Monday, November 2, 2015

Interview Flashback- Ronnie Milsap Returns To His Gospel Roots

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in August of 2009 on The 9513. 

Country music doesn’t have another story quite like the one of Ronnie Milsap.  Born without sight and into extreme poverty in the Appalachian town of Robbinsville, NC, his success is one of the true amazing stories of the American dream.  Ronnie’s mother, unwilling to accept his blindness, gave him to his grandparents at the tender of age of one.  At age six, Ronnie was sent away from the only family he knew and went to the Governor Moorehead State School for the Blind in Raleigh.  He would find his refuge and release in music.  Given classical music training as part of his education, he immersed himself in the gospel, country and R&B music he was hearing on the radio.  It was this musical gumbo that served him well when his own musical journey across that same radio began.  In an almost unbelievable tally, Ronnie has had more top country hits than anyone except George Strait and the late Conway Twitty.  Over his career, Ronnie has sold more than 25 million records and has had 40 #1 hits.  Forty.  His mantle also includes seven Grammy Awards, four Academy of Country Music Awards  and eight Country Music Association Awards.  Milsap’s biggest hits include “It Was Almost Like A Song,”  “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me”, “Lost In The Fifties Tonight”, “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World”, “Any Day Now”, and “Stranger In My House” among many others.  Enter 2009, and the legendary artist is back with his first foray into gospel music with Then Sings My Soul.  While unlikely to achieve much radio airplay, the album proves to everyone who hears it that Milsap’s beautiful voice is still alive and well into the 21st century.  And who knows, a musical collaboration being released next month with Trace Adkins just might result in Milsap’s historic voice floating across those radio waves once more…

Ken Morton, Jr.- You were originally readying to study law at Emory University before a chance encounter with Ray Charles changed your career path I understand.  Tell me that story.

Ronnie Milsap- I was told by my friends who were trying to guide my education (I had a scholarship to go to college) and my counselors told me that I needed to do something other than music.  This was although I had twelve years of classical music training in school.  They said, “You can’t be a musician because you will fail.  You’ll be out on the street.  And not only that, you’ll be a liability to the State.  You need to study something academic so you’ll have a real job.”  So I guessed I would go to law school.  While I was in junior college, after the first year, there was a Ray Charles show in Atlanta and I went to that show.  Immediately, I said that I needed to find a way to get backstage and meet Ray Charles.  We were told that there wasn’t any way that we would ever get to go backstage and meet Mr. Charles.  But [Ray Charles’] pilot heard that story and took us back to Ray’s dressing room.  Ray was finishing his show and came in afterwards.  He met with his friends for 25 or 30 minutes and then [the pilot] told him, “There’s one more person who wants to meet you, Ray.”  I said, “Mr. Ray Charles, my name is Ronnie Milsap and I love your music.  I emulate what you do and I’ve bought all the records I could find of yours that you’ve recorded.  I’m at a little dilemma in my life.  I want to be in the music business but all my counselors at school tell me I need to go on to law school.”  There was a piano in the dressing room, which was convenient, and he told me to go play something.  So I played him three songs and after that there was about a ten second pause.  He said, “You know, you can become a lawyer if you want to, but there’s a lot of music in your heart.  And if I was you, I’d follow what my heart tells me to do.”  So that was my endorsement from Ray Charles.  It was the beginning of a long long friendship with Ray Charles.   I met with him a couple years later.  I had a record out that was a top five on the Billboard charts called “I Never Had It So Good.”  He said, “I love that record.  Ronald, that is one great record.”  Ronald.  He always called me Ronald.  “Ronald, I really do love that record, but you know what I really love is that B side.”  And the B side was a song called “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”  We thought at first that after we had a hit on the A side of the record, we’d flip the record and possibly get a hit on the B side of the record-
which is what you did in those days.  We’d flip that 45 and perhaps get a hit on the B side.  Ray actually recorded “Let’s Go Get Stoned” so I never ever released it.  It’s really interesting, though.  Here I am singing all these Ray Charles songs while I’m growing up and all of a sudden, he records the B side of my record!  (laughter)  

KMJ- That’s a beautiful story.  Not too many people can have that validation of their music so early in life by such a legend in the industry.  

RM- After that, I became active in the music business in Atlanta.  I met the girl that I’m married- still married to.  We’re coming up on 44 years of marriage.  We lived in Atlanta for awhile and then we moved to Memphis.  A record producer convinced me to move to Memphis.  He said that if I’d move to Memphis, he’d get me to play on all these sessions and sing on these records.  And he convinced us to move to Memphis.  We were there for four years and I really must say that’s the training period where I learned how records were made and how records were produced.  I was piano playing in the studio getting to play on different records for artists that would come through.  I got to play on two albums with Elvis.  And I got to know him real well.  I played private parties for him.  It was really an interesting time.  But then finally I decided that I wasn’t really making it in the music business.  I kept thinking what happened if they were right and I was going to have to go back to law school.  My wife said, “Well, we haven’t tried Nashville yet.”  And I had made friends in Nashville.  We were encouraged to come here by my friend, Charley Pride.  He had heard me sing and said that I needed to move to Nashville.  We finally made the move here and I got a job early at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel in their showroom which was on the roof at that hotel.  So I did that five nights a week and I would work recording during the week.  I sent demos around and then RCA signed me and we had the first single come out in April of 1973.  It was a top ten and the second record. “That Girl Who Waits on Tables”, was a top five.  We didn’t get a number one until the spring of 1974 with a song called “Pure Love.”  

KMJ- You have a brand new album out this year.  After 40 years in the music business, what made you do a gospel album?

RM- Well, I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.  Fans had talked about this.  They would ask all the time when I was going to record a gospel album.  Imagine going into a record label and sitting down to talk with the director and marketing and promotions and mention that you wanted to do a gospel album.  They would always say, “No.”  They would talk about your formula and that you were on this track.  We were selling a lot of records.  We were having number one records.  They would ask, “Why would we want to change this formula?”  That’s basically what I was told for years.  “We can’t do it because we’re too successful at what you’re doing.”  Eventually, I got a chance to do this album.  Folks called from EMI and they wanted this thing to happen so much.  They asked if I could put together a list of songs that would work.  I got together with their folks and got together a list of songs that everyone was happy about.  We were in the studio for eight days and cut 24 songs.  It’s a 2 CD set.  It’s the most fun recording experience that I’ve ever had.  

KMJ- It’s a mixture of classic hymns, but also a couple of new songs.  How did you go about selecting music for this album?

RM- I basically just picked the songs that I knew- the ones that I wouldn’t have to do much study on.  Most of us, the first time we ever sang, we sang in church.  That’s when I sang first publically.  This was long before I performed with a piano or a guitar- I still sang in church.  So a lot of these songs like “Softly and Tenderly” and “I’ll Fly Away” and “The Old Rugged Cross”, I already knew.  Because they’re indelible
in your mind and in your heart.   And we were also fortunate to find three new songs that we liked a lot.  We kept tweaking the repertoire until we were all happy with it.  

KMJ- Looking back on your career, do you feel it worthy of being a member of the Country Music Hall Of Fame eventually?

RM- Well, sure!  I’m sure that will happen at some point.  I really do think so.  That’s certainly a long process and whenever that comes along, that will be really great.  

KMJ- Do you think that some of your crossover songs leaning more R&B and pop helps or hurts your cause- does it have any impact on your selection at all?

RM- I don’t know.  I know one thing.  We discovered one that if we were ever to sell big numbers, it was beyond the country landscape.  You can stay within the country community today and go platinum.  But in my day, in the 70’s and 80’s, the way to go platinum and double-platinum was to be visible on several charts.  The adult contemporary, the CHR, the pop charts were all important.  I was told by the record company that because I could do it, I should be a multi-format artist.  The payoff is that you sell a lot more records than if you sing just traditional country songs.  But it’s still country music.  That’s what we did.  And my record stands for itself.  In my mind, it gave me a chance artistically to do the type of records that I wanted to do and to experiment with different ways to get Ronnie Milsap’s country music into other formats.  I was an adult-contemporary artist of the year for several years and I can’t say whether that hurts or helps.  But I know that it did what the record label wanted and that was to sell lots of records.  

KMJ- You have a new musical collaboration with Capitol’s Trace Adkins called “My First Ride” coming out in September.  Tell me about that new song.  

RM- It’s an interesting thing.  I’m constantly looking for new songs- always deciding what I want to do next.  I have a lady friend of mine named Mila Mason who was a major label artist at one time and she goes into publishing companies looking for songs and brings them over here.  My producer and I go over this material and we heard this song, “My First Ride.”  She was really high on this song.  I didn’t think it was the typical record I would make.  She said, “Yeah, but you really know how to make this type of record.”  And she’s right.  Yes I do.  So I called Trace and asked him to sing on the record with me.  He said, “You just tell me when and where.”  Trace is a good friend and he said, “I’ve always wanted to sing on something with you.”  So we put it together and we’ll see what happens.  It’s a stand-alone single right now and kind of an experiment to see how this is received.  I’ve got real big plans if this works.  I want to be part of this new music revolution.  

KMJ- What’s your thoughts on the current country music landscape?  What sort of artists are you fans of?

RM- There’s a lot of great country artists out there right now.  Carrie Underwood is incredible.  George Strait continues to make hit records all the time.  Keith Urban is absolutely one of the greatest people in the business- he’s such a sweet man.  There are a lot of great artists out there.  I do believe that every generation should make their own type of music.  Country music today is representative of what this generation is.  There are a lot of talented people out there doing really well.  

KMJ- What else are you hoping to accomplish musically?  What other goals do you have career-wise?

RM- I certainly am interested in this new way of getting music out.  It’s just not going to be on a CD or a traditional album.  It may eventually get stored on a beer mug.  Who knows what the possibilities might be?  You can store music on just about anything.  A card.  People are on the computer downloading just the music that they want.  I do a lot of that myself.  But I still buy CD’s.  I still want a hard copy rather than downloading it on the computer.  But who knows how much longer that will be around?  I’m just going to continue making that music that thrills me.  I think that I can really enjoy it and continue to make wonderful music and entertain people at the shows and make music with this wonderful band that I have on the road.  It’s hard to see past that.  

KMJ- What is country music to Ronnie Milsap?

RM- Country music to Ronnie Milsap is much more traditional I would say than country music of today.  My roots are deep in Appalachia.  Now I’ve certainly proven that over the years you can mix in a little R&B and rock and pop in the middle of it so I guess I’m a little mixture of all those kinds of things.  But basically I’m more rooted in traditional country music than one might think.  

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