20 Questions With Ronnie Milsap

He Talks About Technology, Trucking Songs and Today's Country

Editor’s Note: Ronnie Milsap and Los Lonely Boys team up for a new episode of CMT Crossroads debuting Friday (June 17) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

What a difference Ronnie Milsap has made in the lives of longtime country fans. Balancing upbeat love songs (“I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World”) with the bummer break-up songs (“Inside”), Milsap marched to No. 1 dozens of times throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Here, he answers fan questions about why he moved from guitar to piano, his first phone conversation with Charley Pride and why he’s now able to read any book he wants.

1. “Smoky Mountain Rain” is one of my favorite songs ever. What made you decide to record it?

That’s an interesting question. I was talking to a couple of my favorite songwriters, Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan. I said, “You know the song ’Wichita Lineman,’ the Jimmy Webb song? How great that is. And ’Galveston’ and ’By the Time I Get to Phoenix’? Listen, man, those songs are so great. What I wish you’d do is write a song about my part of western North Carolina, about the Smoky Mountains.” I went out on the road, and I came back about a week later, and they played me this song called “Smoky Mountain Rain.” I played with it for a few days, and I said, “Hey, that’s gonna work.”

I played on Elvis’ record called “Kentucky Rain,” and Elvis said, “Hey Milsap, can I get a little bit of thunder over there on the piano?” So I did this thunder thing on his record. And what I did on “Kentucky Rain,” I did the same thing on my record. [laughs] Oh man, if it worked on Elvis’, it was bound to work on mine.

2. Have you ever thought about doing a duet with any of country music’s leading ladies? If so, who would it be?

It’s always about chemistry. I haven’t done that many duets with females. I did something years ago with Patti LaBelle, which was an incredible record, but it just it wasn’t anything that would work in country. But yeah, you bet. Chely Wright, Sara Evans, Martina. You just gotta find the right song. I love a lot of these gals, and I’m sure that they would love to do that if we find the right song.

3. Are there any plans in the works for you to do a movie about your life?

That’s an ongoing project, and I suspect that will happen when it’s time. We’ve talked to interested companies about this. My manager and I are always reviewing these [submissions]. I think when we hit the right one, we will certainly do it, absolutely.

4. In some of your songs, you make comments about sight: “Was I too blind to see what’s been happening to me?” and “There’s a stranger in my house/Somebody here that I can’t see.” Were these deliberate puns?

No, these are not intentional. They’re actually just great songs. If I run into somebody, I’ll say, “Hey, good to see you again.” And it’s my perception of being with you or whatever my senses let me know. But I use that very loosely, because when you see something, you see something in your own way. But, no, those are totally not intentional. I think you just try to find great songs. If they talk about, “I saw her standing by the door” or whatever, hey, I don’t shy away from any of that. The way that I see things are the way I see them.

5. How did you find out that Los Lonely Boys were fans of yours?

That was really interesting. I heard that a couple of years ago. My nephew in Macon, Ga., loves Los Lonely Boys, and he said, “Uncle Ronnie, they are always talking about how you were an influence on their music.” I just said, “Wow. How wild is that?” I said, “That is really cool.” … Sammy Davis Jr. had a quote. As we all move on in life, I think this quote really applies. He said, “It’s really cool when the young cats dig ya.” And he’s right. It is. The fact that this came about, and now we have a lifelong friendship with those three brothers — what a blessing.

6. Your standards CD, Just for a Thrill, is excellent. Are you planning to do another one in the same genre?

I certainly loved doing a standards CD. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for years and finally got around to doing it. I don’t know if I’ll do the Volume II. I think it depends on how well this current CD is doing. It’s a different way of recording, in that it all has to be done live with no overdubs. It takes a lot of pre-production to make this work. So I don’t know yet. If this one sells real well, you bet.

7. I know you love to be on top of the latest technology. What are some of your favorite gadgets on the market right now?

Oh, goodness. Well, you’re right. I do. I love the challenge of finding the great songs, but I’ve always loved the recording process itself from back in the days of analog all the way up to the latest digital technology that we have today. It’s fun. It’s fun stuff. I carry a laptop with me on the road, so I’m doing music editing out on the road if we’re on the bus for three or four days. That’s great to do.

Here at the house, I have much better and much stronger stuff than I carry out on the road. I’m sitting here with a computer that’s loaded up with really good synthesized speech and what they call a screen reader, so it reads the screen with synthetic speech, which is great. It also has a Braille display that lets you read what’s on the screen in Braille, as well.

This whole thing of being able to get a print book — a book from just any bookstore. It could be an old book or a book that’s a hundred years old. A blind person can scan that page-by-page, save it into a file or chapters or however you want to do that, and it does processing on it, and then all of a sudden it is accessible to you. I mean, what a real blessing. To be able to do that and have access to print is something I guess I never thought would ever happen. Technology makes my life a whole lot more fun. Yeah.

8. One thing that makes me drawn to your music is the way you seem to feel the song and tell the story as if it was your own. How do you find that spot from within to just make the song be “real”?

A lot of people mistakenly think that I’ve written these songs. I have written a few things but nothing that has really been a single that got huge radio play. But in finding the songs, I think you have to be able to live it, just like an actor finds a script. If it’s suited to you and you play it around the house as I do, I’ll go down to the living room. I’ve got a couple of grand pianos down there, and I’ll just sit around and play it. And you’ll know then in a little bit if the song is really right for you. And I record it here and perhaps even take two or three other musicians with me and do a demo. By that time, you’ve really got the arrangement worked out and you know if it’s going to work. When you get in the studio, I definitely think you have to find the song. You have to find your zone.

9. Will you please tell me a little bit more about your relationship with Charley Pride?

Charley Pride. A dear friend. I can’t say enough positive things about Charley Pride. I first met him in 1970 in Los Angeles. We were staying at the Continental Hyatt House. My wife was in the elevator going downstairs to get some breakfast for us, and Charley was in the elevator. She said, “Aren’t you Charley Pride?” and he said, “Yeah.” She said, “I’m Joyce Milsap, and we’re in town. My husband’s Ronnie.” Charley said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of him.” She said, “We’re playing over at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go tonight,” and he said, “Well, what room is he in?”

I’m up there in the room and the phone rings and his voice comes on and he sings, “Is anybody goin’ to San Antone or Phoenix, Arizona?” I said, “I don’t know who you are, but you do a great impression of Charley Pride.” He said, “I am Charley Pride,” and he said he was coming out to the show. He came out and heard me sing. I was doing a lot of different types of music, but I did some country songs and he said, “You ought to come to Nashville.”

By January 1973, I was in his manager’s office here in Nashville — the gentleman that was managing Charley Pride named Jack Johnson — and he said, “I want to manage your career.” I said, “Man, what a chance of a lifetime.” Charley made that opportunity happen. I was managed by his same manager and ultimately got on to RCA [Records]. The guy who was head of RCA, Jerry Bradley, who is Owen Bradley’s son, heard some demos and said, “You know, I thought Ronnie was a rock ’n’ roll singer, but he sure can sing country.” He gave me the opportunity to start making records for RCA.

Charley is a dear friend. He and [wife] Rozene, you know, Joyce and I have known them since 1970, so we’ve known him for 35 years. He is a class act.

10. We have always known you for your beautiful piano playing. I learned from reading your bio on CMT.com that at an early age you played the violin, guitar and banjo as well. Do you ever pick up any of these instruments and play them today?

You know, I used to. I’ve got a pretty good violin around here that I played for a while. I play some guitar occasionally now, still. Guitar and piano, that’s about it. The piano is really my favorite. The piano is such a big instrument out on stage. It’s almost like a prop. It’s a way to find where you are. I remember when I was getting started, I was playing guitar and I put the guitar down, and I couldn’t find it anymore, and I decided I needed to be playing piano. It’s big enough I can bump into.

11. How do you feel about how country music has changed since you started recording in the late 1960s?

Oh, it’s very, very interesting. I think every generation speaks for itself — and should. The people who are talented that want to be in this, they should do it. I think there’s some really great people out here today making great records. I think in a lot of ways it’s a lot more fun and quite a bit easier to actually make the records, although it’s still hard to find the strong songs — the songs that are inspiring. That takes time and diligence, crafting those to where they really belong to you. But I think today’s country is pretty cool. Yeah, there’s a lot going on and a lot of fun stuff.

12. What was the worst business decision you ever made?

The worst? Oh, goodness. Probably going on after Hank Jr. one night. [laughs] Lord, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ve made a bunch over the years that weren’t the right decision. I think maybe one time I got involved in an amusement park. I tell you, I found out quickly you need to stick with stuff that you know. I’d be better off to stay in something that’s music related. But, all in all, it’s all been just great.

13. My wife and I saw you in Morristown, N.J., last year. I’m amazed how strong your voice is. How do you keep your voice tuned after performing all these years?

I think you always have to pay attention to that. The thing that is totally terrifying to a singer is if you get a cold, because you don’t sound the same and your throat doesn’t quite work the same. You always just try and stay as healthy as you can. Singing is really good for you, for your lungs, all the breathing that you have to do. That hour, or hour and-a-half or two hours that you play is just great exercise and so much spiritual fun.

There are certain foods I stay away from. I don’t have very much dairy. I learned that from Ray Charles. When you’re out on the road, try to make sure that you take a little Vitamin C. Some hot tea before the show is really good. … We’re all trying to continue to learn as much about all these things as we can, because what happens if you book a show a year from now? You have no idea how you’re going to feel when that day finally rolls around. You just gotta stay healthy. You gotta continue to exercise and keep your diet right and drink a lot of water, stay hydrated, all those things.

14. Verve Records is having a lot of success with contemporary remixes of jazz and pop classics, the most recent version being the remix of Motown hits. I think your older hits would be great all over again through the remix process. Any thoughts about showing how your talent is in synch with today’s sounds, too?

That’s always a possibility. We know where a lot of those tapes are, and some of them were actually recorded on three-track, so it wouldn’t be very much mixing to do. … I know the catalog of all this better than anybody, and I certainly have thought about even some of the earlier stuff on RCA. You wonder what would happen if you were transfer that into Pro Tools, which is today’s editor-of-choice that they use in the studio, and use some of the new plug-ins and some other stuff. I haven’t actually gotten to that, but I have moved some of those songs over to Pro Tools, so I’ll get a chance to play with that at some point when I get around to it.

15. Can you remember any album cuts you’ve recorded over the years that you thought might have been another hit but never got released to radio by the label?

Yeah, that always seemed to happen. Early on, they would go two songs deep into an album. Occasionally, they went three deep. Today, what do they go, seven or eight? [laughs] Every year, it seemed like we would get finished with something and be ready for a third single, and the record company would say, “No, we want a new album.”

I did a live album many years ago over at Opryland. Only one single came off that album — when we really had a couple. There was a song called “I Can Almost See Houston From Here” that was really good. And also I liked “Long Distance Memory,” which everybody wanted as a single, but then we came out with another album. [laughs] It seemed like every project had a few that could have come as a fourth single or fifth single, but for whatever reasons at the time, we moved on and did a new project.

16: Do you have any plans to reissue any of your earlier albums?

That is actually going to start happening, I think next year, with 15 new projects over a three-year period. This catalog is going to be out there, and I look forward to being involved and seeing which ones the fans might be interested in. The one I constantly get requests for, which was probably one of my finest pure country albums, was called 20/20 Vision. That’s now probably, goodness, what is it now? Thirty years ago? Wow. How time flies when you’re having fun.

17. With all the success you’ve had over the years, how do you manage to stay so grounded and not let it all go to your head like so many others?

I’ve watched that happen to so many other folks, I knew I didn’t want to follow. I have a lot of friends that fell into problems with alcohol, friends that fell into problems with using drugs on the road. I’ve just stayed clear of all that. I just knew I was never going there. There were certain people that I would meet as I was coming up and getting started — the ones that were really kind, like Ernest Tubb or Roy Acuff or Little Jimmy Dickens, the people who have class and integrity. They’re also quite humble and sincere, all those things. I just said, “Well, hey, that’s what I want to do. That’s the path I want to take.” I always take the high road.

And it’s just music. We’re not doing brain surgery or curing cancer. It’s just music. I don’t think you ever should get to the point where you feel like everything revolves around you, because it takes a whole team of people to make this stuff happen. Whether you’re on the road or whether you’re trying to get records on the radio, it takes hundreds and thousands of people to make this stuff happen. It’s not just about me. It’s about the whole team. I just happen to sometimes be the one that carries the ball. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously with that.

18. I was listening to The Big John Howell Legends Show one Sunday night about a month ago. I heard an awesome song called “Prisoner of the Highway,” and I thought he said it was yours. I’m a trucker and just loved that song. I just wanted to know if it is your song.

“Prisoner of the Highway”? You bet. Mike Reid is a wonderful songwriter that I had the pleasure of working with for quite a while. He’s an ex-football player, All-American from Penn State, played professionally for the Cincinnati Bengals. We had 12 No. 1 songs together. This one didn’t go No. 1, but it sure was a great song.

I mentioned to him, “I’m out on the road, and I get on the CB and talk on the bus. I talk to a lot of truckers, and we stop at truck stops and I get to visit with people. Man, I’m lookin’ for a trucker song.” I figured it would be hard to write another “Convoy” or something like that, but I needed something that was really a good song that talks about the highway. He came up with “Prisoner of the Highway.” He did quite a bit of research to make sure it was right. I played with it for a couple of months, and, man, that’s a great song. Great record.

19. I heard a story from T. Graham Brown that when he did a show with you that during soundcheck, you would pace the stage to be sure that you knew how many steps it is to the edge. Then you’ll get up in the middle of your show and walk right up to the brink and not fall into the crowd. It’s a great gag. Do you still do that in your show?

I always have the crew put this toe board right at the edge of the stage. It’s pretty, it’s polished, it looks real nice. But I know that when the toe of my boot hits that board, that’s as far as I can go. I can’t go any farther. They provide that for me just so I can have a chance to get up and move around. The fans want to see that and see as many different looks as they can get because they take a lot of photographs. How you look is mighty important. Staying at the piano all night [has] never been enough for me.

20. When you first started, I noticed that you were sort of timid after a performance to get up from the piano and take a bow. Now you do it with the ease of a seasoned entertainer. Is this simply a matter of time and confidence, or do you work at it?

It is time and confidence. Of course, you ask questions of people around you. “Am I doing things that look kind of crazy or stupid out there?” [laughs] You get as much advice as you can. I think it does come with time. The audience always wants to encourage you and help you do things you had no idea that you actually could do. There are some nights they request a song that maybe you haven’t done in two or three years. They can elevate your level of performance to a place that you didn’t think would even happen. Those things are certainly things that you do not anticipate. You don’t know how any of this is going to play out, but most of the things I’ve learned on stage, I’ve learned it from the audiences over the years and my fans that give support and advice.