Country star Ronnie Milsap doesn’t want to be enshrined as the poor, blind kid who made it. For one thing, he notes of his Smoky Mountain boyhood, “I didn’t realize we were poor, so I didn’t know what I was missing.” More important, he finds a blessing in his blindness: “I was sent to a special school where my training was excellent,” he reflects. “If I hadn’t been blind, I would probably still be in the backwoods of North Carolina working in a sawmill.”
Instead, Milsap, 34, is the lord of a century-old colonial mansion on seven and a half prime Nashville acres, the fruit of 18 No. 1 singles since 1973, including What Goes On When the Sun Goes Down, (I’m a) Stand By Your Woman Man and the current Why Don’t You Spend the Night. His rich emotive tenor and mellow lyrics, suggesting a Smoky Mountain Manilow, have also earned him two Grammys, the Country Music Association’s award for best album and best male vocalist three times each, and in 1977 the biggie: Entertainer of the Year. “I’ve won everything,” he cracks, “except Best Female Vocalist.” With the sound track for Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy planned for next month, Milsap’s next goal is the final crossover—to become a TV star.
“At this year’s CMA awards show, instead of just sitting behind my piano, I wanted to walk out on the stage and sing,” explains Milsap. “The producer was hesitant, but I did it.” Several mishaps in concert have hardly diminished Milsap’s bravado. He once fell off a stool and finished the show with a broken finger; at another engagement he tripped over his amplifiers and continued—without letting on he’d sustained a gash in his leg that later required 18 stitches. “Ronnie,” says brother-in-law and business manager Don Reeves, “is not scared of anything.”
Milsap has fought off adversity from the start in Robbinsville, N.C. Born with congenital glaucoma, he was turned over to his grandparents by his mother and father (a TVA laborer) when he was a few months old. (He later maintained strained contact with both parents.) At Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, a lonely 400 miles away from home, he mastered violin, keyboards, woodwinds and guitar by the age of 12. At 18, Milsap, an honor student, entered Young Harris Junior College in Georgia, and “Whoa! That’s when I entered the real world,” recalls Milsap. “The social aspect was the most valuable experience of my life.” While in college he met secretary Joyce Reeves (“It was love at first sound”), and they married in 1965.
Choosing music over a scholarship to a law school, Ronnie worked clubs and bars in Atlanta and Memphis for eight years. Eager to try a recording career in Nashville, he broke a contract with a Memphis club owner that led to a financially ruinous lawsuit in 1973. But shortly after landing a gig at Roger Miller’s King of the Road Inn in Nashville, Milsap signed with RCA Records and hit No. 1 with his single I Hate You later that year.
Milsap’s free time at home is spent playing kickball with son Todd (now 10 and without vision problems), reading classics and best-sellers in braille or on tape (“Scruples was out on cassette three months after it hit the stands”) and eating. “It’s amazing,” marvels Milsap, who’s jogging two miles a day to shed 20 pounds, “that I can be so disciplined in other ways and undisciplined in eating.” An electronics nut who has mastered the 40-track console at his own $1.5 million Groundstar Studio on Music Row, Ronnie operates a ham radio, owns 14 TV sets and handles his finances with a talking calculator while awaiting the next breakthrough—the talking computer. “The electronic age has opened all kinds of doors for me.”
Determination has opened the rest. “Lots of people have difficulty dealing with blind persons,” observes Milsap. “Luckily, I’ve had the talent to overcome that prejudice.” “But what if you didn’t?” asks Joyce. “Yeah,” nods Ronnie, “but I did.”