As show biz goes, country music is an old folks’ trade. Most performers don’t make it big until their mid-or late-30s. But this winter, at age 29 and only two years after he took up country music, Ronnie Milsap won both a Grammy and the Male Vocalist of the Year award. But nobody was complaining, for Milsap has been paying a kind of dues all his life: he was born blind. Despite a dark world, his vision of himself seems unafflicted.
Raised in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Ronnie was shunted by his parents to a grandmother because of his congenital cataracts. He attended North Carolina’s State School for the Blind from kindergarten through high school. There his teachers insisted he learn to weave cane chair bottoms, but they also introduced him to Mozart and Bach. He couldn’t see the disapproval on faculty faces when he pounded rock and roll piano in the practice room—although he understood how they felt when they suspended him from the music department for a year. He kept polishing his talent while attending prelaw courses at Young-Harris, an Atlanta junior college, at the state’s urging.
At 19 he quit school, got married and started an eight-year round of seedy southern nightclubs and failed record contracts as a rock musician until he finally came home to country. “It was going back to my roots,” says Ronnie, “and I found I didn’t have to be anything but myself to do it.” The earliest music Milsap heard was that of the Baptist Church and of Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. From the first his own country releases were hits, especially Pure Love, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends and Legend in My Time.
Onstage and off, Ronnie refers constantly to his blindness and makes jokes about it. “I had a speech prepared for you in Braille,” he will say at the start of a concert, “but Charley Pride stepped on it.” Because Ronnie once fell off a stage, he does a pre-show reconnoiter and counts the steps to the orchestra pit. “Musically I can function as well as anyone, but if I get stuck in an airport alone for a few hours, I just have to sit and listen.” Ronnie’s drummer Steve Holt guides him around at work and his wife, Joyce, does it at home.
Joyce, who also picks Ronnie’s clothes (embroidered Western duds, less spangly than Stevie Wonder’s, less tacky than Ray Charles’s white socks) becomes annoyed at other people’s overconcern. She and Ronnie are house hunting, “and agents will say, ‘of course you’ll be wantin’ a ranch house,’ as if there were something wrong with Ronnie’s legs.”
So far the one unconquerable problem in Ronnie’s life is his tendency to balloon. “Although I’m overweight I try to be food-conscious. But when you’re stranded in I’ll-Be-Damned, Georgia, with only a greasy spoon open, you eat grease.”
Because of Milsap’s chronic cheerfulness, his songwriting output is minimal: “Country music is both lyrics and melody, and composers really should do both. I’ve been able to write tunes for years but to get the words right you should feel some strong negative emotion like emptiness or loneliness, and I almost never do that. I’m happy in my work and happy in my marriage. It’s hard to see past trying to excel at what I love best.”