By Barry M. Klein
Copyright 2001
Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Barry M. Klein
All Rights Reserved

"Barry, how would you like to do an interview with Ronnie Milsap? Ronnie has a new double CD out, "40 #1 Hits", and he is on a major tour." This invitation came from Brandy Reed, a Nashville based publicist who had arranged my interview several months ago with B. J. Thomas. Brandy also handles publicity for other country artists with recent releases, including Willie Nelson and the eclectic Kacey Jones.

Ronnie Milsap. My thoughts wandered back a little over 20 years ago when I saw Ronnie Milsap in concert at Pine Knob, the Detroit area's premier outdoor music festival. To this day, I vividly remember what a terrific concert he gave, how well he displayed his talents, and how remarkable his rapport was with the audience.

Due to a bogged down personal schedule, I couldn't take advantage of the opportunity to interview Ronnie too quickly. But as fate would have it, I happened to be at my home in Naples, Florida during Christmas week of 2000, and found out that he was performing on December 27 at the Naples Philharmonic.

Most people who were adults in the 1970's and 80's know the saga of Ronnie Milsap: Born into poverty and blindness in the North Carolina hills, originally schooled musically with the classics, his exposure to the sounds of the radio led him to his love for hard core country music, and rhythm and blues, courtesy of the radio stations in Nashville. Ronnie originally started his musical career in Memphis before moving to Nashville in 1972.

His Memphis roots showed quite well in his concert, thank you. In between performing Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel", and "All Shook Up", Ronnie reminded the audience that it was he who played piano when Elvis recorded "Kentucky Rain".

In the early part of his concert, Ronnie left his piano and was joined at the front of the stage with his excellent band, and they did a brief set of doo-wop tunes, a cappella style, including the Del Vikings' hit, "Come Go With Me", and the Leiber/Stoller song originally performed by the Coasters, "Youngblood".

Back to the piano, Ronnie continued to play many of his hits, including "Smokey Mountain Rain" as well as covers of his favorite music.

Being a piano virtuoso himself, my favorite part of the concert was a "pianist tribute" during which he gave great renditions of songs by Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Little Richard. Without mentioning Floyd Cramer's name, Ronnie played his instrumental classic, "Last Date" and commented, "Isn't that a great tune?!" (Floyd Cramer, like Elvis and Ronnie Milsap, recorded for RCA.)

At the end of the piano tribute, Ronnie not only did a Ray Charles song, but did a wonderful impersonation, leaning back 180 degrees from his piano stool and winding his upper torso in circular motions while bending his head backwards acrobatically. The audience was laughing and roaring at this excellent take off, as well as the irony of a blind piano player/singer being able to do such a wonderful impression of another blind piano player/singer. (And in case you're wondering, I decided not to ask Ronnie how he learned how to do that imitation.) After the show, Ronnie graciously greeted my friend Mary and me in his backstage dressing room, and we did a brief interview before he went back to his tour bus to change and take a picture. Ronnie, true to his reputation, is a gracious, humble man. He is proud of his career accomplishments, but prouder of his status as a man married over 30 years, as a father (his son Todd is his Road Manager) and very proud of his new role as a grandfather (3 grandchildren now). Later, when Ronnie changed and cooled off, Mary took a picture of us together. Mary took several pictures, and was not certain if any of them were turning out okay. Ronnie, who had been standing next to me with his arm around my back, then said "Hey Barry, are you smiling?", and then immediately lowered his left hand and pinched my butt. As you can see from the picture included in this article, his little trick worked!

The double CD, "40 #1 Hits", is available at all record stores and on-line services, and also included on this CD are two new recordings, "Livin' On Love" and "Time, Love and Money", which paired Ronnie Milsap with renowned record producer Scott Hendricks. You will notice during the interview that Ronnie Milsap is not one of the many classic country l egends who have rightfully expressed their disappointment at not getting airplay from today's country radio. His last big hit, "Lost In the 50's Again", came years after his "big run" on the charts, and today he simply states, "I've been very fortunate to have had a lot of successful records ... now it's time to make some more".

Barry: Well we've just seen a fantastic performance at the Naples Philharmonic on Wednesday, the 27th of December, with Ronnie Milsap. I was just telling Ronnie I haven't seen him for about 20 years in person. You've got that great new CD out with the "40 #1 Hits" and that is on the Virgin Label. Let me just ask you Ronnie, you've been a great star. [I just noticed the great boots he was wearing] Oh! I love those boots!!! - Are those Anteaters? Are they lizard?
Ronnie: I'm not sure.

Barry: I have a little collection myself. Those are fine boots.
You have had a great career. You've had many awards - 8 CMA's, 6 Grammy's. What is your favorite award or ...?
Ronnie: Oh my goodness Barry. Well that depends on how you feel at the time I think, ya know! Certainly all of the things that have happened beyond belief for me and I think the main thing is that you are still able to keep on doing what you love to do. That's probably more gratifying than any particular award.

Barry: I agree with that. We were talking about how I saw you 20 years ago in Detroit at Pine Knob, and you have always had a great rapport with the audience - there was always a real connection. Tonight I see the same thing. The audience was really into it. They loved your performance - a varied performance. To what do you attribute your ability to connect with the audience the way your do?
Ronnie: Well I just always believe you kind of have to check that out every single time you go on stage. I think it's starting from scratch every night. It doesn't matter how well you did at Pine Knob last night or up here in Florida tonight or in Alabama tomorrow, you kind of have to start that all over again and develop that kind of electricity - that chemistry happening, and I just feel like every night is a special blessing from God that you get the chance to come out here to play the music.

Barry: That's great. You're a very talented man. That's for darn sure. In the past I read some interviews where you've downplayed this controversy - we at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and this article also appears in, a southern music web magazine, but the lack of airplay that the so called classic legends get - you know the Ronnie Milsaps, the Merle Haggards. Is it just that they don't have the material? What is it today with Nashville? I know you are a Nashville man.
Ronnie: Yes I am. I think times change. The music evolves. Country music continues to grow and continues to be very popular with the young audience. I think it is up to each particular artist to be able to continue to make records that work in today's environment. It's a combination of a lot of things, but I certainly appreciate radio for all they have ever done for me - playing my records, whether they play the classics or they play something new that I'm working on - I always appreciate that Barry. I think it's up to the artist to come up with whatever it takes to make it happen with today's music. It's our responsibility.

Barry: That's right. I see a couple of cowboy hats here [I found out later that they were left for Ronnie to sign for someone]. Speaking of hats, you wear several hats. You're a singer, you're a great musician playing the keyboards. You're a producer. You have been producing a lot of your own work.
Ronnie: That's right.

Barry: You were a session man as you indicated tonight, playing the piano for Elvis. What is it these days that gives you the most pleasure? Is it your role as a singer, besides the obvious connection you establish with your audience at your live shows, what role do you must enjoy lately - singer, songwriter, musician or producer?
Ronnie: I think the thing that really connects with me more than all of that Barry, as a family person - I'm a father and I'm a grandfather now. My wife and I have our first grandson, and I think ...

Barry: Does Todd have anything to do with that?
Ronnie: He and is wife have a new boy. That makes three grandchildren for us. I think for me at least, that's what knocks me out.

Barry: Well you have always been a very humble man, and just from meeting Todd tonight I could tell the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Lots of luck with the grandchildren. I hope you have a lot more grandchildren and a lot of joy.
Ronnie: Absolutely.

Barry: I enjoyed the performance tonight - all kinds of different things - the doo-wop set, the keyboard solo, the piano tribute, some of your "40 #1 Hits". I just thought it was a super concert and we are looking forward to writing about it.
Ronnie: Keep mixing it up. That's what we do.

Barry: You did a great job.
Well I know you have got to change and that you had a long night here. Congratulations! It was a great.
Ronnie: Mary, it was a pleasure to meet you.

Mary: It was great meeting you, thank you.
Ronnie: We are going to continue to dry off here and get something on fresh, and we will come back and take that picture.

Barry: Thanks Ronnie.

Barry Klein writes for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and his book, "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll", was published in 1997. To contact Barry, e-mail him at

©Rockabilly Hall of Fame∆