Ah the Kentucky State Fair. A time of the year when native residents come together to celebrate everything to love about the state, including deep fried concoctions, a midway full of rides and some of the best concerts around. If you weren’t at Cardinal Stadium Tuesday night I’m sorry to report that you missed a brilliant lesson within American music history. Veteran singer Ronnie Milsap with special guest and five time Grammy award winner BJ Thomas headlined the Kentucky State Fair’s free concert series and the memories shared on stage by the legendary artists connected them with members of American music royalty spanning from Elvis, to Patsy Cline and Ray Charles.
BJ Thomas complete with his widened vibrato vocals, told the crowd “we bring the old school,” and that he did kicking off his band’s set with the tunes “Two Car Garage” and “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” a song that had everyone including the security guards chanting “sha-la-la-la.” This is your fun, easy-loving Kentucky crowd and they enjoyed every word as the sun slowly set over the old scoreboard at Cardinal Stadium. As Thomas ripped into his signature hits “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” you can’t help but notice that he knows how to command a stage, waving and acknowledging everyone, which is not an easy feat for a show on stage at Cardinal Stadium. There’s a deep connection between Thomas and Milsap, in fact the two go as far back as the early 1960s. Thomas shared stories of the days when he, Milsap and Elvis Presely were all recording songs connected with the same writers in Memphis, Tennessee . He went on to pay tribute to the King himself with his rendition of “Suspicious Minds.” Thomas ended his set with “Hip Shaking Mama,” a song which most people recognize at sporting events; even UL’s pep band plays snippets of the track.
Ronnie Milsap, one of classic country’s most beloved singer songwriters kicked off his set with “Prisoner of the Highway,” dressed to the nines in his red and black rhinestone’d shoulder button down, cowboy boots and signature dark glasses. If you didn’t know Milsap was born with a degenerative disorder from childhood, fully losing his eye sight by age 6 but that didn’t stop him from continuing on with his first love of music. In fact, he paid homage to a legendary artist named Ray Charles as being a mentor showing him that he could follow his dreams. As the story goes, Milsap went to Atlanta to a Ray Charles concert after being told by his local officials at the school of the blind that he could never have a serious history in music as a blind man. Milsap stated that he somehow managed to sneak backstage to visit Charles where he told his story. Ray Charles then asked Milsap to perform three songs on a piano conveniently placed in the dressing room, to which he obliged. From that moment on, Milsap claims Ray Charles told him to follow his heart in music as he did, going on to write and record over 40 number one hit songs, something very few country artists have achieved.
From the moment Ronnie Milsap said “what a great looking crowd we have tonight” raising his dark glasses to crowd laughter you could sense that he is one of the most humbled artists to ever have graced the stage. His songs were filled with emotion and fantastic vocal arrangements, and did I mention you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep up with all of them? From the doo wop five piece acapella set of classics like “Young Blood” and “Little Bitty Pretty One” to his full band ensemble of “Lost in the 50’s Tonight” and “There’s No Getting Over Me,” the crowd was amazed by the stories and songs. Milsap is performing just as good now as he ever has, vocally and instrument wise and he can still hit the high notes with ease. He also loves the state of Kentucky, joking about native singer Ricky Skaggs and even giving props to the American Printing House for the Blind for helping him learn to read. He even got in a few humorous digs at music label executives too praising the invention of computers for helping him keep the money he makes from all of his recordings. Milsap finished his set with what can be considered his biggest hit of all time “Smokey Mountain Rain,” a song which he claims was influenced by his work with Elvis Presley during the recording “Kentucky Rain” in 1969. The song was a fantastic way to end a brilliant music lesson and show that highlighted this year’s Kentucky State Fair.
photo courtesy Stef Perri