He may have sold more than 35 million records and earned 40 No. 1 hits with such classics as “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “It Was Almost Like a Song” and “What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life,” but, fortunately for the rest of us, Grand Ole Opry legend Ronnie Milsap still loves making records and playing for his fans. With the release this week of new CD Country Again, Ronnie demonstrates that, nearly 40 years since moving to Nashville, he’s still as soulful as he was in his early days in Music City singing on The Roof at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Motor Inn (now a Days Inn) on 1st Street. Ronnie recently took time to chat with Nashville.com about his incredible career, his excellent new single, “If You Don’t Want Me To,” and a very special gift he gave to a songwriter on the new CD. Here’s part of what he had to say.
Nash: Ronnie, I want give you a little blast from the past and talk with you about your early days in Nashville, playing on The Roof at Roger Miller’s King of the Road. What do you recall about those early ‘70s times? You truly were the talk of the town.
Ronnie: Well, God bless you, man. I appreciate that. That was a great thing, coming to Nashville and actually having a job! What a concept.
Nash: I know one of the things that made you such a “must see” act back then was that you were doing everything from soul to R&B to rock to country and everything in between. And you’ve never really had to give up doing any of that music, have you?
Ronnie: No, thank goodness I haven’t. That was just the result of having all of those influences in my life.
Nash: Can you talk a little about how you got that gig and what it did for your career?
Ronnie: I remember it was election day in 1972 and we were over at this place called the Anchor Motel. I was playing at this little joint called The Villa. And this guy who was the manager of the King of the Road came down and said, “I want to talk to you. Where are you playing?” And I said, “I’m playing down in Memphis.” And he said, “I want you to play on the roof of Roger Miller’s King of the Road hotel. How many nights do you play?” “Six nights.” “I only want you to play five. How much money you makin’?” I told him and he upped it and I said, “Wow.” I got more money for one less night a week. He said, “I want you to start December the 26th of this year. Can you do that?” I said, “Yes sir. Reporting for duty, sir. I certainly can.” I was there for a year. And when I left the King of the Road, I want on the road with Charley Pride for a year.
Nash: When you think back to those days, did you have a destination in mind for your career? Or was it more a case of just making good music and seeing where the ride would take you?
Ronnie: Well, it was some of that. I actually wanted to be in Nashville. And when Pride saw us out in Los Angeles, he said, “You need to move to Nashville.” I said, “I can’t right now, ‘cause I’ve got a job in Memphis. I don’t have a job in Nashville.” And Charley Pride said, “Well, you need to find one and get on over to Nashville.” But my wife is the one who’s orchestrated this whole thing. She’s the one who really believed in me and got me in touch with Jack Johnson (Ronnie’s manager at the time) and Tom Collins, who administrated Charley Pride’s publishing company at the time. So we started making records for RCA. Jerry Bradley was so encouraging. And every time we cut something, we’d go to him and say, “What do you think? Is this a single?” And he’d say, “Ah, that’s a B side.” And we’d say, “Okay.” And we were always willing to listen to him. I figured, this is Owen Bradley’s son, and we need to be listening. And I definitely did. He was dead on every time.
Nash: Let’s talk about the new music, Country Again. I really like it and it sounds like you’re singing as well or better than you ever have. Do you think so?
Ronnie: Well, you know, when you do things and you know it’s right, there’s a certain feeling about that. You kind of grade yourself. People are gonna write about this and grade it any way they want to, but I felt like it was some of my best work. And here I am at this time in my life, actually trying to reinvent myself.
Nash: Why do you feel the need to do that? Does the industry require it periodically?
Ronnie: I think they probably do. But the main thing is, I still want to do it. I absolutely love doing it. I love to work in music It’s kind of like Ray Charles; it consumes every moment you’re breathing. Ray was that way and I’m that way. I was with Eddie Stubbs one night over at WSM and he said, “Ronnie, have you ever thought about doing a country album again?” I said, “Yeah, I think about it, Eddie. Would it sell?” He said, “I don’t know if it would sell or not. You’ve gotta do it to find out, but you’ve got a great fan base and I believe it would work.” I said, “Well how about you being executive producer on it?” He said, “I’ll do whatever I can to help you.” I love that guy.
So right then and there I started looking at what I had from song searches on my computer, and I had some. And a friend of ours, Mila Mason, went around to some publishing companies and found some new songs. I thought, well we’ve got the stuff to do this. We ought to get in the studio and do this.
Nash: Do you usually know immediately when you hear a new song whether you’re going to cut it or not, or do they sometimes have to grow on you?
Ronnie: Sometimes they have to grow on you. With “Almost Like a Song,” I remember all during 1976 while I was out on the road, I kept playing this demo of Archie Jordan singing that song. My wife was saying, “Ronnie, why are you listening to that thing again?” I said, “This is really a great song. I think so.” But nobody really knew it. And I got home from the tour that fall and got on the piano in the living room and worked out the arrangement. And she was the first one to say, “My Lord, that’s not the same song.” And I said, “Yeah, it is.” So she called my producer, Tom Collins, and he came over and heard it and said, “We’ve got to book the studio. We have to record that.” So that took some time to develop, but I knew if I ever got behind a piano and put my own arrangement to it, it would work.
Nash: You mentioned a minute ago that you wondered if this CD would sell. Vince Gill did a tune a few years ago about Nashville being a “Young Man’s Town.” Basically saying generations come and go and there can be an obsession with youth sometimes. Is that something about Nashville that’s been frustrating for you, knowing that you still have the chops and can still do as well or better than you ever have? And Vince certainly can.
Ronnie: Yes, he can. Well, I don’t think about that too much. I understand what they say, it is all about youth and it’s certainly about how you look. I know that.
Nash: Well, I have to tell you, you’re as pretty as you ever were.
Ronnie: (big laugh) Well, God bless you, David! I do know the twenty-first century is all about images, and people make a judgment call in a split second, whether they’re impressed or not with what you’re doing. But there’s something kind of fun about doing all this, and continuing to want to do it. I’m driven by the shows I do on the road. I’ve got a great band and team out there that really does work. That’s still the best thing I do, the live performance. We do about 100 shows a year.
Nash: I love the first single from the new record, “If You Don’t Want Me To.” Great groove and a great way to start the record off.
Ronnie: God bless you.
Nash: And I’ve got to ask you about “Cry Cry Darlin’.” I’m a sucker for country waltzes.
Ronnie: Yeah, me, too. I think about all that early stuff from Vince Gill when he went to MCA. What were they? They were waltzes.
Nash: I love those. I do, too.
Ronnie: I knew “Cry Cry Baby” was a Jimmy Newman song back before he was Jimmy C. Newman. He cut this thing in ’54 and I still remembered it and found a new way to deliver it.
Nash: And on the other end of the groove spectrum, I love “Oh Linda.” What a great song that is. That’s maybe one of my two or three favorites on the album.
Ronnie: Yeah, I love that. One of the writers saw me on an airplane flying out to L.A. and he said, “Man, I appreciate the cut on ‘Oh Linda.’ Now, what do you do? Do you have lyrics?” And I said, “I sure do.” I told him the formula I go through. I get it up on my computer, then type out the lyrics to the song. Then I convert it to a grade 2 Braille document. Then I turn on my embosser and send it over to the Braille embosser and go over there and tear the paper out and there are my lyrics to take to the studio. And he said, “Do you still have that?” I said, “I sure do.” “Will you autograph a copy of that?” And I did and told him I’d send it over to my manager’s office for him to go pick it up. He wanted that so much and I was so happy I was able to do it for him.
Nash: Well, speaking of sight issues, that song has a lot of great mental images . . . talking about short skirts and eatin’ that juicy peach and lookin’ back when she walks by. I know the images I get in my mind; what about your mind? Are there images you get when you sing that song? What are they like?
Ronnie: Yeah, I do. I get those, too. Always when you’re in the studio singing a song, you visualize something. It helps you deliver the song right. So I think about in my life, how many Lindas have I known? Well I’ve known quite a few Lindas in my life. So maybe I’m just gonna sing to one of ‘em in my head. I’m not gonna tell anybody, but maybe that’s what I’m doing. (chuckles)
Nash: What gets your juices flowing these days, either professionally or personally?
Ronnie: Well, the music certainly does. Gettin’ a chance to make a new album. And the song “If You Don’t Want Me To” has been around a while, and they play it on a jukebox in Lafayette, Louisiana, down in that area. And they invented a dance for it called The Freeze. And when I’d go play down there, they’d make me do that song live and say, “You can’t leave until you play that.” So we did it and shot the video down there.
Nash: Talk about the Opry a little bit. Do you still get a thrill every time you walk on that stage?
Ronnie: Lord, I surely do. I joined Feb. 10, 1976. And Jeanne Pruett was the one who got me to guest on the Opry, and I loved it. I loved being out there.
Nash: If someone hadn’t told you where you were, and they just brought you to the building and walked you in, what would tell you you were at the Opry?
Ronnie: That’s a good question, David. That’s a real good question. I think the only tip-off would be the Opry family, the people who were there. Jim Ed Brown would come over to say hello. And I loved Billy Walker. He’d always come over and talk to me. And Bill Carlisle. He was always so encouraging. As soon as I heard these folks talkin’, I’d know . . . I’m at the Grand Ole Opry!
Nash: What are you especially looking forward to in the next few months?
Ronnie: Well, we’re excited about this album and we’re going to be doing a lot to support it. I’ll be out doing shows on the road and doing some media in New York. And there’s a show that’s basically gonna wrap this thing up for us at the end of August at Riverfront Park in Nashville. Marty Stuart’s on the show with me and it’s gonna be a great show.
Nash: Well, I’ll definitely come out to see you there.
Ronnie: I love that and come up and tap me on the shoulder and let me know you’re there. I look forward to that. It’s been a joy to talk with you today. Thank you my friend.