Ronnie Milsap

Ronnie Milsap

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Given Ronnie Milsap's sustained success as a country balladeer, it's a little surprising to revisit his eponymous 1971 debut and realize that he only dabbled in country at the outset of his career. To be sure, there are ballads and country music here, but the heart of this album is in Southern soul and R&B, indebted equally to Ray Charles' country-soul and Charlie Rich's soulful, bluesy blend of Southern sounds and how Elvis elaborated on Rich's innovations on his 1968 comeback. On this debut, Milsap isn't as distinctive a stylist as any of those three singers, but that's setting the bar pretty high; few interpretive singers are ever in the same league as Ray, Charlie, and Elvis. What is impressive on this LP is that Milsap is striving for that same kind of rootless roots music that combines bits of country, blues, soul, rock, and pop as these singers, often coming up with some remarkable music along the way. There are a few things here that Milsap would never try again -- there's a pretty hard-driving version of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Rock and Roller" and Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's "Blue Skies of Montana" has a corny cinematic sweep that sounds pretty unusual in Milsap's hands, plus there's Roy Orbison and Joe Melson's silly but melodic "The Cat Was a Junkie," which ranks alongside Neil Diamond's "Pot Smoker's Song" as a wonderful piece of post-hippie kitsch -- but there are just as many moments that pointed the way to his future hits. In particular, there is a wonderful, sensitive reading of Kris Kristofferson's "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends" and a sentimental cover of Orbison's "Crying," two styles that would treat Milsap well in the near future, while "Dedicate the Blues to Me" showcases his piano skills and "Sunday Rain" is a thickly layered AM pop gem that brings to mind such fine singles as "Smoky Mountain Rain." What's fascinating about this album is that it presents a gifted and versatile singer and pianist that could have pursued any number of paths based on this record -- and that it's possible to hear the path he took and the one that he didn't within the confines of this debut. And what's doubly fascinating is that those two paths add up to a musically cohesive album in their own right, making this album an excellent debut on its own terms, even if Ronnie Milsap didn't make Ronnie Milsap into a star.

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