Country stars join forces to honor Ronnie Millsap

Nearly three dozen country artists will gather at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena Tuesday night to pay tribute to Ronnie Millsap. Starring Kelly Clarkson, Ricky Skaggs, Little Big Town, Trace Atkins, The Catlin Brothers, Terry Clark, Bill Vassar, Tracy Lawrence, Neil McCoy and more.

They will honor one of country music’s most successful artists, performing many of Millsap’s hits over the past five decades. A six-time Grammy Award winner, he has charted multiple times, reaching number one among his 40 songs.

Millsap celebrated his 80th birthdayTh Birthday at the Grand Ole Opry in January, isn’t fully retired yet, but announced earlier this year — it will be his final show in Nashville.

„I love Nashville and the amazing life my fans have given me,” she says. „I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

He added, “It’s going to be a great show. There are so many artists. I’m really looking forward to it.

Artists are also excited. Little Big Town tweeted, „We can’t wait to celebrate Ronnie Millsap’s legacy.” Trace Atkins called Millsap’s voice one of the greatest in country music, and Sarah Evans noted that „Salute to this icon as he closes the Music City chapter of his storied career.”

Actor Phil Wasser says Millsap influenced him not only as a singer and songwriter, but also as a musician. In the guitar-driven genre of country music, Vassar, like Millsap, plays piano.

„He’s one of my absolute heroes,” Wasser says. „I love that they’re honoring him and I’m so lucky to be a part of it. I grew up with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Billy Joel, and of course Ronnie Millsap and Charlie Rich, two country pianists. Ronnie is an amazing singer, the best in the business. Plus, I’ve had the opportunity to do a few things with him over the years, and he’s incredibly gracious and kind.

The night will touch on Millsap’s contributions to country music, while many of his pop songs would end up becoming crossover hits.

From the early ’70s, a long list of familiar Millsap tunes include: „Pure Love,” „Please Don’t Tell How the Story Ends,” „Daydreams of Night Things,” „Almost Like a Song,” „What a Difference You’ve Made in My Life.” ,” “Smoky Mountain Rain,” “He Got You,” and more.

The Country Music Hall of Famer, who would go on to achieve enormous success in music, overcame some difficult challenges early in life.

Millsap was born on January 16, 1943. He was blind at birth, which his mother considered a punishment for sin. He was left with his grandparents to raise, and they sent him to the North Carolina State School for the Blind in Raleigh, hoping it would give him better opportunities. There, at the age of eight, he began taking piano lessons. But despite his talent for music, after graduating high school, he attended Young Harris Junior College with plans to go to law school.

However, fate intervened one evening when Millsap was visiting with his roommate while his roommate was doing laundry. They stopped at the rec room.

„I asked him what was in this room?” Millsap comes to mind. „And he said there were lots of things, including a ping pong table and a piano in the corner.”

Millsap walked over to the piano.

„While he went and washed his clothes, I played the hits of the day. I was singing Jackie Wilson’s „Lonely Teardrops” and Roy Orbison’s „Crying,” and everyone couldn’t believe it.

That Friday night at a show at the Gainesville (Georgia) Civic Center, Millsap was approached by a guy who invited him to sit in with his band. Millsap did, and later began accompanying the band as they played college shows across the region.

„By playing with them, I started to realize that music was what I wanted to do,” he says.

As a musician, then an artist, Millsap took a detour to Nashville, first ending up in Atlanta. In the early years, he played various genres of music. He was laying the groundwork for what would become his unique style by incorporating elements from various genres into his songs.

In fact, his first minor hit wasn’t a country song, long before he hit Music Row.

„I cut it at the scepter in New York,” Millsap says. „It was called 'Never Been.’ I was an R&B singer at the time. I heard one of my songs on the radio for the first time, and it was really cool.

Millsap went to Memphis next. He got a regular gig at a nightclub called T. J’s and remembers Elvis coming in one night.

„I said, 'Elvis, do you want to get up and sing tonight? I know all your songs. Elvis said no, he wanted to enjoy the night with his friends, and I said that’s fine. And then in the middle of the night, he came around and kissed all the girls, including my wife Joyce. .

Millsap stops. Laughing, he adds, „She doesn’t think much of him.”

However, he and Elvis would become friends.

„I loved Elvis. Always did. In fact, before that, I had 78s of all his early stuff at Sun Studios.

Millsap did some session work at Chip Moman’s Memphis studio, where he added vocals and played piano on Elvis Presley’s „Kentucky Rain.”

„I got to sing and play a lot of stuff,” he says.

In 1972, Millsap moved to Nashville, and the following year, signed with RCA Records. This was the beginning of his extraordinary career in country music.

Millsap credits his late wife, Joyce, with providing both inspiration and guidance over the years. The two got married in 1965. It has been difficult since his passing in September 2021. (The couple also lost their only son in 2019.)

„I directed a lot of songs by her,” he says. “She was a great help to me. I will certainly miss her.”

There was one song, however, that Joyce initially disliked. Millsap says of his favorite of the many he’s recorded: „It was almost like a song.”

„I heard a demo of that song and my wife was like, 'Why would you want to hear that? He sounds terrible,'” Millsap says of the demo singer. „But when I got home, I worked on the house with the arrangement I wanted. And then, when I showed it to her, she said, 'What’s that?’ I told you that was the song you hated last year.”

Millsap further developed it in the studio.

„I cut it at Woodland Studios, and Les Lott was the engineer. I said, 'The piano isn’t bright enough. The piano needs to be bright like Barry Manilow’s piano.’ So, Les did a little trick and turned the Dolby off on one of the piano channels, and sure enough it sounded brighter and better.

While the list of songs each artist will perform at the upcoming tribute has yet to be released, Millsap knows who will be singing, „it was almost like a song,” and can’t wait to hear it.

„I’m really looking forward to hearing Kelly Clarkson sing that song. I think she’ll do great!”

He is excited about the artists who will take the stage in his honor. He is also very grateful.

„So many artists are coming to be a part of it. It’s going to be really special.”

Tickets are still available. For more information, visit Ticketmaster or Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

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