If I told you a country artist had 35 Number One songs, 6 Grammys, 2 ACMs, 8 CMAs (including an Entertainer of the Year), a Grand Old Opry Membership (the first one inducted at the new Opry House) and was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, you’d think their name would be thrown around in country music conversations, at least every now and again.
Well, there’s at least one person with these credentials that doesn’t get the respect that seems warranted:
Recognize the name? The guy behind hits like “Smokey Mountain Rain,” “Any Day Now,” “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World,” “Daydreams About Night Things,” and the king of them all, “Stranger In My House”?
I’m betting the older generation will have a significantly higher recognition than the younger. Part of this is normal. Of course, older people will remember someone from the past better than someone who wasn’t around for their high point, but I believe there is another reason.
Ronnie Milsap was one of the first big crossover artists, his music resonating strongly with both pop and country fans at the time. This dual-genre fanbase gave him enormous popularity, but I’m betting the strict, hardcore country fans didn’t very much like this “Pop Star” encroaching on their territory.
I certainly don’t think that holds water, just listen to his musical style and you’ll hear some clear county roots, but either way, he holds a special place in many country fans’ hearts, including my own. Ronnie Milsap reminds me of driving with my dad in his little blue, stick-shift Saturn that he loved, the Jeep Cherokee we had briefly, or the Acura that one day became my first car.
Heading to school, baseball, basketball or wherever, our choices were what he liked: Bob Seger, Journey and Ronnie Milsap. We listened to their songs over and over, CD after CD until I was convinced there was no other music. The background to my childhood was substantially Ronnie Milsap.
Fortunately, my Dad left me with a positive bias for one of the greatest musicians of all time. Even sitting and listening now on a purely objective basis, or as much of one as I can muster, I’m still very impressed. The guy’s got a silky-smooth voice, beautiful piano riffs and that “It Factor” so many artists lack. I promise if you start listening to him you’ll stay around longer than expected.
Hell, it only took Charley Pride one listen at Whiskey A Go-Go nightclub to seek him out and convince Ronnie to move to Nashville and commit to country music.
His style is rooted in country, with storytelling in songs, slide guitar, and chirpy piano, but has a sprinkling of sounds that make him endearing to the pop crowds, like strings and high, tight production. But the pop sound doesn’t infringe on the country, it just made it palatable to broader audiences. He’s one of the few artists to pull this off effectively and authentically, the sound fitting right at home with country from the ’70s and ’80s, where he had his peak success.
Take “Stranger In My House.”
It’s a man’s inner thoughts when suspecting his woman is cheating on him, a very country theme, with strong piano and some fantastic lead guitar.
“She sits staring out the window
A million miles away
And when I ask if she’s all right
She never has too much to say
Is it somebody we both know
Or somebody she just met
Is she loving him in her mind
While she’s lying here in my bed
There’s a stranger in my house
Somebody here that I can’t see
Stranger in my house
Somebody here trying to take her away from me.”
The bridge and chorus get me every time, one of the few moments in music I would describe as “epic.”
And if you thought that song was sad, give “Smokey Mountain Rain” a spin.
It’s about a man calling home to tell his lady he’s giving up the big-time dreams and coming home but when he learns that she’s gone, he races back to find her, wherever she is and however he can.
“I thumb my way from L.A. back to Knoxville.
I found out those bright lights ain’t where I belong.
From a phone booth in the rain I called to tell her
I’ve had a change of dreams I’m coming home.
But the tears filled my eyes when I found out she was gone.”
It’s just crazy to me that Ronnie Milsap isn’t a more known name in country music today.
I know he’s not the best of all time, but he’s damn sure an honorable mention. His 35 Number Ones are fourth most, only George Strait, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty, have more (not bad company), and he’s got enough awards to fill up a few mantles, topped off with the 1977 Entertainer of the Year.
All I ask is his name be part of the conversation when talking about the past greats. If we don’t talk about him, his enormous body of work and legacy will soon be nothing more than a memory in someone’s grandpa’s head.
Ronnie actually has a new album coming out this year, his first since 2014, and recently put out the lead single “Wild Honey,” which has a very ’90s country feel to it. Titled A Better Word For Love, I’m excited to hear if the entire project will tap into the reignition of ’90s sound we’ve seen recently.
Either way, it’s great to see someone putting out music not because they have to, but because it’s what they love to do. I mean the guy is 78 years old, I’m impressed…