Country Radio Broadcasters Salute Ronnie Milsap

Joe Nichols and Phil Vassar Offer Musical Tributes to Legendary Hitmaker

An ecstatic Ronnie Milsap proclaimed his lifelong love for radio Tuesday (Feb. 14) as Country Radio Broadcasters honored the blind, genre-blending hitmaker with its annual Career Achievement award. The ceremony, which took place at the Nashville Convention Center, was the kickoff event for CRB’s 37th annual Country Radio Seminar.

Led to the stage by his son Todd, Milsap began his remarks by alluding to the acceptance speeches he had heard earlier in the evening by the five new inductees to the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame. Their speeches had been spangled with references to the call letters of stations at which they once worked.

“I got to hear all those call letters,” Milsap shouted, “and I’ve been at all of [the stations]. … Radio — all my life — has been magic to me.” He told how he had discovered an old battery-powered radio at his home when he was 4 years old. “That was our only ‘entertainment center,’” he said.

In a recording career launched in 1973 with his first charted hit, “I Hate You,” and continuing with the release of his latest RCA single, “Local Girls,” Milsap has scored 40 No. 1 hits. While some of those hits were country by the strictest definition of the word, many others also blended in elements of pop, rock and rhythm & blues.

“All the kinds of music I’ve absorbed in my life came from radio,” the singer told the crowd. “Something happened when I heard [and here he broke into song], ‘FEE-ver in the morning, fever all through the night.’” He added that fellow blind and piano-playing singer Ray Charles, who often veered into country music, demonstrated “you could do it.”

Milsap said that when he was young and still puzzling over whether to go into music or enroll in law school, he once managed to get backstage to meet Charles. He played the great singer a few songs, he recalled, and then asked him which career path he should take. “He said, ‘Son, you can be a lawyer if you want, but if I were you, I’d do what your heart tells you to do.’”

Before Milsap came to the stage, Joe Nichols and Phil Vassar performed selections from his catalog of classics. Nichols was up first. “Might I say,” he began, “that this is the most intimidating moment in my life. Mr. Milsap is out there.”

As if to illustrate the truth of that confession, Nichols garbled the lyrics twice and dropped his lyrics sheet once during his opening tune, “(I’m a) Stand by My Woman Man.” His voice was so good and his mannerisms so boyishly endearing, however, that he kept the crowd on his side. He finished with “Pure Love” and “There’s No Getting Over Me,” the latter of which, he said, was his favorite Milsap song.

Vassar, who accompanied himself on piano, opened with “Almost Like a Song,” a choice that took him to vocal heights he clearly had seldom visited before. “Yes, I hurt myself on that last note,” he joked when he finished the song. He rounded out his set with “Stranger in My House” and “Smoky Mountain Rain.”

Noting that he had played some shows with Milsap, Vassar marveled, “It’s amazing to see a man who’s been singing such a long time still singing better than anyone else in the business.”

Former recipients of the CRB’s Career Achievement award include Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Alabama and Sonny James.

Those inducted into the Country DJ Hall of Fame were Terry Dorsey, Lon Helton and Arch Yancey. Jonathan Fricke and Ed Salamon were inducted into the Country Music Radio Hall of Fame. Veteran radio promoter Jack Lameier was presented the CRB’s President’s Award.

Dale Carter, program director of KFKF-FM in Kansas City, Mo., hosted the induction ceremony. He momentarily silenced the crowd during his opening remarks when he announced — fictitiously, as it turned out — that New York’s crime-busting attorney general Eliot Spitzer was in the house. Spitzer has been targeting record labels and radio stations for their alleged “pay for play” activities.

“He’s one guy,” Carter cracked, “who should have gone hunting with Vice President Cheney.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.