Ronnie Milsap sits atop Magnolia Hill, his brick-wall-enclosed estate near the Tennessee governor's mansion in Nashville, Tenn., and recalls his impoverished upbringing in Graham County, N.C.
There, in Meadow Branch Primitive Baptist Church, the sightless youth first raised his singing voice, finding hope despite bleak circumstances in old-time-religion staples like "Softly and Tenderly" and "Amazing Grace."
Those songs and that part of his life are revisited on Then Sings My Soul, Milsap's first-ever gospel CD. Other songs include "Rock of Ages," "In the Garden," "Precious Memories" and "Holy, Holy, Holy," plus a couple of contemporary tunes, such as Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready."
"Most of these songs I sang when I was growing up." he says. "People talk about faith, and I can certainly say mine has never wavered. I believe that is why I had some success in Nashville."
He feels that the messages of those old church hymns helped guide his life's course-to a school for the blind in Raleigh, N.C.; to Memphis, Tenn., where he befriended Elvis Presley; to Nashville, where he became a musical superstar with 40 No. 1 hit singles (including "Stranger in My House," "Almost Like a Song" and "Smoky Mountain Rain"), six Grammys and four wins as the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year.
"I look at every day as a real blessing," he says. "Every day is a gift."
While the singer doesn't dwell on it, recording this double-CD of hymns helped him come to terms with his past as much as celebrate his faith.
As a little boy, Milsap's blindness made him a castoff. His grandmother and stepgrandfather agreed to raise him after his other family members thought he was "cursed by the devil," according to Rob Galbraith, his longtime friend and co-producer. "At church, they would pray over him. And the fact he wasn't healed, they would blame on Ronnie. They'd say 'It's your own fault you are blind.'"
"This is a guy who has every right in the world not to sing a gospel album," adds Galbraith. "But the songs ministered to him. It helped him kind of put an end to some things. It healed some stuff."
While Milsap doesn't care to dwell on that past, he admits the album is long overdue. "I should have done this a long time ago, but as soon as I would mention it at the time, the record companies wouldn't go along. If you are selling a whole lot of records, they don't want to change that formula."
That formulaand Milsap's agility at switching back and forth between great-balls-of-fire rock 'n' roll, soaring love ballads and heartbreaking lamentspaved the way for a good life for him and his family: Joyce, his wife of 43 years, son Todd, 39, and now three grandchildren.
Milsap, 66, no longer keeps the frenetic pace of the 1970s and '80s, when he performed up to 250 dates a year.
He hopes his fans will listen to Then Sings My Soul and feel the same kind of connection he does to its powerful, uplifting songs of faith. "It's a side of me nobody has heard before," he says. "I hope people will listen to it and feel what I feel, the passion I have for these songs, the spirit of what my heart and soul is all about."