Those formative teenage years set a tone for an entire lifetime. Personal battles, career goals, ideas about love – figuring out how all of that will play out during adulthood is one of the big chores of those high-school years. Setting the backdrop for much of that inner struggle is the music – it’s the soundtrack of one’s identity, the bond that glues generations.
That idea is at the heart of Ronnie Milsap’s Summer #17, an album that explores the influences on a musician who built a Hall of Fame-caliber career, who became one of the most influential voices in country music’s storied history.
Much has been made about how such new country acts as Eric Church, The Band Perry and Luke Bryan have fused elements of pop music’s past with the country core to create a new wave of sound. But Milsap set the standard for thinking outside of country’s proverbial box.
Milsap emulated James Taylor in his vocal approach to “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” a #1 record in country and pop; hooked into the instructions he got playing piano on Elvis Presley sessions to build the sound of “Smoky Mountain Rain,” another major crossover hit; and recorded an entire album of songs made famous by late Country Music Hall of Famer Jim Reeves.
Milsap used pop, rock and R&B elements to test country’s borders, and did so in a way that connected fiercely with the music-buying public. He compiled 40 #1 country hits. Milsap’s sales accrued eight gold albums; his Greatest Hits made him one of the first acts in any genre to obtain double-platinum status after the RIAA introduced the multi-platinum honor in 1984.
Milsap earned a reputation for his meticulous recordings. He purchased a Music Row studio from Roy Orbison, renamed it Ground Star Laboratory, and experimented with elaborate keyboard parts, inventive guitar sounds and multi-layered vocals. It was a precursor to the modern recording era, where artists such as Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Brad Paisley and Steve Wariner have built their own recording facilities. Milsap’s former studio – which has been used by Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs and Pistol Annies – appropriately still operates today, lovingly re-branded Ronnie’s Place.
All of Milsap’s trend-setting history as a music maker informs Summer #17. Co-produced with longtime associate Rob Galbraith and Richard Landis, it incorporates the most important genres among his musical influences – country, pop and R&B – closing with “Lost In The Fifties Tonight,” reprising his award-winning 1985 #1 that successfully knitted a nostalgic doo-wop storyline with what was then considered a boundary-challenging ballad sound. Mandy Barnett, known for her frequent and critically acclaimed theatrical portrayals of Hall of Famer Patsy Cline, provides a strong female vocal partner on two tracks, including a remake of the Stylistics’ “You Make Me Feel Brand New.”
That male/female vocal relationship is central to the album’s mood. The music from the teen years sets the tone for adulthood, often intertwined with a person’s initial experiences with love. Those pangs of innocent romance – and their heart-breaking disappearance – are the backbone of “Summer #17.” Love plays a crucial role in every other song on the project, with the exception of Bobby Darrin’s jazz-pop mob tale “Mack The Knife.”
Love and its mysterious nature are, in fact, a thread that’s run through much of the material that’s set Milsap apart. An unrepentant series of love songs – “What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life,” “Daydreams About Night Things,” “How Do I Turn You On,” “She Keeps The Home Fires Burning,” “What Goes On When The Sun Goes Down” and “A Woman In Love,” among others – became inescapable hits, in part because of Milsap’s ability to recognize a great, universal melody. What makes a great melody is as nearly impossible to define as love itself.
“You don’t know why love works,” says Milsap. “You don’t know when you meet somebody and you feel a spark or you feel a connection – did that happen randomly? Or is it something that was predetermined?”
They’re the kinds of questions that apply to a Hall of Fame-caliber career: How much of it was effort? How much of it was sheer destiny? Those are also the kind of questions Milsap’s not entirely able to answer about his own love life. He married the former Joyce Reeves in 1965, and the couple is still together nearly five decades later, defying general music-business expectations. Whether it’s a result of random chance or divine guidance, Ronnie’s successful navigation of that primary relationship has fueled an artistic relationship with millions, because what’s most important in his life is also a priority in theirs.
“The only thing that really counts, that really matters is love,” he says. “That’s the only thing that’s gonna get me through.”
That personal connection with Joyce and his love for music are behind the innovation, the sweat, the creative fire and the elite Hall of Fame-level legacy Ronnie Milsap has developed. The seeds to that fire can be found in Summer #17. They provide a clue to the inspirations Milsap used to reshape the landscape of country with an uncanny daring, helping propel the genre forward from a time when it was dismissed by taste-makers to its current hipster status in American culture.
What the kids are doing today in redefining country is nothing new. They’re simply carrying on a master plan Milsap laid down years ago.
Showtime: 8:00pm | Doors Open: 7:00pm
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Shipshewana Event Center
760 S Van Buren St, Shipshewana, IN 46565