Ronnie Milsap became famous as a country singer. He's won six Grammys and had 40 number one country songs, third all time to only George Strait and Conway Twitty. Considering all of these accolades, it might be a bit of mystery to many as to why he would name his latest album Country Again, but once one understands Milsap's career journey, a long and winding road that traveled throughout the South before landing in Nashville, everything makes sense.
Born nearly blind in western North Carolina and soon losing the rest of sight when he was still a child, Milsap was drawn to music at a very early age. His influences were the first stars of rock and roll including Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. After attending college in Georgia, he went to Atlanta where he cut his first record and became a regular club performer. From there Milsap ventured all over - cutting some early singles for Scepter Records, joining in one of JJ Cale's early bands, and cutting records for Huey Meaux in Texas.
Thanks to a session for Scepter, Milsap's next stop was in Memphis where he connected with Chips Moman and his American Studios crew and decided to plant some roots. A famous local club named TJs made him the defacto house act allowing him to split his time doing session work for Moman and playing nights at TJs.
Milsap later cut his first record in Muscle Shoals - a mix of pop, soul, and country - with Dan Penn as his producer featuring several Muscle Shoals greats including Jim Dickinson, who was doing session work there at that time. Like Charlie Rich, another Memphis-based music great with incredible range, Milsap ultimately ended up in Nashville to pursue a career in country music.
Similar to Dolly Parton, Milsap's ability to venture beyond straight country became both a blessing and a curse. When country went Urban Cowboy in the late 70s/early 80s, Milsap took advantage and began to reel off a series of huge hits, but when the new traditionalists turned Music City away from its poppier inclinations, Milsap's country career began to stall. He recorded little during the 90s while spending the past decade or so relying on his past versatlity, cutting different types of songs from jazz and pop standards to inspirational and gospel music. This was all a far cry from his country heyday.
This history explains why its appropriate to say Ronnie Milsap has gone Country Again. The album does a masterful job of bringing together the entire spectrum of country music - from its traditional sounds to some of its more modern inclinations. WSM's Eddie Stubbs serves as executive producer, and he helps keep things on the proper path. Milsap joins with Rob Galbraith to co-produce the record, and this team keeps the energy high.
Milsap has always relied on outside songwriting, and he has chosen well here. After beginning softly with the tender "A Better Word For Love", the title track announces the album's intention. It's a high octane hybrid of rock and country that's miles better than much of what's on country radio today. Still, the aim of Country Again isn't necessarily to only sound modern as the album features classic country songs like Jimmy C Newman's "Cry Cry Darling", Johnny Paycheck's "For A Minute There", and Charley Pride's "Trapped In An Old Country Song", written by Cowboy Jack Clement.
Milsap's ease and confidence represent the best aspects of Country Again. After all, this is a man who has done most every kind of style of music. Career artists like Ronnie Milsap should be able to follow their heart and have fun making records. Without the pressure of making hits, Milsap can focus instead on making good music.
For a legend who has only cut three albums of new material over the past 18 years, Country Again serves as a welcome return to the music that made Ronnie Milsap a star.
- Jim Markel
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