Ronnie Milsap Returns With — Count 'Em — 40 #1 Hits

Veteran country hitmaker looks to future with retrospective of vast career output.

NASHVILLE — En route to his stab at a comeback after being swept to the country-music sidelines by the early-'90s youth movement, country superstar Ronnie Milsap had an experience that underscored a familiar Nashville axiom.

The rule is this: If you're famous, never be rude to anyone. Because someday that sweet receptionist you yelled at, or some eager hopeful you thoughtlessly brushed off, could wind up the president of a record label or a Grammy-winning legend.

Milsap met Scott Hendricks in the early 1980s, when Hendricks had first come to town, toiling quietly as a studio engineer. With a shelf already lined with trophies and accolades, Milsap could have pulled a power trip and refused to work with the new kid in town.

Good thing he didn't. Here we are in the year 2000 and Milsap is about to resurrect his career with a two-CD set titled 40 #1 Hits, on Virgin Records Nashville, due June 6. And guess who's the president of the label?

"I wanted to be here with him, and that's why I'm at Virgin," Milsap said of Hendricks. "There's so much enthusiasm and magic about the teamwork here. It kind of reminds me of early on, when Jerry Bradley took over at RCA. I think Jerry came in 1972, and I came in 1973, when he signed me. It has the same feeling here. Everybody's working together. You can feel the interaction and the connection, and everybody wants it to work."

Hendricks himself said he was thrilled to be working with Milsap again. "I remember when Ronnie's records were the pinnacle of what we were trying to achieve in this town. When I would mix a record, I would always compare it to his, because they were so good. He is blessed with a set of incredibly good ears."

Covering His Career

In addition to the 40 #1 hits, ranging from 1974's "Pure Love" (RealAudio excerpt) to 1991's "Since I Don't Have You," Milsap included the pulsating "Stranger in My House" (RealAudio excerpt) (which peaked at #5 in 1983), and two new songs, "Livin' on Love" and "Time, Love and Money," on the album.

"It's a difficult task looking for songs and trying to find the right ones," Milsap said. "And I guess we had four or five different listening stations set up for about an hour and a half, or two hours each, so we went through a whole lot of songs. Scott early on thought we ought to go for uptempo, because a ballad that would really suit me is gonna be even harder to find."

"But these two things we cut, man, they're good," he continued. "And they're competitive with today. I was looking for something that still sounds like me, because I was fortunate to come up at a time when record companies had artist development, so I was on the radio, and had been on the radio for a long, long time. And it's great when you hear somebody's voice and you know who it is. Thank God I got to be part of that. So folks are gonna know my voice, but I think they're gonna be surprised at these two new songs. I'm just trying to drag myself into the 21st century."

Born nearly blind in 1943 in North Carolina, Milsap was educated at the Morehouse State School for the Blind. He lost his vision entirely when a Morehouse instructor punched him. After graduation from the State School, he enrolled in junior college in Atlanta and turned down law school for a shot at music stardom. He moved to Memphis at the encouragement of legendary soul producer Chips Moman and even earned some studio work with Elvis Presley. That's Milsap pounding the ivories on the King's hit, "Kentucky Rain."

Home Sweet Home

He relied upon the memories of those days in Memphis when recording one of his best-known hits, 1980's "Smoky Mountain Rain."

"I was thinking, there have been songs referring to Denver and Houston and Phoenix," Milsap recalled, "and I said [to songwriters Dennis Morgan and Kye Fleming], 'Man, why don't you write something about my area of the country?' So they did. They wrote 'Smoky Mountain Rain.' And putting together this arrangement, my mind went back to the session with Elvis on 'Kentucky Rain.' Elvis said, 'Can I get a little thunder over there on the piano?' And I used that same kind of approach on 'Smoky Mountain Rain': 'Smoky mountain rain keeps on falling' — bam! You know, that left hand on the piano. It's the same thing on the Elvis record I played on."

"Smoky Mountain Rain" also hit the top 20 on the pop charts, but Milsap had crossed over before, with "It Was Almost Like a Song," "What a Difference You Made in My Life," and later, "Any Day Now" and "Lost in the Fifties Tonight."

The Lost in the Fifties Tonight album was his last hit album and it won him a Grammy as well as the Country Music Association Album of the Year Award in 1986. He ended up leaving RCA, where he had been since 1973, when the general youth movement at Nashville's record labels forced older artists out. Now, he and Hendricks hope he's back for good.

"It's wonderful to work with someone I've respected so much," Hendricks said. "I hope we get to do more."