Ronnie Milsap likes to go to the WSM-AM 650 radio studio and sit with legendary country music air personality Eddie Stubbs. But these visits aren’t about promotion. They’re about inspiration, as Milsap listens intently while Stubbs plays classic country CDs, vinyl albums and even thick, supposedly archaic 78 RPM records.
Since his troubled childhood days in Appalachia, Milsap has been drawn to the simple and plaintive sounds of country music. His voice is well capable of singing blues, R&B, pop and rock sounds, and his 40 chart-topping hits cover a wider stylistic terrain than any other superstar of country music.
Milsap will perform at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16 at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol. Reserved tickets are $48 for adults; $44 for seniors; and $38 for groups of eight or more.
Milsap was born into dire poverty in the Appalachian town of Robbinsville, N.C., and his mother viewed her newborn’s blindness as punishment from God. Shortly after his first birthday, he was given to his grandmother to raise.
At age 6, he was sent to the Governor Morehead State School for the Blind in Raleigh, and the young boy faced barbaric disciplinary treatment all through his grade school and high school years.
Milsap took refuge in music and the radio. Morehead put him through strict classical music training, a program that was heightened after Milsap showed the innate talent of a prodigy. At the same time, he obsessively listened to the radio, especially the late-night programs of country music, gospel and rhythm-andblues.
Those dual pursuits — demanding classical study and an intense pop music obsession — served Milsap well. By age 20, he had released his first single, “Total Disaster,” produced by Huey Meaux on Princess Records.
He went on to record R&B-styled songs in Houston and Memphis for a variety of labels, including Warner Bros. and Reprise, but Milsap’s talent just wasn’t getting heard.
The turning point came when Milsap moved from Memphis to Nashville on Dec. 26, 1972, to take a regular gig at the King of the Road hotel, at the time a top music industry hangout. He became friends with music publisher Tom Collins, who would work on Milsap’s initial Nashville demo recordings as well as produce his early hit albums. He also hooked up with heavyweight artist manager Jack Johnson, who worked with Charley Pride.
In April 1973, Milsap began a long-lasting association with RCA Records. His 40 No. 1 hits stand as a testament to his success and staying power as a country artist.
With more than 30 albums under his belt, it’s rare that an artist with more than four decades of accolades to his credit would continue to seek out new challenges, but that’s precisely what the country soul legend has done. March 2009 brought the release of Milsap’s first foray into gospel music — the double album, “Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns and Gospel Favorites,” (EMI Christian Records).
While looking back at the enormous impact he had on country music in the past four decades, the ebullient singer insists on looking ahead as well.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of successful records,” he said. “Now it’s time to make some more.”
And true to his word, Milsap is far from slowing down. Released earlier this year, “Country Again,” a partnership between Milsap Music and Bigger Picture, is Milsap’s first country-oriented album in six years.
“I came to town to sing country music,” Milsap said. “And when left to my own devices, around the house, it’s what I love to sing. It all dates back to my roots in North Carolina, and it’s in my blood. Fans had been asking me when I was going to do another country album, and Eddie Stubbs told me I ought to do it. I said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll be the executive producer.’ He said, ‘What does an executive producer do?’ and I said, ‘He encourages me.’ ”
Twelve country songs later, Stubbs is an executive producer. Milsap and his co-producer, Rob Galbraith, rounded up a crew of master musicians — including fiddler Andy Leftwich, steel guitarist Paul Franklin and harmony vocalist Dawn Sears (of the Grammy-nominated group The Time Jumpers) — and recorded an album that is a showcase for Milsap’s rangy, emotional voice, an instrument that has helped him to four Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year prizes and to six Grammy Awards.
“This life is such a wonderful journey, and I want the chance to live every bit of it,” he said. “And music is a huge part of that. I live and breathe it every day.”
To order tickets, call the Paramount Box Office at (423) 274-8920 or visit www.etix.com .