In a music career that has spanned nearly five decades, the influence of Ronnie Millsap is undeniable. Yet, since the bulk of his biggest radio hits came throughout the Seventies and Eighties, it may be surprising to some to find that Milsap continues to collect and inspire new fans to this day — fans of a generation far removed from AM radio and original 45 RPM singles. Take, for example, 23-year-old Hunter Hayes, who was born in 1991, the same year Millsap achieved his most recent Top Five hit, “Turn That Radio On.” Last fall at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, Hayes surprised his sold-out audience with a duet with the legendary entertainer on the 1983 hit, “Stranger in My House.” (Watch a fan’s footage of the performance below.) Hayes was also one of the performers who paid tribute to Milsap during his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Sunday night. Rolling Stone Country caught up with Hayes during rehearsals for his upcoming Tattoo (Your Name) Tour this past weekend, where the versatile musician reflected on the influence Milsap has had on his life and career.
“It’s nerve-racking to cover anybody’s songs, but it’s funny how much I enjoy singing Ronnie Milsap’s songs,” he told us. “I think that’s because I spent years of my life literally trying to sound like him. I started with the 40 Number Ones. I had that on repeat for a couple of years. I learned everything in the catalog and then started learning stuff outside of that collection.”
Although the Ryman gig was a year ago this month, Hayes refers to it as “the other night,” because the memory is still so fresh in his mind. A young artist intent on constantly stretching himself musically, he points to a couple of the singer’s classic crossover hits that inspired him, the first of which he also sang during the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“You’ve got ‘There’s No Getting Over Me,’ this really open, funky production,” he says. “Then you’ve got the other song that I got to play [with him at the Ryman]. ‘I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World’ is really cool and classic. The range of an artist like Mr. Ronnie is just astonishing and a great sort of lesson for somebody like me who’s trying to find my own sound. Take everything you listen to and find a place for it in your music. Let it change, let it evolve. Let it be different from one record to the next. He is a shining example of how to continue to find new things and the way you can present things. It’s just amazing to listen to his records.”