Ronnie Milsap is a perennial favorite among the country stars centered in Nashville. Born blind and poor in the Smoky Mountain region, Milsap learned to make music as a youngster. He decided in 1973 to concentrate on country tunes after having played rhythm and blues, classical, and even rock and roll. Since then, to quote Los Angeles Times contributor Thomas K. Arnold, Milsap has been “to country music what Stevie Wonder is to pop. They’re both prodigious hit-makers, they’re both considered legends in their respective genres and they’re both blind.” Arnold adds that “virtually everything [Milsap has] recorded has turned to gold.”
Milsap’s blindness is a result of congenital glaucoma, a condition that rendered him sightless at birth. The performer has candidly admitted that had he not been blind, he might never have become a musician at all. He told People: “I was sent to a special school where my training was excellent. If I hadn’t been blind, I would probably still be in the backwoods of North Carolina working in a saw mill.” Milsap was indeed born in the “backwoods” - in Robinsville, a tiny farming community near the Tennessee border. Raised by his grandparents, Milsap was five when they sent him to the State School for the Blind in Raleigh.
The school was four hundred miles from his home, but rather than languishing in homesickness, Milsap prospered in the educational environment. He learned to play the violin from a sensitive teacher whom Milsap described as “a consummate musician and a philosopher who could communicate with a bewildered child.” Milsap was given a thorough grounding in classical music, and, in addition to the violin, he learned to play keyboards, woodwinds, and the guitar. He also experimented with a number of different musical styles, forming a rock band with several other blind students and playing rhythm and blues and jazz.
Milsap attended Young-Harris Junior College in Atlanta, studying pre-law and earning honor-roll grades. He was offered a full scholarship to Emory University, but he decided to pursue professional musicianship instead. In 1965 he formed his own band and supported himself by doing sideman work for blues artist J. J. Cale. By 1969 his band had a regular gig at T.J.’s, a Memphis club. They played all sorts of music - country, rock, jazz, blues, and pop - and in 1970 they recorded a hit single, “Loving You Is a Natural Thing.”
Gradually Milsap realized that his talent lay primarily in country music. In 1973 he moved his family to Nashville, signed with RCA Records, and quickly became a celebrity with the chart-topping singles “I Hate You,” “Pure Love,” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends.”
According to Melvin Shestack in The Country Music Encyclopedia, Milsap was considered “Nashville’s ‘own’ performer” after he began a regular engagement at Roger Miller’s King of the Road motel. Milsap’s albums sold well, and his personal appearances were met with enthusiastic ovations. In 1974 he earned the first of many awards from the prestigious Country Music Association: ”Best Male Vocalist of the Year.” He was named “Entertainer of the Year,” the CMA’s highest honor, in 1977. People magazine correspondent Dolly Carlisle suggests that determination opened doors for Milsap, but his talent and his memorable songs kept the door open. Milsap’s “rich emotive tenor and mellow lyrics” have suggested “a Smoky Mountain Manilow,” Carlisle writes.
Many country artists seek the elusive “crossover” hit - the song that will top the pop and country charts. Milsap scored on this front with “Smoky Mountain Rain,” a dramatic heartbreak song released in 1981. He has also made the pop charts with the singles “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” and “Any Day Now.” Milsap does not strive for the pop sound, however. He told Shestack that he remains true to the genre of his region. “The only music I heard for the first six years of my life was country,” he said. “It’s hard to get away from those early influences. I have played, and can play, any kind of music, but you must do what your heart feels is right, and to me that’s country.”