He never was a country outlaw like Willie or Waylon, but Ronnie Milsap solidified his legacy and his royal stature within the genre by becoming its Stevie Wonder – a blind prodigy with a penchant for soul and balladry who could also make the ivories dance off the piano.
It used to be that we’d have to pull out the endless greatest hits collections to hear Milsap’s baritone sing of pure love and strangers in his house, but no more, all thanks to Legacy Recordings.
In what seems like a nanosecond, this label division has compiled a trifecta of RCA vault perfection that started with John Denver’s impressive catalogue, moved on to Harry Nilsson’s eclectic batch of albums, and now culminates with the impressive 21-CD Ronnie Milsap RCA Albums Collection. At its core, this boxed set is a behemoth of epic proportions that comes as close to a musical treasure chest you could ever imagine.
For the iTunes generation, many of Milsap’s albums are all but obsolete. Finally, at long last, you get a rich, varied history in one neat package. Spanning more than three decades of work, this collection takes you from Milsap’s humble roots as a 30-something North Carolina country boy taking Nashville by storm; to his meteoric crossover into the pop and adult contemporary markets; to his more soulful leanings as the 21st century takes shape.
Milsap’s albums tend to follow a tight, 10-song structure which should be listened to and savored in four-year chronology increments. Milsap’s RCA debut, 1973’s Where My Heart Is, through 1976’s Live are straight country, replete with lots of twang, and honky-tonk stylings. The song highlights include “I Hate You,” “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends,” “A Legend In My Time,” and “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me).” On the live album in particular, you grow to appreciate Milsap’s showmanship as he pokes fun at his blindness repeatedly. Thus, we come to learn that this is a consummate performer who doesn’t let adversity or obstacles get him down.
It Was Almost Like A Song (1977) through 1981’s Jim Reeves tribute album Out Where The Bright Lights Are Glowing place Milsap in contemporary company with Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond as tender ballads became his sweet foray. Gone are the sequined jumpsuits, replaced with stylish vests and blazers. Strings replace the twang on tunes like “It Was Almost Like A Song” and “Only One Love In My Life.” Still, Milsap knows when to get people dancing through peppier tracks like “I Got The Music In Me” and “Get It Up.”
Once we reach 1981’s There’s No Gettin’ Over Me through One More Try For Love (1984), Milsap lets the pop vein flow through his own musical veins as Top 40 crossover success becomes commonplace. The songs become a bit edgier and, in several instances, are driven by synthesizers. The tunes run the gamut from the rocking “Stranger In My House” to the campy yet catchy “She Loves My Car.” Either way, you always hear the happiness behind Milsap’s vocals. Still this musician is unabashed in loving his roots, as demonstrated by 1986’s Lost In The Fifties Tonight. Whether it’s doo-wop or rock, Milsap gives whatever song he sings his Midas touch of originality – and yes, these include the holiday standards showcased on Christmas With Ronnie Milsap.
The boxed set’s last four albums – 1987’s Heart and Soul through 2006’s My Life – showcase Milsap changing with the times. His baritone remains flawless throughout the ages even as he throws more grit and determination into his songs, a la Toby Keith or even a countrified, 21st century Jimmy Buffett.
Milsap has rightfully earned every country music accolade under the sun, but one comes away after listening to this collection with a full appreciation for his universality. Milsap’s ever-present ear-to-ear smile on all his albums epitomizes infectiousness and that’s the same feeling behind each one of these albums. This isn’t necessarily a Holy Grail of music history, but it’s surely a terrific testament to an icon who is destined to remain a legend in his time.
– Ira Kantor