Country soul titan Ronnie Milsap preps new duets album and tour dates
Revered country soul ambassador Ronnie Milsap is poised to unleash his next round of U.S. tour dates in a city near you. Speaking by phone from his Nashville, Tennessee home, the talented blind piano extraordinaire candidly reveals an auspicious message for folks debating whether or not to catch his patented melting pot brew of country, soul, pop, rock, and gospel in person.
“My show is outstanding because my band is so good,” declares Milsap. “The crew and the band have all been with me 30-plus years and know exactly what their job is. They know everything I’ve ever recorded. We can put together a loose setlist, but we also leave it open to say, ‘Hey, what do you folks wanna hear?’
“Every time we play the team always wins every single time. My bass player, Warren Gower, is from Augusta, Georgia, and has been in my band for at least 35 years. He holds the record. I know him, he knows me, and I love that guy. Warren is really a sweet person and very, very talented. He’s got the magic hands.”
Before the gracious artist became a household name, he was a struggling rhythm and blues minded singer who uprooted his family from their Atlanta home at the instigation of American Sound Studios producer Chips Moman. Milsap was determined to make a name for himself in the bustling musical kaleidoscope of Memphis.
The seeds of that long sought after dream were cultivated when Milsap was invited to sit in on the King of Rock and Roll’s heralded 1969 Memphis sessions. “The first day I went down to the studio, Elvis cut future star Eddie Rabbitt’s “Kentucky Rain”, which became a million-selling record,” confirms Milsap.
“While we were recording it, Elvis kept saying, ‘More thunder on the piano, Milsap’ [laughs]. “You can also hear me on the high vocal harmony part.” Besides “Kentucky Rain,” Milsap can be detected on Presley’s devastatingly fragile hit rendering of Mac Davis’s “Don’t Cry Daddy” and a soul-drenched, cleverly orchestrated cover of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind.”
“Elvis was the voice of my generation,” adds the humble entertainer. “I was listening to him on the radio when he released his great Sun records with Scotty Moore on electric guitar and Bill Black on bass. I enjoyed him even more once Colonel Parker got him the deal with RCA. The records he made in Nashville with the Jordanaires were just incredible.”
Between 1973 and 1992, Milsap experienced 52 Top 20 hit singles on Billboard, starting with the regret-laden, stone country “I Hate You.” Of those, 35 climbed to the highly coveted number one position, placing the musician third on the all-time list behind George Strait and Conway Twitty.
Six singles, including “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” “Any Day Now,” and “Stranger in My House,” crossed over into the Pop Top 40 before that innovative feat was commonplace. “Whenever I hear any of my hits come on, all I can do is just smile and think, ‘Damn boy, we had a good time, a great song, and everything worked out,’” Milsap modestly reflects.
The born and bred North Carolinian is putting the finishing touches on his upcoming 28th studio album, a duets-laden project that will feature Luke Bryan [i.e. “Stranger in My House”], Jason Aldean [“Prisoner of the Highway”], Little Big Town [“Lost in the Fifties Tonight”], the late Leon Russell [“Misery Loves Company”], Willie Nelson, and others.
“My duet with Willie is a new song that Mike Reid wrote called ‘A Woman’s Love’,” says Milsap. “He and I had 12 number one records together in the ’80s like ‘Stranger in My House’ and ‘Old Folks.’ I sent ‘A Woman’s Love’ to Willie. He told me, ‘I love the song.’ So he sang and played guitar on it in his home studio. Willie’s got such a unique acoustic guitar style. It’s great. He plays all the solos at his live shows. That’s the way [laughs].
“I think the album is pretty far along. It probably will not come out until next year, but it will be a good one. It’s gonna be on a label called G Force. This gentleman wanted to finance everything so I said, ‘Hey, it sounds good to me.’
How does the keyboard maestro feel about the commercial disappointment of his last studio album, 2014’s critically acclaimed Summer Number Seventeen? “I was sorely upset that Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog division which controls my classic material on RCA, didn’t promote the album properly.
“That’s why I talked to this guy who said, ‘Let me finance this new duets album you’re working on and see what I can do with it.’ I don’t have a better solution, so why not give him a try? Sony isn’t gonna promote anybody. I don’t think they have to. I’m most disappointed that there’s no RCA anymore. Everything is controlled by Sony basically. That’s a sad thing. I’d like for it to be more Americanized.”
In reading weekly editions of Billboard, it seems abundantly clear that 99% of artists’ album sales are going down the toilet and that the album format is a dead commodity walking. When posed this question, Milsap earnestly ponders, “What do we do?
“People say there’s no money in music anymore. Everybody expects all the music now to be free. As long as they think it’s gotta be free, how are we gonna get paid? You have to care and be passionate about it, and I am. I don’t know how to do anything else. So if I don’t know how to do anything else, what do you think I’m gonna do? I’m gonna keep doing what I do. Albums will be back in fashion again.”
The “Smoky Mountain Rain” crooner has posted a smattering of shows on his official website, mostly indoors at theaters and casinos. In December 2014 press releases began circulating, reporting that Milsap intended to retire from touring. Does he still feel that way? “I don’t know how to feel about that. Do you think I should?” [This writer’s reply: “I sure hope you don’t”]. “I mean, what in the hell would I do? Just sit around the house? How much fun is that? If I still have the passion for this, let the bus roll and I’ll be on it.”
Milsap will never grow long in the tooth and senile as long as he keeps actively pursuing his creative muse. “Boy, I couldn’t agree more with you,” says the heart-tugging balladeer. “I don’t know how long it will last but Lord willing, I’ll keep chasing what I love.
“I don’t ever think about doing anything else because this is the only thing that really excites me. Every day is a great challenge, and every day is very fulfilling. I wake up every day and know something really good is gonna happen today. And it does.”