Maybe it’s easy to record an entire album in just three days if you’ve spent your entire life subconsciously preparing for it. That’s the case with Ronnie Milsap and his new release, Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns and Gospel Songs.
Actually, laying down tracks for 24 songs on a two-CD set is more like recording two albums in three days, but Milsap is quick to give credit to Carol Tornquist, who wrote the musical arrangements for the project he co-produced with longtime collaborator Rob Galbraith.
“Everybody knew what we were doing,” Milsap said during a recent interview with CMT.com. “Everybody had already looked over the arrangements before they came to the studio. I knew the lyrics, so we basically just started rolling through these.”
The songs lean heavily toward traditional fare such as “How Great Thou Art,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” but it also features three new songs and an updated version of Milsap’s hit, “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.”
In a phenomenal career that includes no less than 35 singles that topped the Billboard country chart during the ’70s and ’80s, Milsap had never been asked to record a gospel album.
“When I was doing mainstream country, there was no way that an executive was going to ask you to do a gospel album,” he said. The opportunity ultimately stemmed from his involvement in How Great Thou Art: Gospel Favorites From the Grand Ole Opry, a multi-artist collection that also features Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins and Vince Gill, among others. For his contribution, Milsap chose to record a Thomas A. Dorsey song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” The project is nominated for special event album of the year at the Gospel Music Association’s 40th annual Dove Awards taking place April 23 in Nashville.
“They put the album out, and it’s done real well,” Milsap said. “Then all of a sudden, my manager, Burt Stein, calls me and says, ‘Would you be interested in doing a gospel album?’”
Executives at the EMI Christian Music Group, which released the album, specifically asked him to record a new version of “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.” When he got to the studio, Milsap found himself approaching the song from a much different perspective.
“My spirit is in a totally different place than it was in 1977 when I recorded the original,” he said. “It was great to sing it. It’s more or less where I am right now — which is much farther along. I don’t know, my spirit is a lot freer and a lot more mature now.”
Born into poverty in rural North Carolina, Milsap’s early experiences with church would be enough to leave permanent emotional scars on many people. Raised by his grandparents, he was just a child when he was taken to revivals as his family sought a miracle cure for his blindness. Some at the revivals claimed that his lack of faith prevented him from being cured.
“I had to really learn about that as I grew older — what their intentions were,” he explained. “It wasn’t so much my grandparents. It was other people with the church where we were. They wanted that to happen so much.”
At age 6, he was sent to the State School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C., where his education and faith truly began.
“My faith got started slowly,” he said. “By the time I got 400 miles away in Raleigh and was around other blind children going through an educational process — academically, musically and all kinds of other ways — I discovered in Bible studies what I think the truth really was for me. I started developing my own faith, knowing that a lot of folks meant well. Maybe miracles do happen today. I’ve never seen any. But actually, talking to you right now and being alive today, that’s a miracle in itself. I eventually learned to find my way and basically forgive anybody. They didn’t mean any harm.
“Back in the rural Smoky Mountains, my mother didn’t want me because [she thought] I was a curse from God from some sin that she had done. She didn’t want a blind child, and I grew up with my grandparents. But, you know, you’ve got to get past all that. I passed all of that many, many, many years ago. … I think you have to in order to have peace of mind and for your spirit to develop.”
Milsap appears to have few serious regrets in his life or career, although he has some interesting things to say about the days “before crossovers started affecting my life” and the pressures that followed.
“I was signed to RCA to be a country singer,” he explained. “The first six albums, I was really true to that. We kept selling more records and doing well, and then all of a sudden you hit a big song like ‘Almost Like a Song’ — a million-seller single — and your sales skyrocket. There was a big tradeoff in having the crossover. Then you’re really not just a country singer anymore. At that time, they came up with this strategy that you become a multi-format artist. Today, you can sell multi-platinum and still stay within the country format. At that time, the only way to sell big numbers was to become a multi-format artist, so you’re big on the AC charts, you’re big on the CHR … and you’re No. 1 in country and real high — Top 5 or so — on the pop charts. That was the way to sell multi-platinum then.
“When I came to town, I was managed by Jack Johnson, who was Charley Pride‘s manager. His idea for me to be a country singer fulfilled a dream I had always had. I wanted to live in Nashville. I wanted to sing country. There have been many diversions that have kind of happened along the way, but I think in this gospel album, I got to do all the elements of who I am. I had 12 years of classical music as a child, playing piano competitions as a teenager, playing in blues bands and rock ‘n’ roll bands, country and jazz bands. I played in about any situation. With this gospel album, I just got to be me. We did it so quickly, I didn’t really have much time to do anything else but just follow my instincts.”
As for those early days in Nashville, he says, “I was delusional enough to think, ‘Hey, if I can get a hit record, I can get some good-paying jobs on the road. Does anybody really make money on these royalties?’”
Milsap notes that Tom Collins, who produced his early hits on RCA, had a vision of him sticking to his country roots.
“I just loved that time,” Milsap said. “Of course, that’s more traditional country, and we know that doesn’t sell anything anymore.”
He pauses for a moment before adding, “That song, ‘Murder on Music Row.’ That’s for real, man.”