Ronnie Milsap has an appropriate last name. His music sure is sappy—not in that Bobby Goldsboro “Honey” kitcshy-cutesy style, but more in the Neil Diamond straight-ahead, overly-earnest way. And like Diamond, Milsap has been enormously successful. Thirty-three of the 40 songs on The Essential Ronnie Milsap reached #1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles chart, and the other seven made or closely approached the Top Ten. Milsap won six Grammy Awards between 1974 and 1987, has been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry (1976), received eight Country Music Association awards (including Entertainer of the Year ), and collected too many other prestigious honors to mention.
This blind singer has a maudlin back story. Milsap was born poor in the backwoods, abandoned by his mother, beaten by his teachers, etc. Like that of his boyhood idol Ray Charles, Milsap’s rags to riches story could serve as proof of the American dream. His considerable achievements inspire awe. Unfortunately, you really can’t say this about the music. Most of the 40 songs collected here are bland and unimaginative. Oh, there are some exceptions, about half a dozen well-wrought tunes, but nothing I would call essential. The fault seems to stem with the songs themselves. Milsap does not write his own material. I would mock his song selections, but his accomplishments belie my criticisms. He must be right, I might be crazy; as the transposed lyrics written by another wildly prosperous and sappy musician say.
The height of Milsap’s career took place between the fall of Richard Nixon and the beginning of the George Herbert Walker Bush era—one of the most exciting times in our national and musical history (vis a vis punk, outlaw country, disco and glam, the rise of MTV, etc.). This is also the time of “broken heartlands”, as journalist Osha Gray Davidson put it—when family farms and small towns went economically bankrupt in large numbers. The banality of Milsap’s music provided a solace to those beleaguered by larger events, a conservative haven in a heartless world.
The other reason for Milsap’s success is his supple voice. The country superstar has a pleasant, mellow tone and a gentle drawl. He phrases the lyrics in a cadenced, natural rhythm, and frequently accents the second beat for emphasis and rhythm (i.e. “On-ly one love in my life”). Sometimes he swings, but as most of the songs are unhappy, this does not happen often. Ironically, he had a number #1 hit record in 1979 with “Nobody Likes Sad Songs”, a sincerely delivered piece about a musician whose career takes a rapid downspin because he can only sing sorrowful tunes.
Taken as a whole, the songs here do show Milsap’s range of vocal abilities. There’s the melodramatic “Stranger in My House” (#5, 1982), whose jealous narrator gets passionately angry. Milsap bites out the words and raises his pitch and volume to match the protagonist’s suspicions. On the other side of the vocal spectrum is Milsap’s silky version of Jim Reeves “Am I Losing You” (#1, 1980). He restrains his emotions and lets the painful words speak for themselves. The George Jones-style bounciness of “Daydreams About Night Things” (#1, 1975) allows Milsap to slobber about lustful cravings in a fun, cartoonish manner. He’s also able to romantically croon, doo-wop style, as on “Lost in the Fifties Tonight” (#1, 1985). His song-within-the-song rendition of “In the Still of the Night” during the aforementioned track brings a chill as Milsap’s rich timbre brings the past alive.
The 40 songs here are from Milsap’s 20 golden years with RCA, but he’s had big hit records on other labels—and RCA again—during the ‘90s and onward. But these are the classic recordings. They provide a glimpse into a time when popular country music was as safe and comforting as a glass of warm milk. My guess is that most readers prefer the harder stuff, and so do I.