“I do love performing,” Ronnie Milsap exclaims. “I do love singing, and I still have the passion for making records.” Lucky us. In any enumeration of country music’s greatest crooners, Milsap stands shoulder-to-shoulder with such golden throats as Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Jim Ed Brown and Charley Pride.
That the Milsap talent prevails is obvious in his new album, My Life. The collection marks his return to RCA Records, the home of his hits from 1973 to 1993. During those 20 years, he lodged 35 No. 1 singles on the Billboard country charts, among them “Pure Love,” “It Was Almost Like a Song,” “My Heart,” “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me.”
During his long heyday, Milsap won six Grammys and four Country Music Association awards, including the entertainer of the year prize. But by the time he decamped to Liberty Records in 1993, country had already moved on to such megaselling singer-songwriters as Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black.
Always among country’s most eclectic artists, Milsap rewarded his fans in 2004 with an album called Just for a Thrill, a cornucopia of such cool pop standards as “Teach Me Tonight,” “Bewitched” and “My Funny Valentine.”
“It was something I particularly wanted to do,” Milsap says. “Over the years, I’ve been guilty, I guess, of jumping around — anywhere from hillbilly to hip-hop. I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a curse, but I knew I wanted to do it. I thought it came off really well.”
Throughout this tapering off period, Milsap maintained contact with Joe Galante, head of the RCA Label Group in Nashville. Milsap had known him since 1972, when Galante was still a relatively minor functionary at the label’s New York headquarters. “[The reconnection] started,” says Milsap, “with RCA picking up to reissue and redistribute a lot of [my] early albums that weren’t on CD.” Over a three-year period, he continues, RCA reissued 15 albums from his catalog.
Even though Milsap was off the label, Galante was instrumental in securing him last year’s appearance with Los Lonely Boys on CMT Crossroads. And for the past two years, the record label executive had booked him to perform on RCA’s showcase on the General Jackson showboat during the annual Country Radio Seminar. Galante eventually asked Milsap if he wanted to record another album for RCA.
Once Milsap came back aboard, he and Galante had to decide what his return album should sound like. “So my manager, Burt Stein, and I went down to talk to Joe, and he said, ‘Do you still listen to any of [the music] that’s on the radio?’ I said, ‘Yes, I honestly do.’ I do because I’m kind of a radio nut. I’ve been turning the knobs as far back as I can remember being able to find them. He said, ‘Well, I want you to do this album and show folks what Ronnie Milsap, the country singer, is all about.'”
At first Milsap misunderstood what Galante was shooting for. “Early on,” he reflects, “I probably made the mistake of bringing a little bit more of traditional country down to Joe. He said, ‘No! No! No! I’m not talking about [songs like] “That Girl Who Waits on Tables” [Milsap’s 1973 hit] or your early stuff.’ He said, ‘Traditional country is probably dead at radio. Give me some of those things like “[There’s No] Gettin’ Over Me” or “Smoky Mountain Rain” or “Any Day Now.”‘ So I said, ‘OK, now. I understand.'”
Then came the question of who should produce the album. “[Joe] called me in and said, ‘Have you been thinking about record producers?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah. I want somebody that’s 35 and knows every bit as much about the technology as I do.” He laughed and said, ‘I tell you who I think would be a good match for you — Keith Stegall.’ I said, ‘You bet! I’ve known Keith ever since he’s been in town.'”
Indeed, Stegall, who’s produced such top-tier acts as Alan Jackson and George Jones, co-wrote Milsap’s 1990 hit, “Stranger Things Have Happened.”
The first chore Milsap and Stegall undertook together was finding songs. By the time that phase was over, Milsap says, they had screened 1,500 prospects. One song the singer had already picked for the album was “If It’s Gonna Rain,” a dolorous tune by Dean Dillon, Scotty Emerick and Donny Kees. The remaining nine songs were joint choices.
But before Milsap began recording, he ran his and Stegall’s choices past RCA’s A&R department — just to see if they suited today’s country radio demands. “I wanted to make sure that everybody was together and everybody liked what we were doing before we went in to do a session,” he says. “I’d send word [to RCA] that I liked such and such songs, and I’d get the message back, ‘Joe said you could cut them, but they’re not singles.’ That meant that I wasn’t going to cut them.”
The final selections were from many of the hottest writers in Nashville, including Rivers Rutherford, Bob DiPiero, John Scott Sherrill, Jim Collins, Craig Wiseman and D. Vincent Williams. Milsap’s impeccable sense of rhythm beams through every song, from the bouncy first single, “Local Girls,” to the pulsating “Accept My Love.” Although many of the sentiments are traditional country, the delivery system is iPod fresh.
Milsap says Stegall was “just an absolute joy to work with in the studio.” And he credits Stegall’s engineer, John Kelton, with keeping the sonic standards high. “To me, about as important as anything is, ‘Who’s going to record this? Who is the engineer going to be?’ I’ve had really great ones, and occasionally [I’ve] hit a couple of engineers that didn’t come up to what [I] expected. I thought with Keith and John Kelton at the same time, I had the best of all worlds.”
The approach is everything, Milsap asserts. “I try to cut every song like it’s a single. I’ve never been one to make an album and say, ‘This one’s an album cut’ or, back in the old days, ‘This is a B-side.’ I try to cut everything and give it the best shot I can.”