Ronnie Milsap has seen the light in new gospel release

by Ryan Snyder

Ronnie Milsap talks about his newest effort, Then Sings My Soul, before his appearance at the Carolina Theatre.

(courtesy photo)

Ronnie Milsap talks big labels, small towns, and Gospel Just like the dark shades he wears out of necessity, you’ll rarely catch country music legend Ronnie Milsap without a glowing smile on his face. The Robbinsville-born singer has endured more than his fair share of hardships, from being born nearly blind and having his mother abandon him at a young age to being heavily discouraged from pursuing music by teachers at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. A lover of rock and R&B and classically trained, Milsap was born with perfect pitch. A gift from God he calls it, It took a chance encounter with Ray Charles before Milsap was convinced that music was his destiny and the result was 40 No. 1 country hits. Nowadays, he’s finally pursuing the work that eluded him as a key cog in the major label hit machine. Then Sings My Soul finds him reworking over 20 traditional hymns alongside a few uplifting originals, but despite this newfound freedom, some things in the business never change.

YES! Weekly: You came into some issues with Capitol Records in regards to your firefighter benefit duet with Trace Adkins “My First Ride.” It led to you protesting outside the label’s office after the song was yanked from airplay without explanation. What was the outcome?

Ronnie Milsap: It came down to Trace leaving Capitol Records and signing elsewhere. I’m kind of sad about that. I’m a great admirer [of Adkins] and we’re friends. I was always hoping we could record something together. Capitol knew that the song would be recorded and it had a tremendous amount of traction in the brief amount of airplay it received. A CD did come out, but I went back in and took Trace off the record so the police and firefighter organizations could benefit from it. I didn’t realize it was going to cause such a stir around here.

Y!W: Do you expect to have another chance to record with him again?

RM: I hope so. Now that he’s with another record company, maybe this time I’ll actually ask them if it’s okay if we do a duet before we do it.

Y!W: What led you to do a gospel album after all these years?

RM: I’ve been thinking about a gospel album for 30 years, but just didn’t have the opportunity to do that when I was in that long run with RCA. I know what they would’ve said had I gone to the top executive and said, ‘I want to do a gospel album.’ They would’ve said, ‘Hey, we’re on a roll now, we like what you’re doing.’ I had total artistic freedom in those days to record whatever I wanted to record.

Y!W: How did you approach this one?

RM: They told me not to do a few of the songs I wanted because they weren’t PD, public domain. Most of these older gospel hymns are PD, but in truth it really wasn’t a stretch, because I already knew most of the songs from when I used to sing in church. The lyrics were right there in my memory. We cut eight songs a day for three days to make the two-CD set.

Y!W: What was the key for you in creating a fresh and inspiring gospel album?

RM: During pre-production I worked out what key was right for me. I worked with Carol Tornquist, who has a great knowledge of the songs. I was also talking to my wife and said I’m going to sing “I’ll Fly Away” and she said not only was it too up-tempo, but it was also done to death. Carol had this new idea of doing it slower and I think a great way to open up my heart to the song.

Y!W: You’re no longer compelled to produce hit records, but how do you see this opening you up to an even wider audience?

RM: I’ve been guilty of doing those things called “crossover records.” They give you the ability to reach several different audiences and turns you into a multi-format artist, so it widens your visibility. I always felt that within reason some of those crossover records were necessary and made a big contribution in going from gold to double platinum.

Y!W: You’re on a tour of several small towns in NC. What was the impetus for visiting places like Spindale and Yanceyville?

RM: It’s kind of the opposite of bringing 19 tractor trailers loaded with sound, light and audio effects. This is an acoustic environment. I do these quite often in Nashville and like this kind of setting, the acoustic environment of the performing arts centers. I don’t know when I’ll be coming through these towns again with full production, but hopefully some day. It’s more about seeing an artist up close.

Ronnie Milsap will perform at the Carolina Theatre this Friday.