Country music luminary Ronnie Milsap returned January 18 with Duets, an album of old classics and new tunes the piano man cut with some of Nashville’s brightest stars, among them Kacey Musgraves, George Strait, and Luke Bryan. We chatted with the North Carolina native about the new album, his gift for interpreting songs, and how Music City’s changed since his heyday.
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How did you decide on which artists to collaborate with for Duets?
Well, you kind of pick the ones you like the best out of all these new country stars. I knew I loved Little Big Town, so I called them and they said, “Yeah, we’d love to do it.” Most of the time when I was at RCA, they wanted a Greatest Hits Vol. 1, Vol. 2 and Vol. 3. So you’d come out every so often with a Greatest Hits package. I can’t do that, so my producer and I were talking about wanting to do this with duets of songs that had been big for me. I [had wanted to record with] Luke Bryan. We got in touch with him, he came in the studio and he was really on. The biggest surprise on there was Leon Russell. I sang “Misery Loves Company” with him, a song written by Jerry Reed and I’d recorded it years ago, and I wanted to cut that with Leon. It’s a remarkable cut. He said, “Ronnie, I’m not used to being out here in the fast lane.” I said, “You are the fast lane. I’m just trying to get with you.”
Some of the choices were more surprising than others. How did you hook up with Billy Gibbons? Do you two have a history together?
I found that song ten years ago. My accountant gave it to me. He said, “The writers say this might be a good song for you, ‘Southern Boys And Detroit Wheels.’” They ought to play it at every Nascar event. Of course, I took it one time to Joe Bellati and he said, “I love the way you sing on it, but I don’t do a niche record.” I thought, “Well, are we dead on that song?” Then Billy Gibbons said he wanted to sing it with me. I said, “Hell, that’s gonna be good, and it was.”
You cut “No Getting Over Me” with Kacey Musgraves on this record. Has she been on your radar for some time?
I do listen to a lot of her music. It seems like she’s got her head straight. She knows her audience, and she’s very hot right now. I’m glad for her. There was a friend of mine, my assistant’s son, he told me all about Kacey and said, “You need to listen to her songs.” I love her stuff.
What do you say when someone asks if you’re a country singer or soul singer?
I’m both. I’ve done contemporary, country, the blues, soul. “I’ve Never Had It So Good” was No. 5 on the Soul Chart in 1965 on Billboard. They sent my PR picture out and some of the radio stations stopped playing my record, and the head of promotion told me this story years ago. He said he called them and said, “Why’d you stop playing Ronnie’s record?” They said, “Well, you know, we’ve got his picture. He’s not a brother.” He said, “Let me tell you something. Ronnie Milsap is blind. He thinks he’s black. He doesn’t know any better,” and and they went back on the record.
“A Woman’s Love,” which you do with Willie Nelson, was written by Mike Reid.
[Mike Reid and I have] had 13 No. 1 records together. The first No. 1 I had with him was called “Inside,” and I remember being in the studio at 4 o’clock in the morning. The engineer I was with said, “Goddamn it, Ronnie, if you’d just let me stop and have a cigarette, I’d get this mixed for you.” I said, “Hey, what are you smoking?” He said, “We can’t smoke in the control room. You don’t allow it.” I said, “But I do this morning. Give me one, too.” I hadn’t smoked in 18 years, and I was hooked again.
I wanted to ask you about your gift for interpretation, how you make a song your own. We hear these songs and we know what a Ronnie Milsap song sounds like.
You listen to a song and decide if you can make this song your own. My wife Joyce and I were out on the road in ’76 and I kept playing her this demo [for “Almost Like A Song”]. She said, “Why do you keep listening to that thing? The singer’s awful.” I said, “Okay, I’ll give you that. He’s not a great singer.” Then I got home after touring season and worked up an arrangement on that song. She said, “What is that?” I said, “That’s that song you hate.” She called my record producer Tom Collins. Tom came over and heard this song. He called Archie Jordan, the songwriter, “Archie, you’re about to have your fist No. 1 record.”
Were you demanding in the studio?
I had to become real good friends with the engineer because I wanted to cut records that sounded a lot like Jim Reeves. Those were my favorite. I’d sit and talk with Chet Atkins, “What was it about Jim Reeves? He always wanted to be tight to the mic.” But the engineers would tell him to back off, because he was getting too much proximity effect. One day there was nobody there to tell him to back up because that engineer passed away, so you couldn’t get Jim out of the microphone anymore. Those kind of stories come from Chet Akins because he produced all that stuff.
What do you think about all the changes in the country msuic industry? Obviously, radio’s changed.
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s good or not. I know it’s tough to sell records today.
But you still perform live.
I do. I love it on stage with my band because I get to sing what I want to sing. I get to take feedback from the audience, and the audience will let you know what they want to hear.
Looking back on your career, are there songs you feel should’ve gotten more recognition?
Oh, there are songs that I thought were Grammys. I was sitting at the Grammys in LA playing this song and I said, “I’m gonna have this song win a Grammy next year,” but it didn’t happen. A song written by Archie Jordan called “Once I Get Over You,” I thought that was going to be a big hit, and of course it never even striked on radio. It never got played.
Why do you think that was?
It just wasn’t what the folks wanted to hear me play at the time. I don’t take offense to that. I remember being out in Texas one time. I said, “I’ve got a new record coming out on Tuesday, and I want to play it for you tonight. See what you think about it.” I played “Daydreams About Night Things.” They made me play it five more times before I could get off stage. Then you know you got a hit coming. It damn sure was.
When you were really hot in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I imagine everyone was trying to get their songs to you.
They were. [I remember] a guy walked into Tom Collins’ office one day and he said, “I want to play a song for Ronnie Milsap. And he said, “Well, come on in. Ronnie happens to be here today. You got a tape?” He said, “No, can I just sit and play it on my guitar?” He said, “Yeah,” so he played his song called “Just In Case.” He just walked in off the street and I said, “I’m going to cut that on my next session,” and I did.
You don’t hear stories like that much anymore.
No, you don’t.
Do you feel like Nashville has lost some of that “any man can make it” vibe?
Probably, and it’s getting too expensive to live in this town. You’ve got so many people coming to Nashville, and Nashville is a great place to live. I love this town, but it’s definitely changed. It’s getting to where you can’t afford to live anywhere. Property is just so damn high, but not as high as New York.
You got your start opening for Charley Pride. What did you learn from him?
Show pacing. Quick little clips of things to say. It didn’t really mean anything to anybody, but it meant something to him and it meant something to his audience.
What goals do you have for this album?
I don’t know if we’ll come out with volume two. We might. We got people in mind that could help us out. Lee Ann Womack, I wanted to sing with her so bad. And Patty Loveless. I want to sing with her. We could do another volume if we have to, depending on how well this goes over.