“Call up Billy Sherrill and tell him, ‘I’m in!'” says Ronnie Milsap from behind the keyboard at Ronnie’s Place, the legendary Music Row studio once owned by the singer himself and now named in his honor. It’s a cold winter day in Nashville, and he and Kacey Musgraves have just run through a version of “No Getting Over Me,” the 1981 hit that’s now featured on Milsap’s new album, Ronnie Milsap: The Duets. And he’s clearly enthused by what he’s hearing, calling out the late legendary producer’s name in tribute. Musgraves’ grandmother, otherwise known as “Nana,” is watching, too — she’s tagged along for this morning’s session before they embark on a shopping trip (“We’re going to T.J. Max after this,” Musgraves says). In town from Texas, Nana is a longtime Milsap fan, and everyone gathered in the control room wants to know what she thinks. “I think it sounds really good to me,” Nana answers. “But I might be prejudiced.”
She might be, but she’s also right. In just three takes, Musgraves and Milsap turned the Number One single into a smooth and sweet duet, with each artist smiling and adlibbing their way through. It’s just one of many reworks of classic Milsap tunes on The Duets, an album that also features George Strait, Dolly Parton, Jason Aldean, the late Leon Russell, Willie Nelson and Little Big Town, who joined Milsap onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night. Milsap, whose last album was 2016’s Gospel Greats, a repackaging of the original two-disc project for Black River, was inspired in part by Lionel Richie’s own country duets LP, Tuskegee. Two years in the making, The Duets spans Milsap’s storied career, one that pushed country’s boundaries with hits on both R&B, pop, adult contemporary and country radio.
These days, the 76-year-old Milsap nearly sees himself as a traditionalist. “I’m so glad I don’t have to try to get into country music today,” he says, sitting on a beige chenille couch in between takes. “The things I really love about country, they are not very popular anymore. The heart and soul of what I love about country, it’s very similar to the blues, and it’s about people and the stories people have. Lost love, something they are excited about, it’s all in a song.”
The North Carolina-born Milsap — who has logged 40 chart-topping singles and won six Grammy awards — started singing those stories in the Sixties, honing his voice in Memphis before he made the move to Nashville. It was his time in Elvis Presley’s hometown, and eventually as a pianist on several Presley tracks, that helped inform his rock & roll and soul influence, and a run-in with Ray Charles that motivated him to stick with his passion for performing, despite the odds (like Charles, Milsap is blind).
Though Music Row quickly recognized Milsap’s talents (he was signed to RCA shortly after making it to Nashville), his genre-blending approach was, at first, uncomfortable for country radio. Though it went on to be a hit and is now one of his most iconic tracks, some stations didn’t warm to the guitar solo from instrumentalist Bruce Dees on 1983’s “Stranger in My House,” even editing it out in some radio versions.
“When that record came out, radio refused to play it because of that solo,” Milsap says. On The Duets, he recruits Bryan for an updated version, solos intact. “They said it sounded too much like Led Zeppelin. They said, ‘This is country radio, we can’t play that.'” Milsap proved them wrong: the song eventually went Top Ten on both the country charts and adult contemporary, and Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100, helping prove that Nashville’s exports have an audience far beyond the south — and that the quality of the song is much more important than whatever genre it calls home.
Of course, country radio now plays plenty of songs with prominent electric guitar solos (Keith Urban, in particular, is a favorite of Milsap’s). And while those programmers haven’t warmed to Musgraves, Milsap’s a diehard fan. “I always thought her records were just so impressive,” he says. “To have a chance to sing this song with her, it’s a real plus.”
Milsap was even hoping to record a duet with Merle Haggard, which never came to fruition before his death in 2016. “For years I talked with Merle about doing a duet,” Milsap says. “I was disappointed, as we all are. He was one of the real mainstays of country music.”
He did get a chance to record, however, with two other mainstays — Parton and Strait, the latter with whom Milsap once toured alongside a young Taylor Swift. “It was quite a package,” says Milsap. “And they always had really good food. George Strait always made sure that we were fed well.” Elsewhere, Milsap’s duet with Leon Russell, a bluesy, horn-adorned version of “Misery Loves Company,” is one of the album’s highlights: and it’s one of Russell’s last recordings before his death in 2016.
Though The Duets carries several of those bittersweet footnotes, Milsap’s focused on the future: a tour that kicked off Wednesday with a 76th birthday gig at the Ryman and some other shinier goals. “I’m always looking for another Grammy,” he says, laughing. “I have a few, but I need some more.”