The tag that always seems to present itself when talk turns to the arsenal of hits Ronnie Milsap took to the top of the country charts throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s is perhaps prophetic: crossover.
Long before the Nashville acts of today edged their way into regions of hip-hop, pop and unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll, Milsap was leading a charge into soul and R&B, pop/funk and any manner of rock-directed mischief. Though more than practiced in honky tonk tradition, Milsap has never seen country music as being tied exclusively to country tradition.
“When I got into this, a long time ago, the music was much more basic roots country than it is today,” he said. “But really, I was responsible for pushing the envelope. I did things like ‘Button Off My Shirt’ (a heavily synthesized, funk-friendly hit from 1988), so I’m as much to blame for taking the music away from country as anybody.”
“Ronnie has touched on honky tonk country, but so much of his music is crossover,” said John Heinrich, a Nashville-based multi-instrumentalist who has served as Milsap’s pedal steel guitarist for the past six years. A New York native, Heinrich grew up in Lexington, graduated from Lafayette High School and attended the University of Kentucky before cutting his musical teeth during a six-year stay in Europe. Heinrich will be in Milsap’s band for an Opera House concert on Feb. 28.
“I mean, ‘Stranger in My House’ (a 1983 hit) is pop, but I’m more on the pop side, too. The reason I’m playing music period is because of The Beatles. But Ronnie’s songs are so melodic, so musical. They’re not just three chords. Ronnie’s not like that. He takes his music down many different avenues. That’s why he’s been so successful. And, boy, does he deliver.”
Affirming Milsap’s broad stylistic appeal, not to mention his bank of nearly 40 No. 1 singles, for a new country generation is his 2019 album, ‘The Duets.’ The record revisits past chart successes (“Stranger in My House,” “Smokey Mountain Rain” and “Lost in the Fifties”) by way of newly recorded versions with a team of country-and-more stars that span the decades. Among the guests are country legends Willie Nelson, George Strait and Dolly Parton as well as modern day favorites Kacey Musgraves, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.
“All these great artists just started stumbling in,” Milsap said. “We got Little Big Town to come in. We called (LBT singer) Karen Fairchild and she said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do that,’ so they came in and sang ‘Lost in the Fifties.’ Then they called up Luke Bryan and said, ‘You’ve got to be on this record.’ So he came in the next day and sang ‘Stranger in My House’ with me. One thing just kind of led to another.
“The one I really wish I had a chance to sing with, but we couldn’t find the right song, was (Eastern Kentucky native) Patty Loveless. She’s one of my favorite people. But we’re going to find a song to do together. There might be a ‘Duets, Vol. II.’ Who knows?”
Reflecting the extremes of the material on “The Duets” is the album-opening “Southern Boys and Detroit Wheels,” a bit of swampy blues-funk with ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons that takes Milsap out of country completely.
“I played with it some in the studio, but couldn’t think of who I would record it with. I thought of Hank (Williams) Jr. I called him but he never would return my calls. But that’s alright. I love Hank. Then my manager was talking to Billy Gibbons’ manager about this song. Eventually, Billy said, ‘I’m going to get on this right now.’ What he did on there – his guitar skills and his voice, the way they sounded – was just perfect for me.”
“The Duets” draws to a somewhat bittersweet close with a cover of the brassy Southern blues-soul staple “Shaky Ground” cut with the Central Kentucky-bred duo Montgomery Gentry prior to the 2017 death of singer Troy Gentry.
“That’s such a sad thing,” Milsap said. “I wish I had more memories to share of Troy. I know Eddie slightly better. But, good Lord, that record they cut called ‘Gone’ (a 2004 hit that featured a vocal lead from Gentry)… ‘Gone like a ’59 Cadillac, like all the good things that ain’t ever coming back.’ I mean, what a great record.
“You know, for awhile, I thought crossover was just a dirty word. Nowadays, if you crossover, they say you’re leaving country. But you’re not. You’re just expanding your audience. That’s all you’re doing. I’ve been lucky enough to appeal to adult contemporary or pop or whatever you want to call it, but the music is still country.”
If you go: Ronnie Milsap
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short
Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000