Ronnie Milsap takes Ryman fans on trip down memory lane

Ronnie Milsap

My father's list of favorite musical artists is well-represented in the record collection he passed on to me a few years before his death in 2010.

His affinity for Buck Owens along with George Jones and Merle Haggard is obvious as there are dozens of records by each of them in his collection. Not far behind on his "A" list were artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Charley Pride, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Dig a little deeper, and you'll collectively find dozens of albums by artists like Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Hank Snow along with a few lesser-knowns that were personal favorites like Gene Watson and Johnny Horton.

It isn't a particularly diverse collection - an Elvis Christmas album here, a collection of Fats Domino country covers there, some multi-artist compilations that sometimes strayed from classic country themes but probably contained a handful of hits he liked. Otherwise, his collection is a good representation of what was considered classic country from the early 50's through the late 80's.

A sure sign that you had done enough to warrant my father's approval as an artist, however, was the presence of at least one greatest hits album somewhere in the multi-level shelf that held most of his records. There are notable absences - Eddie Rabbit released 17 No. 1 hits between 1976 and 1989, and while I'm sure Dad appreciated some of them, it still was never enough to warrant even the purchase of a greatest hits collection. The group Alabama made the cut with my sister who had an album or two, but despite 33 No. 1 hits starting in the early 80's, they barely registered with my father. Ditto for Earl Thomas Conley (18 No. 1's) and Hank Williams, Jr. (10 No. 1 hits).

I can remember Dad even trying to talk me out of an album I wanted for my 11th birthday in 1983. He relented, though, and I couldn't wait to get home and give The Oak Ridge Boys' "American Made" album a spin. Dad had only a single album by the Oaks - an early gospel collection that predated their hit-making country career beginning in the late '70s. By the time "American Made" was released, the Oaks had released 15 Top 10 hits including six No. 1's, and none of them were good enough to make the cut with Dad. After a single spin of "American Made," I understood why; the two No. 1 singles ("Love Song" and the title cut) were good enough, but the rest of the album was filler that I'm not even certain I've ever listened to since.

No, when it came to classic country music, Dad had impeccable taste, and if an artist made the cut - even with a single greatest hits compilation - you could be sure they had earned their spot in his collection.

And in 1980, Ronnie Milsap finally made the cut.

The Legend Begins

Ronnie Lee Milsap was born on January 16, 1943, in Robbinsville, North Carolina, just across the Smoky Mountains from East Tennessee. He was almost completely blind at birth and was soon abandoned by his mother. He was raised by grandparents until the age of five, when he effectively became a ward of the state and was shipped off to the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. Soon after, he began to show signs of being a musical prodigy, and he eventually mastered several instruments including the piano. After briefly entertaining a career as an attorney while enrolled at Young Harris College in Georgia, Ronnie turned to music full-time setting him on a path that eventually led to 35 No. 1 hits, numerous industry awards and election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014. Not to mention my father's record collection.

The one and only album in my dad's possession by Ronnie was his first Greatest Hits compilation released in 1980. By then, the album was long overdue as Ronnie had already registered 21 Top 10 country hits with 15 of them going all the way to No. 1. That streak of success dated back to his first release targeted to country radio in 1973 - "Where My Heart Is," his debut on RCA. He had been recording since 1963, however, and spent part of that decade "Bubbling Under" on Billboard's Hot 100 with R&B titles like "Never Had It So Good" in 1965, "Denver" in 1969 and "A Rose by Any Other Name (Is Still a Rose)" in 1970. He even officially cracked the Hot 100 in 1970 reaching No. 87 with "Loving You Is a Natural Thing," foreshadowing his later country crossover success that would lead him to the upper reaches of both the country and pop charts.

By 1980, those early R&B singles were mostly forgotten, and Ronnie was already a former CMA Entertainer of the Year and well-established as one of the country genre's top hit makers. He even had three CMA Album of the Year awards by then, but despite a string of classic country hits like "(I'd B) A Legend In My Time," "Pure Love," "Daydreams About Night Things" and "It Was Almost Like A Song," there still wasn't a Ronnie Milsap album in my dad's collection. No, it would take a special song to really grab his attention, and among the 12 songs on that original Greatest Hits release was one new single delivered to radio in September, 1980. It quickly raced up the charts that fall peaking at the No. 1 spot in early December.

And Dad finally bought a Ronnie Milsap album.

Smoky Mountain Rain

"Smoky Mountain Rain" would prove to be one of Ronnie's most-enduring signature hits almost from the moment it was released as the only new single on that Greatest Hits album. A product of the Smoky Mountains himself, the song couldn't have been written for anybody but Ronnie, and the recording is memorable in part for recalling another song about rain in which he literally played a part. Elvis Presley's "Kentucky Rain" was recorded on February 19, 1969, at the American Sound Studio in Memphis. On the piano that day was a young musician named Ronnie Milsap, and he's responsible for the "thunder" you hear from the piano on the chorus. He also sang the high harmony parts on "Kentucky Rain" which only peaked at No. 31 on the country chart. It was in heavy rotation on pop radio, however, making it all the way to No. 16 on the Hot 100. It remains one of the King's most beloved singles.

Fast-forward a decade later, and Elvis was already gone at the age of 42 while Ronnie was just finishing up a decade in which he had become one of country music's biggest stars. On "Smoky Mountain Rain" he even found a way to pay tribute to that earlier record by Elvis replicating the thunder effect on the piano in the song's chorus.

While I know Dad loved that song, it's also quite possible by then that he was simply waiting for Ronnie to release a Greatest Hits album. Either way, it quickly became my favorite record, and soon, there were many Ronnie Milsap records in our house. Every year on my birthday or at Christmas, if there was a Milsap album I didn't have, yet, it would be under the tree or wrapped up on my birthday (as if I didn't already know what it was). Ronnie moved steadily away from classic country in the early 80's embracing his success as a crossover artist, and I'm sure that Greatest Hits album would have remained the only record that Dad would have bought. Not that he held it against Ronnie - I think he was fine with records like "Any Day Now" or "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me." But he was ultimately more drawn to those classic country sounds continuing to buy the latest releases by Willie, Jones and Haggard while eventually adding some new traditionalists like George Strait and Randy Travis.

For me, however, the only thing better than one of my old Ronnie Milsap records was a new Ronnie Milsap record. Back then, artists released records like clockwork - at least one a year throughout the 80's - and when I got old enough to buy my own records, I didn't even bother to wait for those gifts under the tree. I'd buy Ronnie's records as soon as they hit the store.

Ronnie at The Ryman

So it was a dream come true on Wednesday, January 16, when Ronnie Milsap played The Ryman Auditorium as the featured artist on WSM's Listener Appreciation Concert. I've seen him a few times now through the years - most recently on March 3, 2017, with the full backing of the Nashville Symphony at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. I saw him a few years prior to that at a casino in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and a few years earlier as the host of WSM's Midnight Jamboree. The Ryman, however, is the Mother Church of Country Music, and seeing Ronnie at the storied venue was, perhaps, the best show of them all.

Not that Ronnie is the vocal powerhouse he once was. On the same day that he turned 76 years old, the Ryman concert revealed an artist struggling at times to hang on to what remains of one of country music's most dynamic instruments - his own voice. It betrayed him a few times, including two occasions where he suffered a brief coughing spell in the middle of singing a line.

But the great artists learn to adapt and endure, and Ronnie was still worth more than the price of admission. Fans barely seemed to notice, and Ronnie treated them to a special medley of his No. 1 hits including songs like "Any Day Now," "What A Difference You've Made in My Life" and "She Keeps the Home Fires Burning." On a night when Little Big Town, Lucy Angel and Abby Anderson all made guest appearances, the audience was clearly filled with lifelong Ronnie Milsap fans. The audience even got its chance to shine by serenading the legendary artist with "Happy Birthday" during a surprise celebration to commemorate his birthday while also marking the occasion with the announcement that sales of Ronnie's albums had passed the 40 million mark.

That doesn't include sales of his latest album which will be officially released on Friday. Some copies were for sale at the concert, so just like the old days, I bought Ronnie's latest recording as soon as it was available. "Duets" features Ronnie's most recent collaborations with other legendary artists like Willie Nelson, George Strait and Dolly Parton, and in a nod to his influence on the current generation, there are also duets with Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Kacey Musgraves.

I couldn't help but think back to a day in 1983 when Ronnie Milsap visited Longview, Texas, for a concert at the legendary Reo Palm Isle. That afternoon he made an appearance to sign copies of his latest album "Keyed Up" at the local Wal-Mart. I bought a copy of his latest album that day, too, and Ronnie signed it for me. I remember him sipping on a Diet Coke, and I watched in awe as he felt with a finger for the opening in the top of the can. His helper essentially signed the album as Ronnie dutifully placed his hand on top of the other gentleman's hand and held on as the signature was completed. But it hardly mattered. I was in awe; in truth, I was also scared to death, and part of me was selfishly glad that Ronnie couldn't see me. At the same time, however, I was certain he was the coolest guy I had ever seen in person.

By then, Ronnie had registered another six No. 1 singles since the release of his Greatest Hits album three years earlier. He was in the midst of one of the all-time greatest hit streaks in country music with 10 straight singles rocketing to the top of the chart, and he played several of those at his Ryman show. One in particular seemed to connect with the crowd Wednesday night, and I thought of how much Dad would have enjoyed hearing the Ryman audience collectively singing along with every word of "I Wouldn't Have Missed It For the World."

Indeed, Ronnie Milsap. I wouldn't have missed it either.

Ronnie Milsap Ryman Set List, January 16, 2019

Prisoner of the Highway

He Got You/Any Day Now Medley

No. 1 Hits Medley (I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World/What A Difference You've Made in My Life/In Love/(There's No) Gettin' Over Me/Where Do The Nights Go/Don't You Know How Much I Love You/Let's Take The Long Way Around The World/Still Losing You/She Keeps the Home Fires Burnin'/I Wouldn't Have Missed It for the World (reprise)

What Goes On When the Sun Goes Down

(I'd Be) A Legend in My Time

Lost in the 50's Tonight (with Little Big Town)

Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby (with Lucy Angel)

Come Go With Me/Young Blood (Doo Wop Medley)

Snap Your Fingers

Stand By Me (with Abby Anderson)

The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

Stranger in My House

America the Beautiful

Honky Tonk Women

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