Longtime fans of Ronnie Milsap needn’t worry about what’s implied by the title of his new album, Country Again. No adjustment of expectations is called for.
Milsap has always been country in his sensibilities — in his love for narratives and scenes of wounded hearts — even when his medium was pop, rock ‘n’ roll or R&B.
More to the point, however, is the fact he has developed such a powerful, warm and emotionally-embracing vocal style that it seems petty to reduce him to a particular musical category.
So forget “country again” and think “Milsap again.” That’s the real triumph of this album.
Speaking to CMT.com from his office in Nashville, Milsap credits Eddie Stubbs, the WSM-AM disc jockey and resident music historian, with inspiring him to record a distinctively country album.
“He said, ‘We need you to do that,’” Milsap recalls. When Stubbs agreed to serve as his executive producer, Milsap consented. After that, it was a matter of finding the right songs and securing a record label for the project.
Country Again is on the Bigger Picture label, which also includes the Zac Brown Band on its roster.
Citing his “Appalachian roots” — he was born and educated in North Carolina — Milsap says he’s always been “emotionally tied” to country music.
“I love singing it,” he declares. “It’s what I came to Nashville to do in 1973. I was very fortunate to have a manager like Jack D. Johnson, who had managed the great Charley Pride. He got me a record deal with RCA and was very helpful in the early years of my development as an artist.”
Born blind, Milsap studied music in a state school for the blind from the time he was 7. He eventually became proficient in several styles, including classical.
Before his move to Nashville, Milsap had worked in Memphis, playing everything from private parties to recording sessions with Elvis Presley. He backed Presley on his 1970 hit, “Kentucky Rain,” and remembers the King shouting out to him during that session, “Hey, Milsap, some more thunder on the piano.”
In Music City, he got a steady gig playing piano and singing at the King of the Road hotel, a popular hangout for both tourists and musical types.
“I finally had something that everybody told me I needed to have if I was going to move to Nashville,” he says. “I had a job. I didn’t have to live in my car or sleep out in somebody’s yard, although I would have. I quite honestly would have.”
He stayed with his King of the Road job until after he got a record deal and went on the road as a member of Pride’s show.
One of Johnson’s first moves when he took over Milsap’s career was to set up a demo session so he could record songs to shop to a record label.
“We cut three songs that day — ‘I Hate You,’ ‘(Altogether Now) Let’s Fall Apart’ and ‘That Girl Who Waits on Tables,’” Milsap recalls. “Jerry Bradley at RCA told Jack, ‘I know Ronnie Milsap. He’s a rock singer and a blues singer. I’ve heard him over in Memphis. But he’s not a country singer.’ Jack played the tape, and Bradley said, ‘You know what? That SOB can sing country.”
Having arrived at that conclusion, Bradley, who then headed RCA’s country division, signed the young artist.
All three demos Milsap recorded that day would go on to chart as singles, with “I Hate You” reaching No. 10 and “That Girl Who Waits on Tables” topping out at No. 11.
It was Bradley’s successor, Joe Galante, Milsap says, who persuaded him to be a “multi-format artist,” one who could chart in pop and adult contemporary as well as country and, thus, sell more albums.
It worked. Milsap’s records did break into other formats, even as his strong suit remained country. Between 1974 and 1989, he scored 35 No. 1 country singles which had the effect of regularly boosting his albums to gold, platinum and multiplatinum sales levels.
“Today, you can stay inside the country format and still sell gold and platinum,” Milsap speculates. “I want to give it another try.”
Country Again is a strong move in that direction. It is a combination of mostly new songs and a few covers, notably “Cry, Cry Darling” (a 1954 hit for Jimmy C. Newman), “For a Minute There” (which Johnny Paycheck took to No. 12 in 1975) and “You’re the Reason I’m Living” ( a No. 3 pop hit for its composer, Bobby Darin, in 1963).
“‘Cry, Cry Darling’ I’d had a feel for [when I was] playing [it on] the piano around the house,” Milsap says. “I thought, ‘I need to try this in the studio with a band.’ ‘For a Minute There’ I’d wanted to cut since I first heard it in 1974.
“One morning I woke up in Houston. I put my headphones on to listen to the radio, and that song came on by Johnny Paycheck. … I said, ‘You know what that sounds like? It’s another way of saying [what Hank Williams said], ‘Today I passed you on the street/And my heart fell at your feet/I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.’ … So I’ve thought about cutting that song for years.”
A couple of minor country artists covered “You’re the Reason I’m Living” in the ’70s, but neither took it far up the charts. Milsap offers a slow, dreamy version of the Darin song, complete with a plinking piano and swelling “countrypolitan” vocal chorus.
“That is so easy to sing,” he says, “so much fun to sing. Why wouldn’t you do that?”
The title song, most of which Milsap recites, envisions a radically different future in which country music alone emerges unchanged.
Appropriately, Milsap includes a song co-written by Jack Clement, another of his early mentors, called “Trapped in an Old Country Song.”
The first single from the album is Robert White Johnson and Jimmie Lee Sloas’ “If You Don’t Want Me To (The Freeze).”
Milsap co-produced the album with his regular musical collaborator and friend of 45 years, Rob Galbraith.
“We’d come over here and sit in my office, usually every Wednesday afternoon, and talk about what songs have survived,” Milsap explains, who says he already had around 1,500 songs on his computer that had been submitted for an earlier album.
To supplement those already in hand, Milsap sent out his assistant, singer-songwriter Mila Mason, to turn up more potential “Milsap songs.” From this vast array of possibilities, he and Galbraith chose to record 12.
Milsap has already worked some of the new songs into his stage shows, but he says he has a more immediate goal in mind.
“What I’m really looking forward to now that I’ve got a country album out [is having] plenty of new songs to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.”
How country is that!