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Ronnie Milsap

Ronnie Milsap: The Duets – 2019 (Riser/Sony)

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

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Is Ronnie Milsap proud of his age? For a clue, look no further than the name of his "76 for 76" Tour. There are some other numbers the North Carolina native is probably fond of, such as 40 number 1 records or 6 Grammys. Milsap's qualifications for the Country Music Hall of Fame were such a no-brainer they left electors with no brains. The injustice was rectified when Milsap was finally inducted in 2014. The primary hitmaking days are now a distant memory, but the blind piano man never did stop recording new material. It's clearly a combo of passion and DNA when it comes to the music man's love of his craft.

Having tried some other recording/marketing ventures (Christmas and gospel albums, check), it's time for "Ronnie Milsap: The Duets" record. This is a familiar gimmick - take a long-in-the-tooth artist, mine their catalog for prime cuts and split the work in half for their own good. The younger artists benefit from the legend's reputation, and they in turn glom on to whatever cachet today's superstar has. If you're really lucky, there's some chemistry.

While it's not completely free from said clichés, this record does have surprises. For one thing, a lot of the singing partners are also senior citizens - Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top joins in ("Southern Boys and Detroit Wheels"), along with George Strait and Willie Nelson. Dolly Parton delivers as usual, adding sassy perspective (and new lyrics) from the woman left behind in "Smokey Mountain Rain." That may well be Milsap's signature song. But honorable mentions like "It Was Almost Like a Song" and "Pure Love" aren't included and would have been appreciated. As for other surprises, it was nice to see two relative unknowns, Jessie Key and Lucy Angel, getting their chance.

Milsap co-produced this time and has no issue with including his own exuberance - directions to the other singer to go after notes, etc. are left on the record and give it a live-in-studio feel. Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean just try to keep up, while Nelson gets Milsap to settle down ("A Woman's Love" vies for top track). A little more pop-country polishing would have probably been better, and sadly, there's a noticeable slur in Milsap's well-worn voice. But it comes and goes, and the vocal perfection of a Little Big Town ("Lost in the Fifties") or a Kacey Musgraves can cover for anybody ("No Getting Over Me" is the other standout).

If for nothing else, the album is significant because it has Leon Russell's final recording (a rousing rework of "Misery Loves Company"). Time has left its stamp, but it's a joy that we still have Ronnie Milsap working for us, and that he can enlist so many famous friends to pitch in with pure love.