Milsap is the newest inductee to the Country Music Hall of Fame and his career has had 40 No. 1 hits and he’s sold more than 35 million records. He’s won eight CMA awards, six Grammys and is a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
He’s the voice behind all those songs that once you hear them, you won’t forget them: “(There’s) No Getting Over Me,” “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “Pure Love,” “Night Things,” “It Was Almost Like a Song” (also the title of his autobiography published in 1990), “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” and the boundary pushing (for 1983 that is!) “Stranger in My House.” Milsap had guitarist Bruce Dees infuse bits of Grand Funk’s classic-rock landmark “We’re An American Band” into the solo section — a move that had many radio stations of the time balking.
Time would prove Milsap’s artistic judgment to be correct when “Stranger” won a Best Country Song Grammy for songwriter Mike Reid.
“When we play live shows today, people still want that song,” Milsap said. Songwriter Reid and Milsap had 12 No. 1 songs together and Milsap is recording new music from Reid for his upcoming album of duets. Reid, born in Altoona, Pa., played football at Penn State, then with the Cincinnati Bengals and in 1974 headed to Nashville to focus on a music career.
“He’s an awesome songwriter and a classically trained pianist like I am,” Milsap said in a phone interview from Nashville on Thursday afternoon.
Milsap who was born blind, said he always knew he was “going to do something like this in music,” but if his high school counselor had his way, he would have been Ronnie Milsap, attorney at law.
“(He) told me I couldn’t (be a professional musician). It’s too challenging,” Milsap said. But as his counselor was discouraging that path, Milsap got on a plane to Atlanta to see Ray Charles in concert. He managed to get back stage and into Ray’s dressing room where he sat down at his piano and started playing. When Charles came in, Milsap told him he wanted to be a professional musician. “So play me a song!” he said to Milsap.
“He said, ‘You love music, don’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘You ought to think about becoming a professional musician’,” Milsap recalled. Back at school, he told his counselor what Ray Charles and had said, but he didn’t offer any encouragement. Milsap attended a junior college (now a university) in Georgia.
“The plan was to go to college and study pre-law then go to law school,” Milsap said. “My counselor said if you don’t do that then maybe you can become a political science teacher. I was fortunate and I had a teacher that was pretty good. His name was Zell Miller and he eventually became the governor of Georgia. He had such charisma and magnetic appeal, and I thought being a political science teacher might not be so bad. But music won out!”
While in Atlanta, he met the woman who would become his wife and on Oct. 30 he and Joyce will celebrate their 50th anniversary.
“When it works, there’s nothing like it,” Milsap said of his marriage. They met at a dinner party and he said “It was love at first sound.”
They moved to Memphis and through his music connected with Chips Moman, who put him to work on several Elvis Presley sessions. Specific instructions from Elvis recording on “Kentucky Rain” — “Hey, more thunder on the piano, Milsap!” — still ring in Ronnie’s ears.
When they moved to Nashville, at Joyce’s suggestion, he got a gig at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Hotel, playing in the roof-top show room. There, he met country singer Charley Pride’s manager. “He said, ‘I want to manage you’,” Milsap said. “He got me a deal with RCA and I started making records and everything came together and got better and got better until here we are today!”
Last fall, Milsap, 71, launched the three-year A Legend in My Time Tour. When I asked if this could be his final tour, he said, “I don’t really know. It could be. I certainly would like to keep going.” He does about 100 or so shows a year now, “that’s a lot different from back in the day when we did 250 to 300 a year. All I had time for was to be in the studio and then get on the bus,” he said.
A duets project is in the works. He recently joined Hunter Hayes on stage at Hayes’ sold-out Ryman debut where they performed “Stranger in My House.” For the duets album, he has recorded that song with Luke Bryan. Jason Aldean and Keith Urban are two others who will join him on the album.
“Some of the songs will be my hits, some I found from my friend Mike Reid,” Milsap said.
Milsap’s son, Todd, is in Nashville and works with him coordinating special projects.
Milsap has no target release date for the duets project. “I wish I knew when. I know it will be when I think it’s ready,” he said. ” I’m not going to let it go until it’s perfect. … These records are forever and they need to be really good.”
In his spare time, Milsap enjoys amateur (ham) radio and “becoming more knowledgeable about computers,” he said.
For his Charles Town show, Milsap plans to bring his “secret weapon” — his band.
“I’ll sing just about anything anyone wants to hear,” he said. “I’ve got a great band. I love playing with them. I call them my ‘secret weapon’. Anytime we have to open or close for any artist, everyone better watch out because this band is so strong. Most of them have been with me about 30 years.”
Upcoming show at The Event Center:
Aug. 21 — 9 p.m., Creedence Clearwater Revisited
Sept. 6 — 7 p.m. Anthony Hamilton
Sept. 12 — 8 p.m. Frank Caliendo
Sept. 18 — 9 p.m. Laugh for the Cure With Paul Reiser
Oct. 3 — 8 p.m. Rain — A Tribute to the Beatles
Oct. 11 — 7 p.m. The Isley Brothers