, has won six Grammys himself in an amazing recording career that enjoyed greatest prominence in the ’70s and ’80s.
“When I saw all this stuff come together in one place, there’s a rush of emotion,” Milsap says of his collection of hits. “There’s a whole rush of memories.”
Those memories begin in his native North Carolina, where Milsap received classical piano training at Morehead State School for the Blind in Raleigh. At night, the young prodigy fed his musical soul on radio shows that would broadcast country and R&B. Those varied influences helped Milsap develop a soulful voice that defied classification and lent itself to crossover success on the pop charts. Today, many critics lambaste artists like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Garth Brooks for making music that can earn across-the-board sales. Some say crossover is killing country music. Some say it’s good for the genre. Milsap says he’s heard it all before.
“I kinda laugh at the whole thing, because it’s nothing new. Every generation goes through that,” he explains of the crossover controversy. “That was a despised term back then, I guess it still is. But if you’re in country and you have the capability and the talent to reach over and do something else, I think those artists will eventually go there because they can. That’s the way it was 25 years ago at RCA. They didn’t want to call it crossover, and they didn’t want to talk about it, but yet they encouraged artists who were capable of doing it to go do it. They quietly said, ‘Can you do that?’”
Milsap recorded for RCA from 1973 until 1992, racking up five gold albums (for sales of 500,000 copies), one platinum (for sales of a million copies) and one double platinum in the process. He made a name for himself with country hits such as “Daydreams About Night Things” and “I’m a Stand by My Woman Man,” then he danced back in time with “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” and “Happy, Happy Birthday Baby.” In addition to multiple Grammys, Milsap won an Academy of Country Music award and eight Country Music Association awards, including the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy in 1977.
“I was happy. I had done six albums over there, and I was basically a happy little country singer,” Milsap recalls of his days at RCA. “I was selling records, on the road touring over 200 dates a year and doing all the work I wanted. Then ‘Almost Like a Song’ came out as a million-selling single, and it changed my life. It helped to get my music out to places it never would have gone.”
“It Was Almost Like a Song” was a No. 1 country hit in 1977 and climbed to No. 16 on the pop singles chart. Milsap continued his pop success five years later with “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” which reached No. 5 and won a Grammy.
In addition to those widely known tunes, Milsap says he is perhaps most recognized for “Smoky Mountain Rain,” which Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan wrote at the pianist’s suggestion in 1980.
“I did a session with Elvis called ‘Kentucky Rain,’ and he wanted a little more thunder on the piano in places, so I did that left-hand thing down there real low on the piano like thunder,” Milsap remembers. “I did the same thing on `Smoky Mountain Rain.’ I just re-lived my Elvis session.”
After a long and fruitful association with RCA, Milsap moved to Capitol Records in late 1992. He released two albums before leaving the label amid a management shakeup. Shortly after his departure, an investment company approached him about lending his name to a $10 million theater in South Carolina. Milsap and his wife, Joyce, moved to Myrtle Beach for two years, where he performed daily shows at the Ronnie Milsap Theater. When the funding fell through, they came back to their home in Nashville, and Milsap went back to touring.
“I was continuing to look for some kind of opportunity to make records,” he says. Virgin President Scott Hendricks gave him that opportunity. The former head of Capitol Records and a successful producer who has worked with Brooks & Dunn and Faith Hill, Hendricks produced two new sides for Milsap’s hit compilation.
“On a personal level,” Hendricks says, “I wondered if I had what it took to hang with someone of his caliber in the studio. His level of musicality is way up there. In the ’80s, we used to compare all our records to Ronnie’s to see if we were even close. His records were impeccable.”
For 18 years, Milsap owned his own Nashville recording studio, a place where he could “tinker around with sounds and get as microscopic as I wanted.” He sold the space in 1996, but he held fast to his meticulous way of making records.
“At this time in my life, it’s just really got to be some kind of special chemistry in the studio with somebody because I had gotten to the place that I believed that nobody knew as much about it as I did,” he jokes. “Scott knew more than I did, and that’s good to know.”
The new project’s lead single, “Time, Love & Money,” was written by former Arista artist Sherrié Austin, Will Rambeaux and Dave Berg. Milsap says they chose it for its youthful feel and modern message.
“I just think that’s kinda what everyone is looking for,” he says. “It’s just really loose and fun. When folks hear it I think they’re going to say, ‘I thought I’d heard everything Ronnie Milsap could do.’”
Hendricks thinks the new track will remind country fans of the performer’s talent. “I would go on record saying he’s still a better singer than a lot of the singers we are hearing on radio today,” Hendricks says. “I don’t think most people realize how much of an impact on this industry that he’s had.”
Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of 40 #1 Hits — in addition to the massive string of chart-toppers — is the accompanying liner notes. Milsap takes time to recap the history of each cut, and the result is an entertaining read.
Regarding airplay for his new music, the singer has a ready source of inspiration. His friend and peer, Kenny Rogers, has just scored his first No. 1 song in 13 years, “Buy Me a Rose.” In fact, the last song Rogers took to the top of the charts was a duet with Milsap, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” a collaboration that earned the duo a Grammy in 1987.
“It inspires me,” Milsap says. “It proves that if you can bring the right records, you can still do it. I do not believe the artists who say they can’t. I know radio is tight. I know that, but you’ve just got to make records that are competitive, and if you’re willing to do that, somewhere in the middle of all that I think it will work.”
Indeed, the new songs showcase his familiar voice, which has aged as gracefully as the singer has.
“Maybe it’s slightly thicker, bigger, but it’s basically the same instrument, thank goodness, and the same notes work just like they always have,” Milsap says with a grin. “It’s more mature, but I don’t know that I am.”