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News: NPR Interview: Ronnie Milsap, A Life In Music, Touched By God

Musician Ronnie Milsap was born blind and shunned by his mother, who believed his blindness was punishment from God. He was raised by his grandparents, learned Braille at the age of 6, and lost the last remnant of his sight after a blow from a teacher at school. Guest host David Greene speaks with Milsap about his life, his new CD of gospel tunes and how the pop and country star was inspired by the hymns he sang in church as a child.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Multiple Grammy award-winning singer Ronnie Milsap has had more than 40 number one hit singles over his long country music career. But on this latest CD, he turns his attention to gospel tunes.

(Soundbite of song, "Swing Down Chariot")

Mr. RONNIE MILSAP (Singer): (Singing) Why don't you swing down, sweet chariot, stop and let me ride; swing down chariot and stop and let me ride. Rock me, Lord, rock me, Lord, calm and easy. Well, I got home on the other side. Why don't you…

GREENE: "Then Sings My Soul: 24 Favorite Hymns and Gospel Songs" features two CDs worth of traditional tunes, like "Swing Down Chariot" - right there - also "I'll Fly Away" and "What a Friend We Have In Jesus," as well as some contemporary gospel songs. And Ronnie Milsap joins me in our New York studios. Ronnie, thanks so much for doing this.

Mr. MILSAP: Thank you, David. It's a pleasure to be on with you.

GREENE: Well, you've had quite a successful career in this country music category. Why move now to gospel in this album?

Mr. MILSAP: I think this idea has been brewing for probably 30 years. But as long as I was chasing the mainstream part of what I was doing, most record companies did not want to change that. But most of these songs, David, it's incredible. I found out, you know, it goes back to when you're a child and singing in church. And most of us, that's the first place we ever sang before an audience, was in church.

And I just - those songs were indelible in my memory. And I didn't have to Braille the lyrics out to very many except the new ones that we had to do.

GREENE: Wow. Well, you have a song like "Amazing Grace," that has been played in so many churches. People have heard it in church on Sunday mornings; people have heard it in a lot of other places. I mean, so many incarnations of that. How do you make it fresh?

Mr. MILSAP: The main thing for me, David, was to have enough love around you so the musicians that were picked for the sessions had been playing with me in Nashville for 30 years - same producer. You get enough love around you to where you're not afraid to find yourself, to find my own voice from my heart, you know, on these songs.

GREENE: Let's listen to some of your voice on that song.

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

Mr. MILSAP: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.

GREENE: That is an important lyric for you - was blind and now I see. Your biography reads something like a parable. You were born blind in dire poverty in North Carolina.

Mr. MILSAP: Absolutely.

GREENE: How does that inform your music?

Mr. MILSAP: I was fortunate to be raised by loving grandparents. My mother, you know, and I don't know the circumstances, you know, at those times. Things are quite a bit different today. But a long time ago, you know, with religious beliefs and churches, you know, sometimes young women could not deal with having a blind child. And she just did not want a blind child; she didn't know what to do with it.

And actually my grandmother and her husband, which was actually my step-grandfather - Homer Frisby and Phinea(ph) Frisby. They were my grandparents and they raised me. You know, I came to their house when I was a year and a day old.

GREENE: Ronnie, I want to ask you about your mother, if I can. You mentioned religion. I've read your biography that she wondered whether you were a punishment from God.

Mr. MILSAP: Right. You know, that's hard for me to understand, a religion that would believe that. But even the church services growing up, David, at the Meadow Branch Primitive Baptist Church, which that goes back a long way, they didn't handle snakes or anything like that, but they had foot washings. You know, people would jump up and shout at church or they would roll in the aisles.

But in some way that was my first introduction to real theater.

GREENE: Did you ever talk to your mother? Do you think she - did she know that you became successful?

Mr. MILSAP: She knows about me. She brought her second child by. I think I was about six years old. And her name is Brenda Gail, and brought her by to my grandparents' house. And she said, Ron, I want you to feel her eyes. You know, her eyes are so pretty. She did not shame me the way that you did. She can see.

And that was - that's about the last time I ever talked to her. And as I say, as far as, you know, forgiveness or whatever, that's happened a long time ago, David. I don't hold any ill feelings, any negative feelings at all about her. I wish her the best of health. And actually she is still alive.

GREENE: You have, on this new collection, about half the songs are vintage, but the other half are pretty new. And I want to listen to one of the new ones, "Jesus Was All I Had."

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus Was All I Had")

Mr. MILSAP: (Singing) I thought I was strong and I could make it on my own. Lord, I was nothing but a fool.

My good friend Donnie Fritz wrote this song. He hangs out with folks like Kris Kristofferson and a lot of the real just incredible songwriters. When we sang it in the studio (unintelligible) I think, second take.

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus Was All I Had")

Mr. MILSAP: (Singing) And I didn't know that Jesus was all I ever needed, 'cause Jesus was all I had. That's the truth.

GREENE: Was Jesus all you had at some of those tough times early in your life?

Mr. MILSAP: Yeah, oh yeah. What happened in my life was a wonderful thing that eventually changed my life. I became involved in a residential school for the blind in Raleigh - the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh.

GREENE: And there was some pretty barbaric disciplinary actions…

Mr. MILSAP: Oh yeah, oh yeah. They loved to - now, academically I will say, it's the finest education you could ever get. They discovered my aptitude for music. So I was up playing violin at seven and translating that information to play guitar, piano at eight. I've got to give so much credit for everything I do, because they taught us Braille - I was six. You can't make it as a blind person without Braille.

GREENE: As the school is teaching you Braille, why the discipline?

Mr. MILSAP: You know, I think it's a different period, David. It's not something that would happen in school today. But this is a long time ago and that was pretty well accepted back then. If somebody said something that was wrong, get slapped in the face and said don't you say that to me again.

GREENE: Seems especially cruel even at a school for the blind though.

Mr. MILSAP: Yeah. And eventually even, you know, taking up for one of my friends, you know, a house father slapped him in the face and broke his glasses. And I said you shouldn't have done that. That's, you know, that's just wrong. So to make a point even worse, he slapped me in the face.

And I had just a little bit of light vision in my left eye but I woke up the next morning to a sea of red in that left eye. But it was funny - they took my tonsils out when I was six in this infirmary and when I was 15 they took my left eye out in the same place.

GREENE: Wow.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MILSAP: (Singing) Whoa, many is the day I have squandered away, bended low from the weight I was under…

GREENE: I'm curious to know about the audience you're targeting with this new album. Were you thinking of your old country music fans? Or are you trying to attract some gospel aficionados?

Mr. MILSAP: Oh yeah. I'm very serious about this album. And I could've done it years ago, but I'm just thankful to God that I finally had the opportunity to actually do this.

GREENE: Ronnie Milsap, it has been an absolute pleasure and honor talking to you today. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. MILSAP: Thank you for having me on, David.

GREENE: Ronnie Milsap's new album is called "Then Sings My Soul," and you can hear additional tunes at NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MILSAP: (Singing) Oh hear my plea, won't you help my eyes to see. I am…

by David Green
NPR.org