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A Legend in His Time

"Smoky Mountain Rain." "Any Day Now." "I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World." And my dad and I aren’t the only ones who’ve been blessed by his talent. This Grammy-winning country singer—born blind and raised amid poverty in the hills of North Carolina—rode a wave of early-’80s crossover success that broadened his pedal-steel fan base. Just recently, Ronnie released his first gospel album, Then Sings My Soul. We chatted about that new two-disc set, as well as his storied career, which began with a serendipitous encounter.

Before we get to your latest CD, let’s go back to the beginning. How did you decide to pursue music, and what do you remember about breaking into the business?
I was told by my instructors and counselors in school to become a lawyer, because I had done well academically. I qualified for a scholarship to college, so I was on my way to being a lawyer. Halfway through my two years at Young Harris College, I met Ray Charles at a concert. I got backstage into his dressing room, thanks to his pilot. I told him, "I’m in a dilemma. I really want to be in music. I’ve had 12 years of classical training, but I’ve been told I have to do this academic thing." There was a piano in the dressing room, and Ray said, "Play me something." So I played him three songs. His comment was, "Well, you can be a lawyer, son, if you want to, but there’s a lot of music in your heart. If I were you, I would follow what my heart tells me to do." That felt like an endorsement from Ray Charles, so I started making records. My first effort was a single for Florence Greenberg at Scepter Records. This lady said, "Ronnie Milsap can be a big R&B singer." Well, this first single comes out and it’s a Top 5 record.

What song was that?
"Never Had It So Good," written by Ashford and Simpson. Then my wife and I—we’ve been married 43 years—moved from Atlanta to Memphis where I could be closer to a producer I’d met named Chips Moman. I got to play in sessions for him, do jingles during the day at another place, and play at a nightclub at night. During those Memphis years, I got to play on a lot of hits for other artists, and worked on a couple of albums with Elvis. I never thought I’d meet him, much less get to play on his records. I only released singles until 1971, when I did my first album with Warner Bros.

Is it true that when you were young you were taken from one church revival to the next in hopes that God would perform a miracle and heal your blindness?
Yeah. I grew up with my grandparents, because my mother didn’t want a blind child. She thought it was a curse and a punishment from God. Members of the church would drive me to healing tent meetings and that kind of thing. I wasn’t healed, but I was not discouraged by that. My faith was still very, very strong. And by then I was in school in Raleigh, at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, which gave me everything that I needed to learn to really be a responsible person.

As you reflect on your life, can you see how God has blessed you in the midst of your blindness, and maybe even allowed it for some greater purpose?
I definitely think so, and I feel like that’s my purpose for being here. People say what I do inspires them. You know, Bob, I’m just living my daily life like you are. I’m just doing something slightly different than most people do.

You’ve always tried to make people feel at ease, even joking about your blindness. You used to do a bit in concert where you’d come to the edge of the stage—you know the one I mean?
Yeah (laughing). I would come right to the edge of the stage and ask somebody in my band, "How much further have I got out here?" And they’d say, "Oh, you go on, you’ve got about 20 more feet." Then I would stop and say, "Well, I don’t know if I believe them. Maybe I can trust them as far as I can see them."

It was always a good icebreaker, though everyone would get a little nervous when you climbed on your piano.
Oh yeah, absolutely. That was kind of fun to do. That was a thrill for me, because you’d jump up there, throw your arms way up to the heavens, and jump down. It is show business, isn’t it Bob?

You bet. Ronnie, I’ve noticed that individual country singers tend to have a thematic thread that runs through their lyrics. Some gravitate toward songs about honky-tonks and alcohol. For others it’s cheating songs, and so on. You chose not to go down those roads. Why is that?
I wanted to sing a more positive message. By doing "Pure Love," "Daydreams About Night Things" and "Let My Love Be Your Pillow" at a time when a lot of folks were singing honky-tonk songs … Well, for one thing I’m not into alcohol. It’s just never been part of my lifestyle. So I always took a different path.

Let’s talk about your brand-new release, Then Sings My Soul. What made this the right time to release a collection of hymns and gospel favorites?
We had the right band, the right team of engineers, the right producer. We’d selected all these songs arranged by Carol Tornquist, who came to my house and showed me a new way to play some of these traditional songs. I always knew I was going to do this project. I just didn’t know when. We’re starting to move some of these songs into our concerts. Perhaps it comes to a place where some concerts focus on these songs. I don’t know where this is leading. But if it’s intended for me to do that, I certainly will.

This is a great collection. You even gave the old Ben E. King hit "Stand By Me" an explicitly spiritual spin. Of these 24 tracks, do you have any favorites?
It’s always interesting when I get asked that question. They’re kinda like children; you love them all for a different reason. The most exciting thing to me is an uptempo new song called "Up to Zion," a song of hope and celebration. I love that one a lot. You mentioned "Stand By Me." We also did "People Get Ready." And there’s a song on there called "World of Wonder," which I first heard on the local classical station. I immediately streamed it on my computer and learned it, because it really seemed to fit me.

Your 1981 album There’s No Gettin’ Over Me includes the song "Jesus Is Your Ticket to Heaven." What inspired you to include it, and did anyone try to tell you that a boldly "religious" song had no place on a mainstream album?
Yeah, I got some resistance on that. But I loved the song so much, recording it was such a joy to do. I actually had it in my Las Vegas stage show. Many people came backstage, including several people from the Jewish faith, and said, "You know what? That is my favorite part of the show, because and I can tell what you believe. You sound like you really mean it." But folks at the record company didn’t want to proceed with that as a single record because I’m in the middle of having a million-selling single. We had finished the album, and all of a sudden we discovered this song. I said, "We have go to go back into the studio and cut that." I called the head of RCA, and he said "Hey Milsap, don’t you know we’re in the middle of actually shipping out your single now? We’re stuffing envelopes over here."

You’ve recorded some very upbeat love songs, but a specialty of yours has been heartache and lost love. How did that become so central to your repertoire?
People tell me you actually have to live it to sing it. You know, Bob, if that were true, I would probably be a nervous wreck by now. I’ve been fortunate to have a wonderful family, three grandchildren … Things are really great. But I think I’ve lived it through people I have been around. A lot of it has been by listening to other people’s music, [such as] the blues, and music that came out of New Orleans. Nashville is a songwriter’s town. You can get pretty much whatever you’re looking for by going to a really great songwriter and letting them try it.

The blues can be therapeutic to a point—it’s great to know someone understands your pain—but there’s a risk of getting stuck in a loop of misery that sort of feeds on itself. At what point is it healthy to put the blues aside and forge ahead?
I go through those times. By playing live shows I get a chance to play something that might be slightly dark, but at the same time I get to turn the page and play something else that really makes me happy. I never stay in one place very long. As life is, I need a turn of the page every so often in order to keep moving forward, and moving forward is what it’s all about.

In the early ’80s, country music really crossed over. Artists such as you, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Alabama and Eddie Rabbitt were scoring pop hits. How did things change for you at that point?
You can stay inside the country format and sell platinum today, but in the ’80s you couldn’t. I thought it was kinda fun that they wanted me to stretch and try that. There were traditionalists who, when "Stranger in My House" went on the radio, started editing the guitar solo out because it sounded too much like Led Zeppelin or something. A few radio stations said they couldn’t play it because it didn’t fit their repertoire or the demographic of their audience. But they eventually did play it. That crossover success turned out to be a big deal over at RCA, for sure. Still, I am who I am. I understand that music changes, styles change, the whole look changes. Now it’s all about the beautiful people, being thin, looking great.

I know there are people out there with big dreams who also have big hurdles to clear, like you did. Or maybe there’s a mom or dad hurting for a child with a disability. What would you say to them?
Well, for parents dealing with children with special needs, I pray for them. Being good parents is usually all you need to do. If you have a mother and a father and a complete home, that is a true blessing in today’s society. I think its all about family. By being part of a complete, strong family you can pretty well endure anything.

As you look back over a long, successful career, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud, I could say right now, of my family. They have seen me through good days: days of sunshine, days of joy and pride in what you do, walking tall. They are also there with you through the days of darkness, and we all have a few of those occasionally. My wife. My son, Todd. Now my grandchildren. My family is the thing I’m most proud of.

Published March 2009