TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER
BRISTOL, Tenn. — Pure love.
Baby, it was pure love last night in the Birthplace of Country Music when Country Music Hall of Fame member Ronnie Milsap came to town.
Neither milk nor honey nor Cap’n Crunch needed as a near-capacity crowd got a steady diet of Milsap’s hits in the stately Paramount Center for the Arts. On a rainy night in Bristol, amid the 90-year shadow of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, Milsap exhibited decades of visionary music.
Some hits were country. Some popped with rock. He even jazzed a few up. All echoed something distinctly Milsap.
“When I first heard Ronnie at 10 years old, his voice hit me directly in the heart,” said Janet Phillips, a professor of music at Averett University in Danville. “There’s no genre he can’t do. Then he puts his stamp on it.”
Phillips and her husband Bob drove three hours to Bristol from their home in Danville to hear Milsap, who they befriended years ago. They stood backstage as Milsap eased onto his piano stool shortly after 7 p.m.
“Ronnie is the reason I’m a musician,” Janet Phillips said.
Moments before show time, Milsap’s mustachioed steel guitarist, John Heinrich, strode by.
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Heinrich said. “I’ve been with Ronnie for four years.”
Just a few feet away, folks grew more eager in their seats. As the clock ticked near and Milsap smiled in wait, Heinrich looked at his boss with pride.
“No ego,” Heinrich said of Milsap. “He’s the nicest guy on Earth,”
Moments later, Heinrich settled in at his steel guitar. The curtain opened, cameras flashed, and Milsap grinned.
Quickly, Milsap veered to the edge of country with 1984’s pop-inflected “Prisoner of the Highway,” just one of the singer’s 49 country Top 10 singles. There simply wasn’t any way he could play them all during a two-set show, so he clipped several hits and bound them into medley form — as with 1982’s “Any Day Now” and “He Got You.”
One such cobbling featured nearly 10 of his classics. From “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” he delivered snippets of standbys including “Still Losing You,” “Let’s Take the Long Way Around the World” and “Where Do the Nights Go.”
Now, Milsap does not sing quite like he did 30 years ago. However, he has adapted. His old pipes were marked by a brute force, but he has a nuanced touch now.
An exquisite “It Was Almost Like a Song” demonstrated the 74-year-old’s sublime grasp of the ebbs and flows of drama set to song. Whispered vocals accompanied light touches of the keys. Seconds turned to minutes as Milsap’s talents built to a cloud-bursting crescendo.
The applause was thunderous. Milsap smiled broadly and kept going, every song wrapped in “99 and 44 one hundreds percent pure love.” If the Paramount had been a church, then surely someone would have shouted, “Hallelujah, brother!”
“I love you, Ronnie!” an unseen fan bellowed from the crowd.
“I love you, too,” Milsap replied.
Wearing black jeans and a black shirt with red roses and rhinestones, Milsap beamed his way through a steel-laced “Back on My Mind Again.” On occasion he leaned his head back, as on “(I’m A) Stand by My Woman Man,” extended his arms, and let fly the notes like love letters spun into the cool of the Bristol night.
Accentuated by a six-person band, the North Carolina native performed as if for thousands. Hundreds responded as if they were thousands.
Distinguishable nods to Milsap’s early country days came via 1974’s sorrow-drenched “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time” early and 1974’s honeyed “Pure Love” late. In each, country authenticity arose with a mighty kick.
Then came the water.
As if droplets of rain gently cascaded the keys of Milsap’s blackened piano, “Smoky Mountain Rain” evoked the night. Loneliness thumbed a ride and rode shotgun. “I keep on calling her name,” he sang from a crossroads of yearning and desperation. “I can’t keep on hurting this way.”
Drenched in hits and wrung dry as a tearless eye, Milsap came up all gold and platinum. Bristol banked a winner in Milsap, and Milsap cashed in on an exuberant audience who bought every note.