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In our Aug. 9, 2010 issue, we published a story on the election of Ronnie Milsap’s “Smoky Mountain Rain” as the eighth official Tennessee state song. In conjunction with that article, we present the “story behind the song” on “Smoky Mountain Rain.”
Written by Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan
Recorded by Ronnie Milsap
Now considered one of Ronnie Milsap’s signature songs, “Smoky Mountain Rain” was a brand-new track when it was added to Milsap’s first greatest-hits collection. It would become his 16th No. 1 country single in December of 1980.
In the summer of 1980, Kye Fleming and Dennis Morgan were a couple of years into a successful songwriting partnership, working for Nashville producer/publisher Tom Collins. Collins would routinely toss song ideas out to his staff writers, and “Smoky Mountain Rain” began with just such a suggestion from the publisher—except this was no everyday assignment. This would be a song custom-written for Ronnie Milsap, who had told Collins he wanted to cut a song about the area where he had grown up in western North Carolina.
“Tom came in one day,” explains Kye Fleming, “and he says, ‘I think you guys oughta write a song called “Appalachian Rain” for Ronnie Milsap.’” “I just kind of remember thinking, ‘App-a-la-chian rain . . . it really doesn't sing very well.’” Fleming offered the alternative title “Smoky Mountain Rain,” which not only rolled off the tongue more smoothly but also featured the region of North Carolina where Milsap had indeed been born and raised. Writing the song, she says, was “a matter of just talkin' about it—what it feels like in the Smokies. And then coming up with a scene [and] getting in a place of imagining Ronnie’s voice and how it could really soar, get really big.”
All she knew about the “feel” of the Smokies was what she’d gathered while traveling through the scenic region years earlier. “At that time, I had only driven through and so I had a certain perspective of it. Well, of course, then the song becomes [about] somebody driving through [the area].” So, it was natural, she now reckons, to frame the lyric in terms of a character that was on his way there. It was enough.
The song didn’t tell you any more about the Smoky Mountains than, say, Glen Campbell’s late 1960s hits “Galveston” or “Wichita Lineman” told you about Texas or Kansas; what was important, though, was the mood—the sense of place—that was being established. Milsap, in fact, has said he had those particular Campbell singles in mind as he mused about the kind of song he himself was looking for. Fleming figures the reference must have gotten passed down to them through Tom Collins, because, she says, “I remember [those Glen Campbell songs] being in the back of our minds when we were working on it. And that probably also set the tone for a story line—not a specific story line, but a song having a story line.”
In retrospect, “Smoky Mountain Rain” benefited by predating, if only slightly, the era of the music video. The song stimulates the imagination of the listener, and it seems to have done the same for co-producers Milsap and Collins, who placed it (with input from arranger Bergen White) in an evocative keyboard-and-string setting that perfectly underscores the song’s simple, vivid scenes. “I think we were hoping for that,” declares Fleming of the recording’s cinematic quality. “As far as knowing we were writing it for Ronnie and how the piano could just be crazy big—which it is—we were hoping for that [effect]. And he added that piano part, of course, that is the signature of the song. It’s totally Ronnie.”
One of the song’s most stirring moments is the thunderous low-end piano hit just after the chorus begins—and that single second of music has a story of its own.
Before Ronnie Milsap signed with RCA in Nashville, he worked as a Memphis session musician for producer Chips Moman, who booked the pianist to play on Elvis Presley’s 1970 hit “Kentucky Rain.” In a 2005 interview, he recounted Presley saying to him during the session, “‘Hey, Milsap, can I get a little bit of thunder over there on the piano?’ So I did that left-hand thing down there real low on the piano. I did the same thing on ‘Smoky Mountain Rain.’ If it worked on Elvis’ record, it was bound to work on mine. I just re-lived my Elvis session.”
As Ronnie Milsap laid down keyboard and lead vocal tracks on “Smoky Mountain Rain,” he was tapping into the memory of an early career highlight and, ironically, singing a lyric that placed him in a scenario nearly identical to the one in “Kentucky Rain”—that of a man looking for his lost lover in a storm. The song’s co-writer herself admits in retrospect, “It’s not like it broke new ground or anything.” But the tone of the scene, as visualized by the typically upbeat Fleming, departs notably from the taut and urgent version of the story heard on “Kentucky Rain.”
The desperate traveler portrayed by Elvis Presley, with the cold rain in his shoes, is downcast, even pitiable. While the song’s production drips with well-rendered drama, its lyric ultimately fails to reveal much of the main character’s emotional landscape. All we are told is that he woke up to find his partner gone, and we can’t be certain he understands what prompted her departure or even if he’s headed in the right direction. So, while the listener might relate to the striking sense of loss, there’s little reason to feel optimistic about the song’s outcome.
In “Smoky Mountain Rain,” however, the tale’s tear-streaked protagonist realizes he’s guilty of abandoning the woman whose affections he now hopes to regain. As Milsap’s earnest and emotional vocal transmits vulnerability, the song’s character humbly commits himself to redeeming his error and restoring what has been lost. He knows precisely in what direction to go, and his accelerating quest summons hope in the heart of the listener. When he says I’ve got to find her—can you make these big wheels turn? to the trucker who has picked him up, and we hear the tempo shift into double time, it’s understood that those eighteen wheels are grabbing wet asphalt and rolling toward the possibility, if not the guarantee, of a happy ending.
Fleming assesses that “Smoky Mountain Rain” became the classic it did due to the imaginative production and, in particular, Milsap’s vocal performance. “You can't help but be moved by his voice and his delivery,” declares Fleming. “And I think that there’s an absolute magic in that. And Tom always had ideas going in [to a session], so the combination of those two guys [was] terrific. A great fit with Tom, a great fit with Ronnie.”